Womanhood, Fertility, & Identity

In college, my best friend once described her hips as “child-bearing hips.” She knew back then that she wanted children and, indeed, now has six beautiful and healthy daughters.

Me? I didn’t even know what hips were. Literally. If somebody had provided me pictures of two headless bodies-one male, one female-I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the outline of hips on the female body.

A boyfriend once pointed out a transvestite, then said, knowingly, “You can always tell the difference between a woman and a transvestite. A transvestite lacks hips.”

My response? “Huh?” The transvestite looked like a perfectly beautiful woman to me!

***

I was never one of those women whose overwhelming desire in life was to have children, what some childless men and women have sneeringly referred to as a breeder.

Motherhood was simply never one of my goals.

One of the reasons I left organized religion, in fact, was the emphasis it all too often places on motherhood. I always felt devalued as a woman in the Christian church, and it never comforted me to have my feminist concerns pooh-poohed with a well-meaning, but completely off the mark, comment like this: “But women are completely valued in the church. There’s nothing more important than motherhood. That’s the most important role in life, male or female.”

I heard a preacher one time say that he was sick and tired of hearing people say that God doesn’t value women. “God chose a woman to carry his only begotten son,” he said. “That should prove how valuable women are! They’re more valuable than men!” (I didn’t have the guts to raise my hand and ask if he actually thought God would have chosen a man to give birth to his only begotten son, which would have truly been a miracle….but I definitely thought about it.)

Whenever I heard the emphasis on motherhood in sermons, I wanted to ask: If women are valuable because they are mothers, what happens to a woman’s value if she’s infertile? Or if she can conceive, but her body is incapable of carrying a baby to term? If women are valued precisely because they are mothers, does a woman cease to be valuable if she is unable or unwilling to contribute to the ongoing human gene pool? And are women to be valued for nothing else? Can’t they be valued as scientists, artists, educators, and healers? What about being valued because we’re funny, smart, thoughtful, or we make a good friend?

I never got around to asking those questions. I just stopped going to church. I was tired of crying all the time, tired of fighting people with stupid ideas about what constitutes a person’s value.

I’d go as far as to argue that this strong correlation between motherhood and saintliness, and the conflation of our value as women with our fertility, can be labeled as spiritual abuse.

A person is valuable because of who they are, not because of the fertility-related identity role(s) they assume in life, roles such as wife, mother, grandmother. A woman should never be valued simply because of her ability to conceive and bear a child, just like a man should never be valued simply because he produces viable sperm.

So why do so many women’s self-images founder on their ability to conceive and bear a child, to successfully raise functioning members of society-at-large?

***

I never thought of myself as a slow learner, but when it comes to parenthood, I’m definitely a late-bloomer.

Throughout my twenties, I was grateful that I didn’t have children. The life of an artist is hard enough without adding babies to the mix, I thought.

When I first got married in my mid-twenties, my husband (now ex) and I planned to remain blissfully childfree. I hadn’t anticipated, then, that my biological clock would kick in with a vengeance as I approached thirty. Suddenly, to my surprise, I wanted kids. Oh, not the goobery, snotty-faced, diaper-rashed babies that grow up into delightful, creative, intelligent young people; no, as I approached thirty, I suddenly realized that I’d be thrilled if my children could emerge from my womb, already 10 or 11 or 12 years old. Talking in complete sentences. Potty-trained. Relatively independent already. You know, little adults.

This was an impossible dream, of course, unless I was willing to adopt an older child and deal with the potentially debilitating emotional problems they might have-always a crapshoot.

In lieu of heading down that path just yet, my husband and I have recently been trying for the flesh-and-blood variety, a normal baby conceived in the normal way pushed out of a normal vagina at the normal age of 0 months’ old. I guess I’m willing to subject myself to sleepless nights, poopy diapers, and sore breasts so I can get that pre-teen, teenager, college-student, and adult child I long for down the road.

But even as I embrace my identity as a woman “TTC” (a popular internet acronym that stands for “trying to conceive”), I still vacillate in my desire for children and it has to do with that fragile thing called identity.

There is always one solid reason for me to give up on the idea of motherhood: my identity as an artist. I’ve worked hard to get to the place where I am. I write five or six hours every day, and then teach college writing classes and run my small literary press on top of that. Recently, I’ve started working as a writing coach, and offering private writing classes in my home for children, teenagers, and adults. I easily put in twelve hours a day. It’s hard to imagine how I’ll balance all of that with motherhood.

It’s when I contemplate the vast gulf between what I desire to do with my life and the reality of raising children that I begin to wonder if I really want them.

