What is the female assumption in the world today?
What does it mean to be a mother or not to be a mother?
These are big questions discussed in Melanie Holmes’ book The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story, Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate.
In this guest post by Melanie she explains why she wrote the book and what she discovered. I met Melanie at the NotMom conference where she was on a panel discussing the impact childlessness has on our mothers. Her passion is diversity of thought and support for women’s inner selves/future selves, whatever path they follow. This shines through her book.
The Female Assumption
Madelyn Cain’s 2001 seminal book, The Childless Revolution: What it Means to be Childless Today, was the result of her struggles with infertility. After years of unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant, she gave birth to a daughter just before she turned 40. Her book is packed with interviews of women, childless by circumstance or choice. Even though her book came out just as the 21st century dawned, the voices we hear 15 years later remain the same. One interview was with Donna, who stated she held the thought at one time that there was no reason to live because she couldn’t have children.
No matter who you are, you feel the full force of Donna’s words. You think of the females in your life (sisters, nieces, best friends, cousins). When I read Donna’s words, I immediately thought of my own daughter, an adolescent at the time, and I wondered if there was anything I could do to ameliorate this type of possible future pain for her.
Researching the Spectrum of Womanhood
Cain’s book came out when her daughter was 15. My daughter was 13 when I started researching and writing; she is now a young adult. I set out to enlarge my daughter’s vision of herself and womanhood. By doing so, I hoped she wouldn’t regard motherhood as a mandate for a meaningful life. By presenting snapshots of the spectrum of womanhood—women with and without kids—I wanted to highlight the many paths women travel that include love, meaning, and fulfillment.
I interviewed/polled 200 women for my book, those with and without kids. I asked women without kids, ages 18 to 66, for their stories—whether they expect(ed) or want(ed) to be moms, whether people in their lives talk about motherhood as an expectation or assumption, and if so, their feelings when they hear these assumptions. I heard pain, confusion, anger, and depression. I also heard expressions of peace, happiness, and fulfillment.
Women who expected motherhood, but didn’t find it, told how they found love and fulfillment in other ways. A woman I call Colleen (an alias) said that the idea of foregoing motherhood used to bother her but she’s making peace as she gets older. In her mid-30s, she often hears her friends talk of how tiring it is to have kids. This adds to her resolve to make peace with how her life has unfolded. She said, “I’ve worked hard to get where I am; I’m independent, and I have plans to buy a condo and travel.” She said she has found “a million” ways to bring happiness to her life.
Another woman, Helen (also an alias), is in her 60s and said she realized years ago that she wouldn’t have the resources to raise a child in the manner she felt a child deserved—high standards she experienced as a child with “Ozzie and Harriet” as parents. Helen isn’t lonely. She said, “A perfect night out is dinner and a play, and I have friends who do that with me.”
What are the best moments in life?
Perhaps the most important interview question was, “What is an example of a peak experience, as defined by psychologist Abraham Maslow?” A “peak experience” is a generalization for the best moments in life; moments of inner peace, awe, joy, love, justice, truth, self-sufficiency, and/or ego-transcending moments that affirm the meaning and value of existence. Maslow found thousands of examples of peak experiences in his interviews, and I heard each woman describe her own examples in the interviews I conducted.
One woman told how extraordinary she feels when people say that her photos spurred them to rescue a pet from the local shelter where she volunteers as a photographer. Another woman (a nurse) described how her observation literally saved someone’s life. Other women talked of being the first in their family to attain a college degree, traveling to meet extended family in another country for the first time, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, with the immense awe it inspires.
Women traverse many paths that lead to a place of meaning
A testimonial to my book’s impact comes from a woman in her 60s who met her husband late in life. They discussed adoption, but ultimately didn’t pursue it. She’s enjoyed a highly-successful singing career, her lifelong passion. Married to her husband for almost two decades, her mind has drifted to the “What if’s” regarding motherhood. After reading my book, she confided that it helped her. She knows she wouldn’t have had the success in her career if she’d had a child—something that has brought her immeasurable joy. Even though she made peace with this topic years ago, the peace was deepened, and for that she’s grateful.
Women traverse many paths that lead to a place of meaning. Even though their journeys don’t match what was expected, it’s important to honor the miracle of each breath we draw, each hand we hold, and each smile a new day brings.
Nurturing ourselves and each other is so important. To honor each woman’s journey is to honor her essence. Sending love to all my sisters out there, and wishing you peace in your heart.
The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story, Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate was honored with a Global Media Award as Best Book of 2014 for its message of education and equality for women by the Population Institute, an international non-profit.
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