Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

are we like mothers?

I wonder how others feel about the idea that even though we’re not mothers, we might be like mothers in some ways. Perhaps we are artists who ‘give birth’ to our creations like mothers do, or we care for animals and love them like children, or we are big sisters or babysitters or teachers, similar to mothers because of our dedication to children. I’ve read these ideas in books about making peace with non-motherhood, with the likeness presented as a comforting thought for non-mothers to embrace. Sometimes kind people have also said this sort of thing to me, reassuringly, as though to excuse my non-motherhood. I don’t really mind it, but it does seem a strangely loaded suggestion.

The focus on aunthood in some current non-mothering circles is an interesting one and I think it draws on the same kind of thinking, reassuring the non-mother that her identity can still be validated by her relationship with a child, as a savvy auntie or a pank (professional aunt, no kids). Personally, I am completely delighted to be an aunt and am head-over-heels besotted with my niece, but it doesn’t represent anything particularly prominent in my own identity, any more than I imagine aunthood affects the identity of a mother. It’s a really lovely relationship, but I’m curious about the suggestion that it could define me.

I also think it’s interesting that when journalists seek to understand and defend our lifestyles and choices, the two historical non-mothers most regularly cited are Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa. Why not Rosa Parks and Jane Addams? Why not Katharine Hepburn and Mae West? I think it’s because, as women who dedicated their lives to the hands-on care and nurture of others, Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa are most easily likened to mothers – and not only to mothers, but to ideal mothers. People find that reassuring.

On the one hand, wherever non-mothers are discontent, of course I wish them peace by whatever means they can find it. If it’s helpful to think of themselves as being like mothers, I’m definitely not going to argue. But on the other hand, for those of us who are content in our non-motherhood, doesn’t the reassurance that we are a bit like mothers seem similar to arguing that a cat is a good pet because it is a bit like a dog? That is, surely the value of women (and cats) lies in what they are, rather than what they’re like?

If you’re interested in reading more about non-motherhood and identity you might enjoy this post about whether or not we’re a collective or this post about the formlessness of non-motherhood.

But in the meantime, how about you? Have you ever been reassured that in some ways you are like a mother? Have you noticed this trend in media for non-mothers? What are your thoughts?

[The lovely image above has been borrowed with permission from Yataro.]


28 comments on “are we like mothers?

  1. Nicole Rodrigues
    June 10, 2012

    What a great post! I found your blog the other day and I am so glad I did. Due to lack of time and loads of work to do (I am writer and translator) I could not read as many of your posts as I would like to but I keep finding my way back to here.
    I heard a BBC podcast about the “super aunts” the other day and it got me wondering the same thing: “so now we have to somehow show that we can bond to a child in order to get some sympathy… or justify our childless choice but still prove that we are good people”. Hum… another baggage to carry and worry about…?
    I have a blog about conscious motherhood, childless lifestyle as an option and childless and childfree women for 3 years now and I am writing a book on this subject. So the amount of books and blogs I have been reading and of stories I am being told is too big to be counted. It is also too big for me to ignore the impact it has been having in my life. It changed everything about me and about how I feel about the choices I have made regarding motherhood.
    I wish we could meet for a coffee some day as sometimes, when I read you, I feel like I am reading one of my posts… 🙂
    Thank you for creating such a beautiful space for childless women and for writing in such an unpretentious and respectful way to people´s choices, while still managing to share your own experiences and opinions.

    You go ahead and have a good and peaceful life, because you deserve it!

    • olivia reading
      June 10, 2012

      Nicole, thank you for the lovely, thoughtful comment and for such kind words. Your research sounds completely fascinating. I wish we could have that coffee too! I think I’d better have a look at your blog now :).

      • Nicole Rodrigues
        June 15, 2012

        Hey Olivia, let´s book this coffee then! Where do you live? I hope you had the chance to check my blog. Although most of its content is in Portuguese there are plenty of books, movies, blogs and articles suggested in English about childless women.

