Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice
The biographies of childless and childfree women are peppered with discouraging observations. “To her great sorrow, she never bore children.” “Though she was able to accept her barrenness cheerfully as a younger woman, it ate away at her in later years.” “Her extraordinary success was little comfort in light of her failure to produce a single child.” Though biographies of these women might seem like a great place to search for encouragement, they often end up reinforcing demoralising assumptions that beneath any appearance of contentment, fulfillment or success, non-mothers’ lives have always been hollow and empty.
Personally, I am bit suspicious of biographers. Some of my own work over the past few years has involved collecting data about a few specific historical figures, including reading lots of biographies but also examining primary sources (like letters and journals) to produce my own research. It is fascinating to see how much pure fiction is involved in biographical interpretation. Periods of physical illness are confidently linked with broken hearts. Marriages and romances are connected uncritically to relationships with fathers. Losses in adulthood are paralleled unproblematically with losses in childhood. These kinds of connections can sound very plausible and they might be hinged together with real events and even spattered with a few carefully selected lines of a letter or a diary. But often they amount to little more than pure fantasy on the part of biographers.
So I’ve found it important to keep in mind, while mining biographies of childless/childfree women for my own inspiration, that the biographers who create them are products of a culture that tends to equate motherhood with fulfilment and childlessness with utter desolation. These are assumptions that actually shape the way history (herstory?) is recorded. Extraordinary achievement will be interpreted as compensation for a deeply felt lack. Periods of depression or lethargy will be interpreted as unfulfilled maternal longing. Personal differences with anyone who happens to be a mother will be interpreted as resentment or seething jealousy. Solitude will appear inflicted and unwelcome, never chosen or enjoyed. Sometimes perhaps these kinds of assumptions are correct. But I suspect not every time.
It is an unfortunate trend, given how much reassurance, comfort, inspiration and motivation we might gain from the history of non-mothers. But I think it’s still worth persisting with biographies. You just have to get really good at reading between the lines.
If you’re interested in assumptions made about childless and childfree women, you may enjoy a post about the interesting places childfree books are shelved in bookshops or a post about the associations between being childfree and being self-centred.
But in the meantime, has anyone else ever suspected this kind of bias in books/documentaries/films/other media about non-mothers? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
[The image accompanying this post was borrowed with permission
from Yataro whose beautiful work you can find here.]