Yet just when I think I might be “okay” with foregoing the pleasures of parenting, I realize I’m still captive to the idea that being a woman means being a mother. Intellectually, I know that this is a false belief. Emotionally, somewhere deep inside of me, I still believe that to live a full life, experiencing the full range of human emotions, requires adopting the role of parenthood, however your children come into your life.

Why the hell do I continue to associate my value as a woman with my fertility?

And so, I’m on the verge of giving up, of saying, “No more. I don’t want to try to get pregnant any more. That doesn’t mean I’ll try to prevent pregnancy, but I don’t want my life to be dominated by cervical fluid, basal body temperature, and that period that comes late but inevitably comes.”

It’s true that I’ve only been trying for eight months but I’m already tired of the emotional roller-coaster. Twice, my period has been a week late. In those days when I think I might be pregnant, my mind jumps to sugary fantasies of what it’ll be like, and I’m overwhelmed by the I can’t wait-ness of it all.

And then the disappointment sets in when my basal body temperature drops, menstrual blood arrives, and I discover that I’m not, after all, pregnant.

I wonder how women do this over and over and over? You know, those women that try to conceive for years and years and years? Those women that go to heroic efforts, spend all sorts of time and money, all in their quest to have a child?

I don’t think I can keep it up.

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m willing to give up on the so-called “fullness of life experience” b.s. I was just blathering on about if it means some emotional sanity.

I’m fortunate. A few days ago, as we were having yet another discussion about my on-again off-again desire to get pregnant, my husband looked at me and said, “You are my world. I don’t need anything else.” And we once again talked about what we will do if we don’t get pregnant-move to South Africa or Mozambique, to the Caribbean, to Ecuador or Argentina or Brazil, or maybe to all of those places for a few years apiece. Or we could take in foreign-born foster children, generally teenagers by the time they make it here after spending years in refugee camps.

Without children, the world is our oyster.

But still, it all comes down to this crux issue: What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean for me to feel valuable as a person?

We all, we all, need to learn to value ourselves apart from these roles we assume in life. For me, that includes the role of artist. If I replace motherhood with artist, am I really any better off? I’m still valuing myself by something that is transitory, fleeting. We don’t achieve immortality through our art. Nor do we achieve it by bearing offspring.

As I move forward TTC, or not TTC, I hope I can learn to value myself as Jessica with no titles attached to my name.

***

Last November, I had a dream about motherhood and identity. In the dream, I was in a house, surrounded by women I know who have young children. I wandered from person to person, but I couldn’t relate to any of them. In fact, I felt inferior as I talked with them-there was a sense in which all of them had experienced a part of womanhood that I lacked, and so we couldn’t connect. I felt, well, robbed. And even as I tried to interest them in non-motherhood-related topics, I realized what I was doing: they seemed to think I was inferior because I wasn’t a mother and so, subconsciously and nastily, I was trying to turn the tables by demonstrating that I’d had an interesting career and had traveled to so many exotic locales and done so many interesting things that they would never do, encumbered as they were with snot-faced babies and dirty diapers.

Eventually, not liking that dynamic one tiny little bit, I separated myself from the mothers with babies and went to another part of the house. There, I was joined by my many African friends, and we discussed Africa, and politics, and health, and religion, and we ignored the issue of motherhood. Though many of my African friends are also parents, I felt none of the distance I’d felt from my mother-friends, who were treating me as though I was less of a woman because I wasn’t a mother.

I woke up and felt a moment of grief, like the dream was telling me I’d lost my chance at motherhood, that I’d traded it in for Africa and my writing.

On reflection later, I realized that of course, I have never given up my dream of motherhood-until the last few years, I didn’t have a spouse with whom I could have children. Instead, the dream was speaking to me about my hidden desire to be a mother as well as the obvious calling on my life to Africa and as a writer. My desire to have it all.

It was also reminding me of this unassailable truth: While all the other women in the room had chosen motherhood first-and let me add, they are all young women I admire, who have made the choices they wanted to make by choosing children over career, at least for the time being-I had chosen it second. And ultimately, I found myself in a room with the people I had chosen: Africans.

It was a revelation.

As I embark on this next stage of my life, trying to get pregnant, I’m constantly filled with doubts. Sometimes I wonder if motherhood is what God intends for me, or even if motherhood is something I want to add to my mixture of things I’ve already chosen (or that has chosen me)-Africa and writing. Sometimes I feel desperate to be pregnant, now, and sometimes, I secretly hope I’m not pregnant, so that nothing needs to change. In fact, I worry about how motherhood will prevent me from doing the things I feel I’m supposed to do, in Africa, as a writer-those vague, hazy outline of things that make up my future. I’m still waiting for the clarion call from God, the angel of the Lord appearing to me in a dream, the way he did with Mary and Joseph, and telling me, “This is what you’re supposed to do. I’ve arranged everything for you. It won’t be easy but at least there’s no doubt about it.”