        My e-mail:

        So we can have a more direct contact.



  2. honeymyrtle
    June 10, 2012

    Yes to all of the above Olivia! The fact that there only seems to be two related reference points for women (children and/or nurturing) is to me yet another example of the pro-natalism that surrounds us.

    Sadly, I can be my own worst enemy in this. When I’m asked “do you have children” and I say no, I can find myself, in the chasm of that slightly awkward moment afterwards, filling up the space by saying “I’m really happy being an aunty”. And I AM delighted to be an aunty, and love my nephews and niece immensely, but like you it doesn’t form a huge part of my identity.

    I also like spending time with kids, but then I think I’m seeing them for the people they are, not in the more loaded way of ‘children’. I really like people, like hanging out with people, so chances are I’m going to really like some small[er] people as well. But it doesn’t mean I have to nurture or mother them in any way. I don’t even have to ‘aunty’ them in any way. I can just be a friend.

    But I have to stop half-apologising for this!

    • olivia reading
      June 10, 2012

      I know what you mean about being your own worst enemy in this respect, honeymyrtle. I think there is another way of interpreting the ‘I’m really happy being an aunty’ response (which I find myself giving too!) that I’m hoping to write a post about soon, so I’ll try to avoid my usual verbosity in response to your interesting thoughts! But suffice it to say that I think it can make the conversation more comfortable because it offers some middle ground (i.e. ‘No I don’t have or expect children, but we can talk about them if you like’). Nonetheless, agreed, I need to stop with the half-apologies too!

    • olivia reading
      June 10, 2012

      Also, I love and completely relate to this: “I really like people, like hanging out with people, so chances are I’m going to really like some small[er] people as well.” 🙂

  3. valkyrie5959
    June 10, 2012

    An interesting post. Our society is patriarchal. I enjoy contributing to my society so when I was younger and less wise I found myself defining myself within very patriarchal parameters. Now I see that the desire to nurture or create is not about having children but simply an innate quality in some people. What is that makes me (happily) rise early to practice the piano with the same enthusiasm a child has
    with a new toy? Why do I get such a rush of extreme pleasure when I help a child
    master a musical “problem”? I arrived on earth this way and all the patriarchal titles
    that exist do not alter the little part of me that is “me”. Nurturing, encouraging, loving life and creativity.

  4. olivia reading
    June 10, 2012

    Beautifully, beautifully put, valkyrie5959. And I agree, labels encourage us to categorise feelings and thoughts in particular ways but it’s possible, with wisdom, just to let feelings and thoughts be what they are. Thank you for such a lovely insight!

  5. Kathy
    June 10, 2012

    I recently started reading your blog and want to thank you for thoughtful and inspiring posts. For me the concept of being like a mother is incomplete without more description. Like an ideal mother? Like a bad mother? Like a mother who does x, y or z? Otherwise it is like saying a cat is like a dog, without explaining how the cat might in fact resemble a certain type of dog.

    • olivia reading
      June 10, 2012

      Thanks for your kind words Kathy! I think you’re right – unless there’s some additional information, the suggestion of a likeness doesn’t say much.

  6. Beam_Me_Up_Scotty
    June 11, 2012

    I’ve been drawing since I can remember…I started painting in high school…about 5 years ago, I started crocheting. When I create, I just create. I’ve never thought of it as ” instead of having kids, I’ll have a creative hobby.” Some people look at it like that, and it used to make me angry. Now I feel that if it makes them happy – unless they push the issue, to make me “admit” that I substitute crafts for children – I don’t feel like it does any harm for them to believe their delusion. I’ve listed many charitable things that I’ve done in comments on this blog, so I won’t list them again – but I am nurturing in my own way.
    As women, we’re expected to be nurturing, there are even differences in the structure of male and female brains that suggest that women are more “wired” for social and nurturing activities. It’s not all nature – environment (such as being exposed to male and female gender stereotypes) also has an active role in encouraging more nurturing feelings in women.
    Mae West is totally awesome, btw. So sassy, confident, and cocky – and she looks great in a cocktail dress. 🙂


