Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 327–347 | Cite as

“But You Would Be the Best Mother”: Unwomen, Counterstories, and the Motherhood Mandate

  • Anna Gotlib
Original Research


This paper addresses and challenges the pronatalist marginalization and oppression of voluntarily childless women in the Global North. These conditions call for philosophical analyses and for sociopolitical responses that would make possible the necessary moral spaces for resistance. Focusing on the relatively privileged subgroups of women who are the targets of pronatalist campaigns, the paper explores the reasons behind their choices, the nature and methods of Western pronatalism, and distinguishes three specific sources of some of the more lasting, and stigmatizing attacks: popular culture, law and policy, and medicine itself. I then argue that because they are construed by motherhood-essentializing, and increasingly popular, pronatalist narratives as, among other things, “failed” or “selfish,” voluntarily childless women are subsequently burdened with damaged identities that can leave them personally othered and uniquely liminal in ways that are destructive to moral agency. Finally, I conclude with a challenge to the pronatalist master narratives by suggesting the possibility of counter narratives to the voluntarily childless woman's liminality that might serve as the ground of moral and political solidarity among differently situated women, regardless of their motherhood status.


Pronatalism Voluntary childlessness Narrative Marginalization Feminist moral theory Moral agency 


  1. Abrams, L. 2012. Study: Becoming a parent significantly decreases risk of premature death. The Atlantic Monthly, December 6. Accessed December 15, 2014.
  2. Angier, N. 2013. The changing American family. The New York Times, November 25. Accessed November 5, 2014.
  3. Appelbaum, U. 2013. The 9 most popular advertising campaigns for moms in 2013. The Huffington Post, December 30. Accessed November 12, 2014.
  4. Atwood, M. 1998. The handmaid’s tale. New York: Anchor.Google Scholar
  5. Bailey, E. 2008. Hello baby, goodbye friends: How having children tests friendship. Daily Mail, January 18. Accessed December 17, 2014.
  6. Basten, S. 2009. Voluntary childlessness and being childfree. Oxford & Vienna Institute of Demography. Accessed April 8, 2014
  7. Batlan, F. 2013. The fetish of motherhood. April 11, 2014. Accessed May 17, 2014.
  8. Blackstone, A., and M.D. Stewart. 2012. Choosing to be childfree: Research on the decision not to parent. Sociology Compass 6(9): 718–727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Campbell, A. 1999. Childfree and sterilized. London: Cassell.Google Scholar
  10. Casey, T. 2007. Pride and joy: The lives and passions of women without children. Hillsboro, OR: Atria Books/Beyond Words.Google Scholar
  11. CBS/AP. 2014. Dropping birth rates threaten global economic growth. CBS News, May 7. Accessed May 15, 2014.
  12. Chambers, D. 2001. Representing the family. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  13. Chancey, L., and S.A. Dumais. 2009. Voluntary childlessness in marriage and family textbooks, 1950–2000. Journal of Family History 34(2): 206–223.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Chorley, M. 2014. Rising number of twins and triplets among mothers in their forties as women turn to IVF to start a family. Daily Mail, November 17. Accessed February 7, 2014.
  15. Covert, B. 2012 Conservative birthrate panic: Our hope for better work/family policies? The Nation, December 4. Accessed January 25, 2014.
  16. Dye, J.L. 2008. Fertility of American women: 2006. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed June 11, 2015.
  17. Ford, Z. 2013. How the “responsible procreation” argument sugarcoats anti-gay prejudice. Think Progress, October 2. Accessed December 18, 2014.
  18. Gillespie, R. 2000. When no means no: Disbelief, disregard and deviance as discourses of voluntary childlessness. Women’s Studies International Forum 23(2): 223–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gillespie, R. 2003. Childfree and feminine: Understanding the gender identity of voluntarily childless women. Gender and Society 17(1): 122–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Goldberg, M. 2002. A women’s place. Salon, April 23. Accessed December 18, 2014.
  21. Goldman, M.B., K.L. Thornton, D. Ryley, et al. 2014. A randomized clinical trial to determine optimal infertility treatment in older couples: The Forty and over Treatment Trial (FORT-T). Fertility and Sterility 101(6): 1574–1581.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  22. Gotlib, A. 2012. On the borderlands: Chronic pain as crisis of identity. In Dimensions of pain, edited by L.F. Käll, 41–59. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Gotlib, A. 2014. Intergenerational justice and health care: A case for interdependence. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 7(1): 142–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Graham, M., and S. Rich. 2012. What’s “childless” got to do with it? Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University. Accessed December 18, 2014.
  25. Gross, D. 2006. Children for sale. Slate, May 24. Accessed March 9, 2014.
  26. Hall, S. 2006. Surge in number of children in UK born to mothers over 50. The Guardian, May 8. Accessed March 29, 2007.
  27. Hara, T. 2008. Increasing childlessness in Germany and Japan: Toward a childless society? International Journal of Japanese Sociology 17(1): 42–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hill, K.N. 2013. Number of women in U.S. having babies after 40 highest in decades. Times Free Press, August 15. Accessed March 24, 2014.
  29. Hird, M.J., and K. Abshoff. 2000. Women without children: A contradiction in terms? Journal of Comparative Family Studies 31(3): 347–366.Google Scholar
  30. Hirsch, C.M. 2002. When the war on poverty became the war on poor, pregnant women: Political rhetoric, the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, and the family cap restrictions. William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law 8(2): 335–356.Google Scholar
