Motherhood Myth Busting
Why second- and third-wave feminism has caused millennial women to dread having children, and God’s beautiful path to parenthood.
Recently in Vox, journalist Rachel Cohen attempted to explain how “millennials learned to dread motherhood.” Noting the troubling drop in global fertility rates, Cohen spoke to dozens of women about whether they hoped to become or hoped to avoid becoming moms.
Today, the question of whether to have kids generates anxiety far more intense than your garden-variety ambivalence. For too many, it inspires dread. I know some women who have decided to forgo motherhood altogether—not out of an empowered certainty that they want to remain child-free, but because the alternative seems impossibly daunting. Others are still choosing motherhood, but with profound apprehension that it will require them to sacrifice everything that brings them pleasure.
Third-Wave Feminism Breeds Fear
At least part of the dynamic at work here is cultural. Technology and evolving social norms have created the impression that the choice to become parents is simply one among many lifestyle “choices” we make, such as whether to buy or rent, or whether or not to get a dog. And like those choices, we make the choice to have children or not based on convenience, enjoyment, and personal fulfillment. It’s no surprise, then, that motherhood often lands on the losing side of that evaluation.
This narrative has roots in second-wave feminism. Unlike early feminism, which was largely about correcting social injustices in pursuit of equal rights for women, second- and especially third-wave feminism went further, presuming that a woman’s value is found entirely in how she compares to and competes with men. In the process, women’s fertility was, in many ways, pathologized, treated as a bug rather than a feature of being a woman.
Rather than liberating women as promised, however, one of the consequences of this brand of feminism is fear. Women have been led to believe that having children will destroy the possibility of fulfillment and happiness. This narrative is so dominant that many women feel stigma from finding any joy in motherhood. Cohen described as much in a remarkable section of her Vox piece:
When I started asking women about their experiences as mothers, I was startled by the number who sheepishly admitted, and only after being pressed, that they had pretty equitable arrangements with their partners, and even loved being moms, but were unlikely to say any of that publicly. Doing so could seem insensitive to those whose experiences were not as positive.
One of the implications is that some women just won’t be able to endure motherhood. It’s an example of what’s been called “the tyranny of low expectations.” The fear becomes self-fulfilling, especially when “enjoying” the moment-to-moment experience of motherhood is the only (or at least the most important) indicator that having children was the “right choice.”
Children Are Not Merely a Lifestyle Choice
Of course, this whole narrative falls apart if children are not merely lifestyle choices like houses or pets. The very experience of motherhood seems to suggest as much. According to a 2022 Pew research study, 80% of parents say having children is enjoyable and rewarding. And, strangely enough, those most likely to rate parenthood highly were low-income parents.
If marriage and having children is seen as merely a means to pleasure, we will be disappointed when these things are difficult, painful, or boring, as they often are. On the other hand, if life has meaning beyond comfort and pleasure, then something can be difficult and worth pursuing at the same time.
Interestingly, the Vox piece about motherhood is conspicuously silent about a factor crucial to the experience of childbearing: marriage. Cohen writes as if having children is a “choice” laid squarely at the feet of women alone, as if marriage and babies have nothing to do with each other. But culture-wide decline in marriage explains some of her peers’ apprehension. The American Family Survey regularly finds that married moms are among the happiest people in the country, reporting vastly higher rates of satisfaction and much lower rates of loneliness.
Just as the ability to bear children is part of God’s design for women, having children is an inherent part of God’s design for marriage. Pursuing children outside of that design will be more painful and difficult than it was meant to be. Anyone who feels childbearing is too daunting to choose should look to the Psalmist’s promise to “[d]elight [ourselves] in the Lord, and he will give [us] the desires of [our] heart.” They may find that, in His grace, God gives them the grace to desire children after all.
For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
John Stonestreet serves as President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Originally published on Breakpoint.org: BreakPoint Commentaries. Republished with permission of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.