    • olivia reading
      June 11, 2012

      Thanks as always for your thoughts, Audrey. Isn’t Mae West the best? I think I’d better google her and see if I can find an image in a cocktail dress 🙂

  7. AE Vorro (@witavorr)
    June 11, 2012

    Great comments on a great piece. I, too, find myself occasionally qualifying my childfree status with “I think kids are great, but…,” and am trying to be more mindful about it. It doesn’t matter what I do or do not think about kids; it’s not a profound part of my identity, nor should it be. I haven’t had the experience of being labeled or defined in any way related to children (when referred to as an aunt it was in an appropriate context to my niece or nephew), though now I sort of welcome that in order to address the problems with such assumptions and labels.

    • olivia reading
      June 11, 2012

      Thanks AE Vorro. A big point of interest for me in reading comments here are the sorts of things non-mothers hear constantly versus the sort they never hear. This one seems really common to me! But then there are other points others report hearing regularly (such as the question ‘who will take care you you when you’re old?) that I’ve hardly ever heard, only read in comments after newspaper articles about childfree living.

  8. Elizabeth
    June 12, 2012

    I was browsing the archives of this morning and found a quote about motherhood and identity within an article about autism []. It really grabbed me.

    In the piece, the author Ann Bauer wonders if her commitment to ensuring both she and her autistic son take responsibility for their own destinies–as well as her reluctance to become over-invested in her son’s condition–represents flawed thinking. Her friend and cultural anthropologist Kate Barrett replies:

    “Parenting today has become an acceptable out, what we call a ‘master identity.’ It’s become a way we don’t do other things in our lives: whether it’s fashion, whether it’s work, whether it’s romance, whether it’s fitness. Being a parent — especially being a mother — becomes an acceptable excuse for not doing other things.”

    On my bad days, when none of my life’s achievements seem to measure up, the identity of ‘mother’ seems seductive and easy, like it would somehow make up for all of my failings (but Oh, the poor child that would have to live up to such expectations!).

    But on my good days, not having access to the readymade mother identity seems like a healthy thing, a challenge to take responsibility for my own path and my own self-actualisation.

    Perhaps when others insist that childless women are ‘like mothers’, they are hoping to relieve not just us, but also themselves from the harder task of grappling with complexity and ambiguity?

    For me, claiming the descriptors ‘creative’ and ‘nurturing’ opens up possibilities for identity and destiny; being ascribed the position of ‘like a mother’ closes it down.

    A simile is not an identity.

    • AE Vorro (@witavorr)
      June 12, 2012

      I really like the quote you pointed out, Elisabeth. I often muse over that idea, thanks to social media, when I see my peers talk about absolutely nothing but their children. I understand the intensity of the job — children’s needs cannot/should not be ignored and are ceaseless — but it does seem to eclipse their identities in a way that troubles me. It seems to me that marginalizing women’s worth down to the existence of their offspring is advantageous to no one, no matter if it’s a mother who’s identity is entirely wrapped up in motherhood, or people like ourselves are who may be measured by an attribute that holds no real relevance.

    • olivia reading
      June 12, 2012

      That’s such an interesting quote. I’m going to give lots of thought to the idea of a ‘master identity’. It’s a really powerful concept.

      One slight quibble: once the choices leading up to the birth of a child have been made, I wonder how much the ‘way [mothers] don’t do other things’ is a choice (implied by the suggestion of an ‘excuse’) and how much things like fashion, fitness etc are relinquished more-or-less out of necessity, through lack of time, energy, funds etc.

