The questions began my junior year of college: “When are you going to get married?”
First it was my mother. I had been dating Dave, my high school friend since sophomore year of college. I thought the question was innocent enough. We had been dating for a while. But soon everyone was asking. His grandma said in the bold, huffy way that only 78 year old women can: “Why aren’t you married yet?”
“We’re in college!” I’d say. People always shrugged. Like it wasn’t a good enough reason, but no one wanted to press it further. We got married at 22. But that didn’t satisfy them. The week of the wedding, people started asking when we planned to have kids. A cousin asked about our plans for procreating while I primped for pictures before the wedding.
“Good lord,” I said. “Let me get through the wedding first.”
But they persisted. Kids? Kids? When will you have kids? I joked with my mom that for every time she asked me, I’d add five more years onto our timeline. If I held true to that threat, I would have been 95, by the time I tried to conceive. And it wasn’t just family pestering us. Couples we met. Friends. People in church during greeting time, who looked around us as if we were missing something. Strangers I talked to in the passport line in the post office. It was the second question they asked me, right after, “What does your husband do?”
We had been married five years, when we decided to have a child. I thought the questions would end there, but they didn’t.
Before I even had my daughter hoovered from my heavily sedated vagina with one of those little hospital vacuums, the pressure was on for a second. I was six months pregnant when a woman in the Target check-out line asked me if I planned on having another.
“Good lord,” I said. “Let me have this one first.”
I had done everything “right” according to the laws of woman and it still wasn’t enough.
I have two children now and I am still pressured for a third. Although, the questions are more infrequent. As one family member put it, “You have one of sex, if you have more that’s just greedy.” But it’s not over, not by a long shot. While all people may not eagerly anticipate the next product of my uterus, there are other expectations. Did I breastfeed? Did I have a med-free birth? Did I vaccinate? Will I homeschool? And it’s not just family. Every day, I read a new study that holds forth on some way I have failed—I placed my children too close together. I quit work to be with them. I feed them too much pizza.
And there is no end in sight. When they are older, conversations will fill with expectations of my children, laid before my feet. I am the mother after all. College? Do they have children? Are they married? How many grandchildren? And on. The gauntlet of what is required of me will never end.
In the wake of the publication of Meghan Daum’s “Selfish, Shallow, & Self-Absorbed” and Kate Bolick’s “Spinster,” there has been a new push to untangle the identities of women from their relationships—mother, wife and otherwise. Each book, expertly argues that marriage and childrearing may not be for everyone and they certainly shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a happy life. I agree. And I laud these conversations, because every effort to free a women from being defined by her choices helps us all. In an article for Salon, Michele Filgate writes, “We live in a society where people are judged for everything, but especially parenting. My friends who are moms are just as criticized, if not more so, than the childless ones. Nothing is ever good enough. So why do we care what other people think?”
Good question. Recently, an article in the New York Times examined the lives of wealthy women on the Upper East Side. Women who are smart, well-educated and throw their lives into mothering like it’s their profession and they receive compensation accordingly. And while it may seem extreme, it’s actually not. I’ve recently been rereading Quiverfull, about a movement in conservative churches for women to embrace motherhood. It’s an older book, but the movement is still strong. And it’s amazing how similar it is to the wealthy women of the Upper East Side–women allowing themselves and their identity to be subsumed by the products of their ovaries.
And for those of us somewhere in the middle, we are not exempt either. We drown ourselves in Pinterest and complain about Elf on the Shelf. Heated discussions over whether we are a mom or a wife first, shuttle about on Facebook pages and Twitter. And it all misses the point entirely–we are not moms first, we are not wives first, we are not single career women first. First and foremost, we are ourselves.
From birth to death, a woman’s life exists in a tangle of expectations. The more a woman conforms to these expectations, the more they increase. Cloth diaper. Make baby food. Don’t let your daughter play with princesses. How dare you let your son play with princesses? It’s so hard to extricate yourself from the manifest destiny that society claims over your body and choices.
Whatever we do, it isn’t enough. So, why do we allow it to define us and make it encompass our human experience? Every time someone fights to wrest free the definition of woman from her relationships, gives us all a little more space to be who we need to be.