Life & Culture

When women don't want to be mothers

Interview: Orna Donath


Orna Donath, Israeli sociologist, sits in front of her laptop and lights a cigarette. ("Do you mind...?") I reassure her for the umpteenth time that the interview is being recorded, and that the recording will be kept until after publication of this article; but she still doesn't look entirely comfortable. She's had a number of bad experiences with journalists recently. It's not difficult to work out why: on an acceptability scale, the findings of her research, talking to Israeli Jewish women who don't want to be mothers sit somewhere between "controversial" and "taboo".

Donath, 39, began her academic career researching Israeli Jewish women who didn't want to have children. Her interest in the subject was personal: by the time she was 16, she knew she didn't want to be a mother. "I was in a dance class at school. My friends always said, 'When I am a mother, I will have three children, four children, and their names will be this and that and that'; and it occurred to me that this was not my dream."

In the era before social media, her first study came about simply because "I was wondering, back then in 2003, whether I was the only one in Israel who didn't want to become a mother. Of course, the answer was that I'm not, but I thought it back then."

On the face of it, to state that it should be a woman's decision whether or not to become a mother, and that her view should be respected either way, does not seem like an enormous ask: nothing more than simple self-determination. Unfortunately, in practice, such respect is not usually forthcoming: a woman who states she does not want to be a mother encounters disapproval at best, and often vitriol and verbal abuse. Examples of reactions, from strangers and friends alike, include accusations of insanity, immaturity, of not being "a real woman", and - probably most condescending of all - "You'll regret it when you're older". But even a calmer response often still contains an implicit accusation that the woman does not know her own mind.

Donath is incredulous that people always seem to expect an explanation. "In my study I heard, first and foremost, 'I don't want to'. Society keeps asking women, 'But why? But why? But why?': it doesn't accept the first answer, 'I just don't feel that I want to.'" She makes it clear how difficult it is for these women to express their views. "It's an inner feeling. They can't explain it, and they don't think they should [have to]. They don't think they even need to try and understand it. But they are always being urged to explain it because, well, a woman who says that she doesn't want to be a mother? Nobody thinks about it as something that is possible."

We need to listen to women who are saying no

People make assumptions. One common one is that the lack of desire for children stems from an unhappy or abusive childhood. Donath provides a different perspective. "There are so many women who decide they want to be mothers because of trauma, because of a difficult childhood - women who say they would like to be mothers because they want to create a better family, to create something different. Society tries to find trauma in people who don't want to be parents, but tends to ignore good motherhood following a trauma."

Another assumption is that those who say they don't want to be mothers are "career women". Donath laughs. "Most of the women I have talked with over the years don't want to be career women, and moreover they can now be free from being career women because they don't need to provide financial support! Society talks about motherhood versus career all the time: either you want to be a mother and therefore you are a 'good' woman, the perfect woman; or you don't want to be a mother and you probably want to be like a man, be more involved in your career. But it's not either/or! This does not take into consideration that women have diverse identities. Women who choose not to be mothers can also be social or political activists, can really care about their surroundings and also their biological family - but they'll still be treated as very self-centred."

Clearly there is an enormous amount of pressure and stigma that childfree women need to live with. For Jewish women in Israel, though, there are additional factors at play which combine to make the issue close to explosive. For many, children are considered a religious obligation. The long shadows of the Holocaust mean that some Jews regard a decision to be childfree as tantamount to giving Hitler a posthumous victory. Young adults play a significant role in maintaining Israel's defence policy. And finally, a rapidly growing Israeli Arab population means that Jewish fertility rates are part of national political strategy.

When asked whether disapproval of childfree women in Israel is a reflection of the particular nature of Israel's religious and geo-political realities, Donath, with more than a decade's worth of research experience, makes it clear there is a much bigger picture. "All women around the world are expected to be mothers. There is no diversity in this respect. Nations have always needed women to have children, and always tried to convince women that this is our natural reason to be, that it's amazingly important in our lives."

From this perspective, it is easy to see why society considers it controversial when women say they don't want to be mothers. However, this is only one side of the coin. The other, more challenging still, is to examine the views of women who went along with the expectation, became mothers, and then regretted it. This area of study has been Donath's more recent focus. She takes a deep breath and says the virtually unsayable. "In my first study I dealt with non-mothers; in my second I was dealing with women who wanted to be nobody's mum. Their attitudes are the same: it's just that the first group realised it without being mothers, and the second group realised it only afterwards.

"There are mothers who feel just the same as women who don't want to be mothers."

She shares a few of the many reasons why some women become mothers even when they feel that motherhood is not for them. Some have been threatened with divorce. Others felt the pressure, didn't really want to have children, but didn't feel able to say so. Others were afraid to be perceived as 'abnormal' with all the associated stereotypes.

In a sense, this second body of work only points to the importance of the first: women need a genuine choice. Society needs to allow those who do not want to be mothers to live their lives accordingly, without fear of judgment or criticism, so as to avoid the risk that they may become regretful mothers. As she says: "It's very difficult to become someone who doesn't want to have children if you're not allowed to express the view that you don't want to become a mother."

There are some who see Donath as being anti-motherhood. "This is totally wrong, this is not what I'm trying to do." She stresses that, in Israel as elsewhere, there are women for whom motherhood is not just a source of love and bonding, but also a way to increase their social standing, their acceptance, their feeling of being 'normal'. "For many young women, motherhood is really a source of strength. I'm not dismissing this: it's important to listen to what they are saying."

For every individual and organisation openly criticising Donath's work, there are many more who simply believe that her efforts are misplaced. Why can't these women just not be mothers? Why is there a need to talk about the topic at all? Donath's facial expression hardens, and she leans forward. "But that's naïve! We are not being allowed not to be mothers. So this is what I always say: until society changes, I will continue to talk about it, because people are expecting me to stay quiet and to stop talking about it, without anything changing out there. That is my condition: first, society should allow us not to be mothers, and then I will consider not talking about it."

Publishing this work has put Donath in the eye of a storm; but she is clear that important principles are at stake. "When we see women as mothers, we say to ourselves: 'Here is more evidence that all women want to be mothers, that women enjoy being mothers.' But we don't really know. We are expected to evaluate motherhood as representing something that's worthwhile doing. Now we need to listen to women who are saying 'no, it was not worthwhile for me'."

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