      From my own experience though, and without suggesting AT ALL that this is the case for any other woman, the times in my life where I’ve given most consideration to having a child have been the times when I’ve been least excited by my work, had the least direction in terms of what I want to do with my life, and felt the least hopeful about my prospects. So in my case, I think perhaps it would have been a way of letting go of hopes that felt too shaky to pursue, by substituting them with something that seemed more solid and definite.

      Finally, I love your point about the way descriptors can open up while similes can close it down. What a lovely, clear insight.

      Thank you for such interesting thought provoking ideas! You’ve given me loads to mull over!

  9. atmaprana
    June 13, 2012

    And there are childfree women who are single children themselves and who cannot have that aunty status (which sometimes would make things a little easier)…

    • olivia reading
      June 15, 2012

      That’s true, atmaprana. I only recently became an aunty myself. I’m not sure if it’s made anything easier (perhaps because I wasn’t really having a difficult time before). Certainly it amped up lots of questions about my own lack of maternity!

  10. Lisa
    June 13, 2012

    This is such a great question and gives rise to so many more! Our feelings around reproduction are so deep and primal that they influence much of what we think and do, often in quite subtle or hidden ways. I think that when anyone behaves in a way that departs from instinctive animal priorities of survival and breeding, it can be profoundly disturbing for some people because it calls into question their most basic beliefs about what life is, and what it is for. So a life lived apparently quite cheerfully without parenting or nurturing of some kind can be felt as a fundamental challenge to what is perceived as the “normal” reason for existence.

    I wonder too if we are programmed in some way not only to seek immortality through family, art, thought, or work, but to look for a sense of connection with the rest of the universe, whatever we perceive as being outside or different from ourselves. Having children is a very straightforward way of doing that because you become part of a flow of continuity from your ancestors to your descendants. Creative work seems to do it too, because you have to get out of the way and become a channel for the music or words or whatever to come into the world, so you become part of something bigger than yourself: an act of surrender. A third way seems to be the spiritual practice of meditation, because eventually it strips away everything that shores up your ego and reveals the fact that you already are part of everything.

    Sorry – might be rambling off the point a bit here Olivia! But I wonder if some of the difficulty that society at large seems to have with understanding or accepting childless / childfree lives may be to do with these huge what-does-it-all-mean, why-are-we-here questions of life which tend to lead inevitably to our feelings about mortality. They are questions we all have to grapple with at some point, and I think perhaps one of the great gifts of childlessness (whether chosen or not) is that one can be prodded into seeking answers a bit earlier than most. Speaking for myself this has been an extremely painful journey and I’m not out of the tunnel yet, but can definitely see plenty of light at the end!

    Another thing that occurs to me is that most of us now live in capitalist societies which seem generally to be heading in an increasingly repressive direction. Governments which tends toward repression will always try to control women’s reproductive lives. Looking at it in this way it seems less surprising that we are bombarded by the media with pro-reproductive messages, which then in turn skew all other conversations.

    Thank you for such a great post!

    • olivia reading
      June 15, 2012

      Lisa, I don’t think you’ve rambled from the point at all. What interesting thoughts! I think you’re absolutely right about the sense that non-mothers deviate from what is perceived as instinct, and that a lot of the social discomfort might follow on from this kind of understanding. I’m really sceptical about understandings of biological ‘instinct’ and ‘hard wiring’, no doubt in part because if they’re real, then clearly I’ve been wired wrongly! But also, although I don’t feel that the basic concept of animal-instinct-among-humans is necessarily absurd, I’m uneasy that it’s used to assume so much that is restrictive of women’s lives, while leaving men free to create and hunt! ‘Science’, as it relates to gender, has a long history of supporting whatever is politically convenient at the time (and I definitely agree with your point about capitalism here!)

      But I can engage with the idea of a deeply driven search for immortality with much more ease and enthusiasm! I love the three possibilities you’ve laid out. I think it’s a much better way to conceptualise the desire for family – as one of three possibilities to explore, not the ‘real way’ and a small series of imitations.

      Thank you so much for such interesting discussion!