  31. Houseknecht, S.K. 1987. Voluntary childlessness. In Handbook of marriage and the family, edited by B. Marvin and S.K. Steinmetz, 369–395. New York: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ireland, M.S. 1993. Reconceiving women: Separating motherhood from female identity. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  33. Iwasawa, M. 2004. Partnership transition in contemporary Japan: Prevalence of childless non cohabiting couples. The Japanese Journal of Population 2(1): 76–92.Google Scholar
  34. Kelly, M. 2009. Women’s voluntary childlessness: A radical rejection of motherhood? Women’s Studies Quarterly 37(3/4): 157–172.Google Scholar
  35. Kukla, R. 2005. Mass hysteria: Medicine, culture, and mothers’ bodies. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  36. Last, J.V. 2014. What to expect when no one’s expecting: America’s coming demographic disaster. New York: Encounter Books.Google Scholar
  37. Lindemann Nelson, H. 2001. Damaged identities, narrative repair. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Lindemann Nelson, H. 2002. What child is this? The Hastings Center Report 32(6): 29–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Longman, P. 2004. The empty cradle: How falling birthrates threaten world prosperity and what to do about it. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  40. Lovett, L.L. 2007. Conceiving the future: Pronatalism, reproduction, and the family in the United States, 1890–1938. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  41. Maushart, S. 2000. The mask of motherhood: How becoming a mother changes our lives and why we never talk about it. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  42. McAllister, F., and L. Clark. 1998. A study of childlessness in Britain. Family Policy Studies Centre, Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Accessed December 15, 2014.
  43. Merlo, R., and D. Rowland. 2000. The prevalence of childlessness in Australia. People and Place 8(2): 21–32.Google Scholar
  44. Meyers, D.T. 2001. The rush to motherhood—pronatalist discourse and women’s autonomy. Signs 26(3): 735–773.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Morell, C. 1994. Uwomanly conduct: The challenges of intentional childlessness. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. O’Callaghan H. 2014. More women are choosing to have children in later life. Irish Examiner, February 2. Accessed February 23, 2014.
  47. Overall, C. 2012. Why have children? The ethical debate, Kindle ed. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  48. Park, K. 2002. Stigma management among the voluntarily childless. Sociological Perspectives 45(1): 21–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Park, K. 2005. Choosing childlessness: Weber’s typology of action and motives of the voluntarily childless. Sociological Inquiry 75(3): 372–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Parry, D.C. 2005. Women’s leisure as resistance to pronatalist ideology. Journal of Leisure 37(2): 135–151.Google Scholar
  51. Paul, P. 2001 Childless by choice. Advertising Age, November 1. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  52. Pew Research Center. 2013. U.S. birth rate falls to new lows. Pew Research Center, January 9. Accessed August 7, 2015.
  53. Rich, S., A. Taket, M. Graham, and J. Shelley. 2011. “Unnatural,” “unwomanly,” “uncreditable” and “undervalued”: The significance of being a childless woman in Australian society. Gender Issues 28(4): 226–247.Google Scholar
  54. Richie, C. 2013. In search of sterility. Bioethics Forum, November 1. Accessed June 23, 2015.
  55. Rivkin-Fish, M. 2005. Women’s health in post-Soviet Russia: The politics of intervention. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Roberts, D.E. 1992. Racism and patriarchy in the meaning of motherhood. The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 1(1): 1–38.Google Scholar
  57. Sandler, L., and K. Witteman. 2013. None is enough. Time, August 12, 182(7): 38.Google Scholar
  58. Saunders, D. 2007. “I really regret it. I really regret having children.” Globe and Mail, September 29. Accessed August 10, 2015.
  59. Shapiro, G. 2014. Voluntary childlessness: A critical review of the literature. Studies in the Maternal 6(1). Accessed December 15, 2014.
  60. Shaw, R.L. 2011. Women’s experiential journey toward voluntary childlessness: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 21(2): 151–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Shriver, L. 2005. No kids please, we’re selfish. The Guardian, September 16. Accessed March 17, 2015.
  62. Siegel, H. 2013. Why the choice to be childless is bad for America. Newsweek, February 19. April 17, 2014.
  63. Sunderland, R. 2009. Childless is not a synonym for weird. The Guardian, May 23. Accessed August 23, 2015.
  64. Teitelbaum, M.S., and J.M. Winter. 2014. Bye-Bye, baby. The New York Times, April 4. Accessed May 27, 2014.
  65. The Guttmacher Institute. 2014. State policies in brief: Requirements for ultrasound. Accessed May 23, 2014.
  66. Ulrich, M., and A. Weatherall. 2000. Motherhood and infertility: Viewing motherhood through the lens of infertility. Feminism & Psychology 10(3): 323–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Valenti, J. 2012. Are all women born to be mothers? The Washington Post, August 31. Accessed August 27, 2015.
  68. Veevers, J.E. 1973. Voluntarily childless wives: An exploratory study. Sociology and Social Research 57(3): 356–366.Google Scholar
  69. Vesper, P.A. 2008. No to children, yes to childfreedom: Pronatalism and the perspectives and experiences of childfree women. MA thesis, Rutgers University, Camden.Google Scholar
  70. Walshe, S. 2013. Should we care that smart women aren't having kids? The Guardian, August 7. Accessed May 18, 2014.
  71. Wilkerson, A. 2004. Modern maternity. Hypatia 19(2): 180–190.Google Scholar
  72. Wolf, N. 2001. Truth, lies, and the unexpected on the journey of motherhood. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Journal of Bioethical Inquiry Pty Ltd. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBrooklyn College CUNYBrooklynUSA

Personalised recommendations