Validating of my own experience as a soon-to-be-married woman who does not have or want children, Peggy O'Donnell Heffington’s new book is also very eye-opening to the difficulties and importance of motherhood and caretaker-hood, bringing much-needed empathy.
I am so excited to be interviewing author and instructional professor of history at the University of Chicago Peggy O'Donnell Heffington on May 9. I have been recommending her book, Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother, to almost everyone I know. It is a book I strongly believe that everyone, no matter your gender or parenting status, would benefit from reading. That is because, while it is “a history of not being a mother,” it is also about the other ways in which we understand and care for each other in society.
In short, it's about empathy.
People with children and those without them should not be so divided. This becomes readily apparent when we step back and look at the bigger picture—of care, careers, community, environmental and personal capacity—and that is what this book allows us to do. It simultaneously empowers women with children and women without them. It helps us see the ways that our country's social issues are affecting individual choices to not have children—not our selfishness or a lack of femininity or lack of commitment to the future of humankind or whatever other reasons are projected onto women who do not become mothers. It shows how putting more collective effort into things like protecting the environment for future generations, urging companies to better support working parents, and pushing for government support of more affordable childcare are just as important to our nation’s children—and the country as a whole—as raising our own.
Community is hard. Building it, maintaining it. Community requires you to care about other people you have no legal or genetic reason to care about, maybe people you don't even know or don't really like.
Looking more closely at the realities of being a mother today reveals the many reasons outside of our control that make it hard to choose. Those who choose not to become mothers may simply not want kids, but there are many others who, because of the lack of support systems in our society, have to choose between pursuing work and financial stability before—or instead of—having kids.
Historically, neighbors and community members offered more support for childcare and homemaking, taking some weight off the shoulders of parents. But, because of the idolization of nuclear families and our government's lack of support for families (the US government spends only $500 on average per child on early childhood care while other countries like Norway, Iceland, and Denmark spend $20k+), parents in the United States are responsible for a lot, mostly on their own.
Considering all of that, it seems obvious that understanding and supporting other women, whatever choice they make, will pay off more than verbally attacking each other.
O'Donnell Heffington also shows the benefits women without children bring to our society. Those without kids can be caretakers in other ways. They have more time to volunteer and work in the community. Without Children provides many examples of famous women who succeeded in their efforts, in part, because they were not mothers. These parts of the book validate my own experience as a soon-to-be-married woman who does not have or want children, but it is also very eye-opening to the difficulties and importance of motherhood and caretaker-hood. Regardless of our parenting status, Without Children will make each of us more empathetic towards the decisions others make, and hopefully more supportive of and invested in our communities as well.
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