But that’s too easy and, in all likelihood, false. The path that God marked out for Mary and Joseph must have seemed hazy and uncertain to them. It is only clear in retrospect, when written about as a narrative, a narrative that brooks no other possible paths.

I wonder how fearful and frustrated Mary and Joseph must have felt as they walked down that road, wondering all the time if they could veer in a different direction, or if they even wanted to, or if this was really the path they were supposed to be on and if they weren’t just fooling themselves.

I wonder how much of this path I’m following I charted myself, and how much has been charted for me.

I suppose I’ll never know.

And, at least some of the time, I’m okay with that.

Comments 2

  1. PJ Almeida

    Speaking from a Christian perspective, I agree that it’s sad that many churches today place a woman’s importance on their ability to procreate. I don’t agree with that perspective, although I can see how many might perceive that God only thinks a woman is good for that purpose. A woman’s ability to bear children is often mentioned in the Bible, and women who could not bear children were looked down upon – in fact there were instances where one might argue that God “punished” certain women with the inability to bear children. On the contrary, however, I believe that God values each and every person, both man and woman, as an individual for who they are and the relationship he has with them, not at all for their ability to bear children (or father them).
    I think that the misconception stems from several things, not the least of which is the importance that we, as human beings, place on that desire to continue our existence. Our need for companionship and our inherent knowledge and understanding of life play an equally important role. I believe that God designed it that way. But, if one chooses not to believe in God, there is still the inescapable evidence of instinctive self-preservation through proliferation which is seen throughout the animal kingdom. That would suggest that the desire is a natural one, and has nothing to do with how “spiritual” a person may or may not be.
    God gives each of us, as individuals, gifts and talents and abilities that we are to use for His glory and His purposes. To simply lump all women’s gifts into one and call it “motherhood” is to demean what God has given to women as individuals. Speaking as a mom, and one who married and had children later in my life, I am amazed at the ability to encourage, instruct, and enjoy my child’s own individual gifts, but that ability doesn’t add to or take away from my own gifts. God gifted me with the wonderful abilities to think and to reason; to be creative both in writing and art; to enjoy and participate in music; to feel love and be loved – on both a physical and a spiritual level; to be curious and enjoy challenges, puzzles and new things; and to share all these abilities with other people. And the best part of all of it is that when I am participating in all those gifts that He has given me, and have the right perspective on them, I bring glory to Him as I use those gifts and I feel blessed and complete. I don’t need to seek acceptance from any other person or thing.
    Take, for example, the description of a godly wife in Proverbs 31: 10-31. Yes, the woman bore children, but nowhere in any of those verses does it say that she is more godly, or to be praised, for that activity. The focus there is on her character and her accomplishments. In the second half of verse 30 is the key…”…but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” This is where our focus as Christians should be – not simply on motherhood. Those churches who tout that as the most important role of a woman have missed the mark, and are focusing on the human/male desire to dominate.
    The only other thing that comes to mind as I think of my response to your blog (which, by the way, I really enjoyed), is that perhaps women feel that urge to bear children because God put it there. I don’t believe all women do have that urge. My older sister has never wanted children, and has never felt the nagging desire to bear one. She’s never been married and never been happier. She feels great joy in sharing my son’s life, but is more than happy to send him packing when she’s tired of his company, and never once wanted to wipe his nose or change his diapers when he was an infant. She doesn’t instinctively think that all babies are cute, and is, more often than not, bothered by their crying and constant need for attention and care. It seems obvious to me that God did not “gift” her with the desire to procreate! She has a wonderful and highly developed mind, with some really great talents for photography, art and creativity (flower arranging, home decorating, etc.). These are her gifts. They don’t make her any less of a woman, or any less of an individual.
    So, my best suggestion for you is that you enjoy and make good use of the gifts and talents that God has given you, and, if He blesses you with children love them and cherish them and nurture their God-given talents. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not recommend that you give credit where credit is due, but that is between you and God.

  2. Erik

    Our society also has too much overlap between the concepts “I am” and “I do”, identity and activity.

    Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?

    Q: What do you do? A: I am a _____.

    We have a cousin who is almost completely disabled. I have no idea what she “does”, but I know she’s the owner of the most incandescent smile I’ve ever encountered.

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