“WHY CAN’T I HAVE. WHAT I WANT?”
Stuck. Virtually every woman I interviewed expressed the feeling. Something conspired to disrupt the trajectory of love to marriage to children. Joy, whose story opened the prologue, pointed the linger at her demanding job and a shortage of candidates in the marriage market. She declared herself unwilling to settle for her girlfriends’ compromises: a marriage arrived at to serve other ends. Claudia, also featured in the prologue, acknowledged her tug-of-war between independence and intimacy and the difficulties it caused her in her relationships with men. She worried about marriage transforming her independence into narrowed opportunities, as it had for her mother. And when she did become involved with a man, he didn’t share her desire for children.
In some instances, being stuck meant being mired hip deep in a bog of commitments and bereft of energy or time to search for alternatives. For the vast majority of women I interviewed, however, being stuck was a dynamic thing, like Claudia’s tug-of-war. That is, there was a great deal of energy expended by opposing forces—some internal and deeply personal, many external and broadly observable—but the net effect was no movement. It might appear to outsiders as motionlessness, passivity, or even resignation. But, listening to women such as Claudia and Joy, I clearly got the sense that although it may have been enervating, it was rarely passive.
What are the opposing forces that keep women stuck? Middle-class women, I found, are caught between a battered but resilient ideology of marriage-then – motherhood and the experience of independence and self-fulfillment in a workplace that poses fewer barriers to women than previously. In the late 1970s, when
at least half the women I interviewed reached the age of majority, women stopped sporting engagement rings at college graduation and started brandishing their degrees, which galvanized them as agents of change. As they took to heart the expectation for equality in the workplace, middle-class women no longer had to strike a risky bargain with men to achieve economic stability in their adult lives.1 Marriage receded in importance as women had other options and a greater range of opportunities for defining themselves in the world. While women did not stop seeking marriage, simply the fact that it no longer was an immediate mandate changed its meaning in these women’s lives. Their expectations for the institution were transformed as the need for a man for economic security and social stability fell away, leaving only the idealized image of marriage for love.2
Unlike generations of middle-class women before them who believed their fate was either marriage and motherhood or spinsterhood and career, these women always expected they would have both. з Second-wave feminism had great impact. Women willingly took their places alongside men in graduate school and the workplace. However, entering the workforce was not a decision to give up motherhood or marriage—quite the contrary. Most women heard messages like the one Susan did:
I felt like everyone was saying to me hurry up and get married—my parents in partieular. As proud as they were of my work accomplishments, they would call me up and say, “So, how is the wale situation?” and I would say, “There is no wail strike in Chicago. Is there one at home?” It was my way of dancing around the question. What they really wanted was to become grandparents. And clearly a man and marriage was the only route.
As much as this quote captured a clever way of answering her parents, the play with words was a sticking point. Though she was expected to marry and become a mother, there was no man. She knew that employment, even for a professional woman, was not a substitute for family. In short, middle-class women still clung to the belief that marriage was an essential credential for motherhood.
While some scholars suggested that it would be difficult to have children and continue to be employed simultaneously, and some early second-wave feminists argued that family obligations to nurture children would make competing equally with male peers difficult, neither scholars nor activists urged women to give up children entirely. Ironically, feminism never seemed to need to reject motherhood, focusing instead on women’s achievement outside the home. Academics, by contrast, argued that it was possible to have it all, but maybe it would be easier to have baby and career sequentially; marriage and heterosexuality were taken for granted.
Despite social change, compulsory motherhood—the taken-for-granted belief that all women aspire to having children as part of deep biological programming—remains a critical part of women’s value to society.4 Compulsory motherhood is a truly hegemonic concept, so deeply ingrained by cultural beliefs that it is rarely challenged. The belief that all women must want to become mothers as a fundamental part of being a woman is also a powerful form of social control.5 But the social component of motherhood, as much as biology, is often the driving force behind the decision to have kids. Susan, quoted above, knew that her parents wanted to be grandparents in order to continue kinship into the next generation. This kind of pressure to become a mother from either one’s parents or society at large is not unusual. For middle-class women, the concept of compulsory motherhood reinforces marriage as the prerequisite for becoming a mother.6
As women’s achievements render them ever more independent, this ideology of compulsory motherhood continues to be reinforced, both by women who never renounced motherhood and by the broader culture that continues to reinforce motherhood as primary to defining women. In short, womanhood remains defined not by workplace achievement but by parenthood: real womanhood is not defined by being a surgeon, but it is questioned if one is not a mother.7
Compulsory motherhood has strengthened its hold as new reproductive technologies and the globalization of adoption have put children within every woman’s reach. Further, children transform women’s lives, not only making them mothers but also bestowing upon them a new kind of status. Motherhood has always been a critical status worthy of achievement. In preindustrial times, children were necessary family laborers. Now they are “economically worthless but emotionally priceless.”8 The combination of priceless children and the tenacity of compulsory motherhood’s hold on women is the driving force behind many women’s intense desire for children, a desire that collides with the reality of their independent lives. In order to defuse this conflict, women must form a new kind of family, of which mother and child form the core, as they try to make sense of the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family.