  11. Nicole
    June 14, 2012

    This post really interested me a lot as I can’t have kids, and am in the process of making peace with that, and one of the things that helps me to make peace with it is the fact that friends/cousins/siblings have or will have children we can hang out with. For me, it is that I enjoy the presence of children, but I am OK with the fact that I can’t have kids and I have decided not to pursue adoption. So, I have never thought about the fact that that I am validating my decision not to adopt, but that is an interesting one.

    I still look forward to being the “aunt” character, but you are right, I definitely dont want it to define me nor be a justification for a choice that is entirely acceptable.

    • olivia reading
      June 15, 2012

      Nicole, thanks for your comment. I love hanging out with kids too and take very happily to the aunt role, whether it’s literal or just close-enough! I’m wishing you all good things in your peace-making process.

  12. Maureen
    June 18, 2012

    Thank you!! I have stumbled upon this page and I am overjoyed that I did. These writings are so very insightful and it’s like they put my thoughts into perfectly executed words.

    I am a military wife in my mid-20’s and living on or near bases surrounded by women who crave being pregnant, only talking about their children, play groups galore, and not having any other identity or role in society, has really taken a toll on my own mind. I always thought “ok, give it a few years and we’ll try for a baby, since I guess that‘s what is expected of me” but now, seeing how these women act as well as how their kids act and seeing how the world is rapidly changing, has changed my mind completely. My husband and I have decided not to have children. It’s not about what’s expected of me or what everyone else is doing, it’s about our own personal choice, people just don’t get that, which has made me almost friendless but more content!

    Sometimes I struggle with our decision, not because I want kids…because I really, really don’t!…but because I stay at home and do not work (we are better off financially with me staying home). This writing really brought me closure that it’s okay to be different from these baby crazed women I am surrounded by and I am a mother, to my dogs, cats, home and arts & crafts I am able to practice daily. I am a simple minded person in a over-whelming world. I wouldn’t trade our well groomed lawn with gorgeous flowers, plants and bird feeders for a lawn full of neon toys and ugly pools!

    Because of our decision I feel at ease about our life. No worrying where we will move next, what schools are good, struggling when a deployment comes up, having enough space, having enough money, school districts, a second car, college tuition…etc… I am realizing I am a fulfilled person and we have a fulfilling marriage without children and we are blessed with what we do have!

  13. bootsy
    September 9, 2012

    i like your post but if you’re relating all women to mothers simply because of these other roles that we play, then really, aren’t most men also like mothers? i’m not sure the comparison holds up. maybe because i’m so adverse to being compared to a mom.

    i’m looking forward to digging around in your blog a little more!

  14. Ali
    November 15, 2012

    Olivia, I just discovered your blog last night and pretty much ready all of your posts already. Until I started reading your posts, I don’t think I ever realized how much my choice to be child-free has had an impact on my identity (or lack of one). It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone in my feelings and experiences because being surrounded by parents can absolutely make you feel alone in this choice. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  15. Bronski
    November 22, 2012

    perhaps we are not like mothers – perhaps the common ground between us is that we are all women? Are non-mothers getting too hung up on motherhood and forgetting that mothers are women too?

  16. monaharris
    January 17, 2013

    I wonder if it is sometimes relieving for people who want children to hear childfree women express mothering tendencies, like it’s a relief to them that they can still somewhat relate to you (“Ohhh, but she has dogs! Whew!”. I certainly feel like I play up how much I like kids and babies for the benefit of other people, by commenting on fb photos (“he’s soooo cute!”), or expressing excitement for others when they are about to have a child. But I wonder if it isn’t just for the best, like not telling your best friend that her favorite top is unflattering. I feel that if I say nothing I fall into the category of cold childless woman, and if I stated my opinion I would completely alienate my friends (“your baby is gross to me, its face looks sallow and smashed and he always looks sticky to me”). What a conundrum!

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2012 by in issues.


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