Myths operate at the level of the subconscious. They are stories told over time, in bits and pieces, over and over again. I don’t remember my first baby doll, and I’m not entirely certain when I stopped playing with dolls altogether, but I know that there has never been a time since I reached the age of memorable cognizance that I haven’t had motherhood on my radar in one form or another.
I remember coming up with names for future babies and determining the exact number and ideal sex distribution of hypothetical children with my friends long before we had our first romantic relationships. I can recall telling my mother how I would parent my own children differently when she forced me to eat my vegetables and sticking a pillow under my shirt to pantomime pregnancy.
There is nothing unnatural about playing at or imagining adulthood; it is an important part of how we prepare for it, and there is nothing inherently gendered about this behavior. My personal experience has convinced me that dreams of family are as deeply held by men as they are by women.
As a teenager, most of my co-workers were teenage boys. When there were two or more of them present, their conversations often had a lewd and bombastic quality. But one-on-one, each one of them expressed sentiments and hopes that were indistinguishable from those of my female friends. When the topic turned to the future, their ideas about the kind of person they wanted to marry and the kind of parent they wanted to be were just as developed, just as suffused with feeling.
The gendered difference in orientation towards parenthood and marriage seemed to emerge later, as these abstract possibilities turned into imminent prospects in early adulthood. Many of my male peers seemed to regard these years as the time of their lives, a reprieve before the responsibility of adulthood, while many of my female peers seemed to regard them as a sort of limbo.
Perhaps this is the sort of thing that you only notice if you’re bothered by it. What bothered me about it was that it seemed many of my girlfriends felt their lives lacked significance, that their lives would only truly begin when they became wives and then mothers. It seemed sometimes as if my male friends thought, or at least, were expected to act as if they thought that their lives would end when they became husbands and fathers.
While the bulk of young men and women probably find themselves balancing expectations that can’t be attributed solely to gender roles, it’s difficult to imagine that centuries of distinctly gendered expectations have been wiped from our psyches by a few generations of progress.
For most of human history, actual motherhood came shortly after playing at motherhood ended with childhood. The space between has grown, and we are still figuring out what to do with it. As women, we still tend to measure ourselves by who we are to others. We are still learning to imagine ourselves as individuals.
The ability to chose whether and when we have children has created a new archetypical woman in the collective imagination. In some ways she occupies the expanding space between childhood and motherhood, but she is also transforming that space from a layover into a destination. She is finding meaning there in her own accomplishments and in the fulfillment of her individual ambitions. Even if she becomes a mother, she is not defined by motherhood in the same way her ancestresses were.
Just as real women are often pitted against each other, this new archetypical woman is seen as a threat to the myth of the mother. Pro-choice and feminist writers have long argued that opposition to abortion is fundamentally informed by traditional ideas about motherhood and opposition to the changing societal role of women. How else can the opposition of pro-life organizations to even the most common forms of contraception be explained? The new woman can not exist in meaningful numbers without the ability to prevent, delay, and terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Opposition to the latter is inextricable from opposition to the former.
I wanted to write this column series because I believe there is nothing so consequential to woman’s life as her ability and right to decide if and when to become a mother, and because that ability and right is still under threat. It is threatened by the types of legislative actions we’ve recently seen in Texas and Ohio, and it is threatened by the pro-life movement’s insincere confabulation about abortion when its true intent is to limit all reproductive choices available to women.
For this reason, pro-choice groups often describe the pro-life movement as the anti-choice movement, and indeed this is the more accurate term, especially considering that as Cristina Page and Katha Pollitt have argued, pro-life policies have a tendency to lead to more unwanted pregnancies and therefore more abortions.
Throughout this column series, I have used the term pro-life, because my conversations with voters who identify as such have led me to believe that many of them are unaware of the ways in which the movement that represents them is actually anti-choice, and because I did not wish to alienate the chance pro-life reader. In other words, while I believe that the pro-life movement is insincere in its stated commitment to life, I believe the average pro-life voter is not.
It is the coming administration’s stated intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, and it is the view of the potential future Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price that insurance companies should not be required to cover contraceptive services. These once marginal views have made their way from the fringes to the very epicenter of American politics. Would this have been possible if the effects of supposedly pro-life legislation were widely known? Would it have been possible if the abortion debate weren’t so polarized that there is hardly any middle ground? Almost certainly not.
As difficult as it is to talk about abortion, we have to restart the conversation. We have to talk to our pro-life friends and family members. We have to challenge their assumptions about what the pro-life movement’s goals are. We must come to these conversations armed with the knowledge that if pro-lifers are truly interested in reducing the number of abortions, that goal is consistently achieved in countries with liberal access to abortion and contraceptive services and a commitment to comprehensive sex education. The space we occupy as new women is at stake. It is a space that not only allows women to be who they want to be, but which welcomes children that are truly wanted, a space that truly honors life.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.