I’m Every (Bit A) Woman by Vibha Shetiya


IMG_20160112_101035I often recall the time many years ago when a relative sympathized with the fact that my kittie had been spayed. Pigou was one of five girl cats we had and rather than face the difficult task of having to find homes for all of their offspring, or worse, put their lives in danger for lack of adequate care, we decided to get Mama Cat along with her four daughters fixed. My aunt’s words still resonate in my ears: “That is so sad. After all, every woman nurtures a desire to be a mother.” I remember feeling terrible. My parents and I had just committed the grave sin of severing Pigou (along with her sisters) from her identity – her natural role of mother. As I have gotten older, my views on Pigou and her lack of choice in the whole matter have changed, although I acknowledge that it may remain an ethical issue for some. Much as I empathize, however, Pigou and animal rights are not the center of this post, although a related topic is – that of motherhood.[1]

I don’t have children. It is out of choice. I’m not sure when exactly I consciously decided to forego being a parent, but I suspect the seeds were sown sometime during my teenage years, the result of looking at the world around me. In particular, the memories of my mother turning from the self-assured, even independent woman I knew as a child to someone who was forced to limit herself to home and family later in life and get nothing in return; a picture which probably made me think that was what motherhood was really all about.

I am a woman and I love being one. But what exactly does being a woman entail? Does it only mean I belong to a particular sex? Does it confine me to my reproductive organs? And what happens when I decide not to put those organs to use – do I cease to be a woman?  And then, of course, there is the issue of wanting a baby but being incapable of it, thereby raising the question of whether that would designate thousands of unfulfilled women less than female.

But I made the choice of not wanting to be a mother, which, for some would translate to a lack of those supposedly feminine attributes of empathy, gentleness and nourishment, while simultaneously bestowing upon me a certificate declaring I was a bonafide brash, ambitious, all-about myself “manly” woman. In other words, the sympathy reserved for “barren” women could now be replaced with mistrust, resentment and dismissal of a selfish woman like me.

The basic question seems to be, is there a specific way of perceiving the human body – only as male or female? Let me rephrase that. Rather, is the heteronormative understanding of what male and female ought to be, the only way of approaching the human body?  And – within the context of this post – only in terms of the cultural directive that procreation is what “naturally” defines a woman?

As I grow older, I am becoming consciously aware of why I chose not to have kids. I have always been full of self doubt – am I strong enough to raise someone who will be utterly dependent on me physically, emotionally and financially? I worry whether I will be a good role model or if I will pass on to my child the fear and insecurity I had growing up and sometimes still find myself battling. I worry I will inadvertently seek to accomplish my own unfulfilled dreams through him or her. On the other hand, perhaps “a child will fix everything” – after all, motherhood is said to be one of the most selfless roles one could ever play, and in that process, I may find my own battles trifling and insignificant. But what if nothing changes? Do I then just say, “Oops, too bad, kiddo, I guess I was wrong”?

I admit there have been times when I have doubted my decision not to have children. That perhaps I am indeed “thinking too much.” But I have always been aware that somewhere those doubts stemmed from a social angle rather than biological instinct, that maybe I am thinking emotionally rather than rationally; I mean, isn’t that what people do – get married and start a family? That, what would happen to me when I got old and found myself alone, without my parents or partner? But eventually I always find myself questioning if these are valid enough reasons to want children.

I hope readers understand I am not saying motherhood has been glorified or over-rated. My decision against having children – something that my husband and I jointly decided – is a deeply personal one, and not out of a lack of love for tiny people; my niece has been a constant source of joy since the day she was born nine years ago. Neither is it out of a lack of respect for or sense of awe towards motherhood – I think being a parent, particularly a mother, is one of the toughest jobs on earth, and even without experiencing it, I can say the words “Mom,” “Mum,” “Maa,” “Amma,” “Ammi,” “Aai” define one of the most potentially selfless kinship titles in the world.

But does the fact that I have not gone through that experience make me deficit in any way? Rather than a defense, this is a plea to acknowledge that I’m no less of a woman just because my womb has always carried a “not occupied” sign on its door instead of a little person within. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I’m say sixty, well past my child-bearing capabilities, but I hope I never regret my decision, that I will always be able to remember why I chose not to have children. I also hope I never feel the need to apologize for being “less” of a woman.

And yes, I want to believe that Pigou, and my other kitties, did not hold any grudges against us; that the sixteen years of Pigou’s life were as joyful for her as they were for us because of her playful and loving presence.

[1] In case you are curious, my other cats hated the place we later moved to. Fortunately for them, and for us, a kindly elderly couple who had been very attached to the mother and three younger ones, adopted them, after which they led happy lives.

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: Children, Gender, General

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16 replies

  1. People still look at me curiously when they ask me how many children I have, and I say: none. But at 78 yrs old, I think that the decision of my/your heart is the correct one. The attitude that “the childless woman” is “cursed”, or “incomplete” is a hold-over from ancient (and Patriarchal) times when tribes were trying to build strength in numbers for protection, and survival. It was “sacralized” (for some) by the Hebrew scriptures that considered a woman who hasn’t had children as cursed by G-d, etc. Once something becomes a “religious duty/blessing/curse” it’s very hard to change. But we will continue to insist that we are more than a role, we are whole people capable of marvelous things beyond the expectations of others.

    All my pets have been “fixed”! Some men get quite upset with the “snip” on male dogs! It’s certainly time we valued people and all living beings for more than their genital attributes!

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    • Thank you for your reassurance, Barbara! And for the information on the history of the “cursed childless woman.” Yes, I agree – we are whole people! In modern times, I think the issue is being politicized; it seems to be more about control than about survival. One way of controlling women is to control their bodies. I see that a lot in especially American politics.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I, too, am childfree by choice, well beyond the years when that might be reversible. I, too, have bragging rights over my niece, who is a marine biologist and fine musician.
    The reason I am particularly interested at this time is that I am researching voluntary childlessness in the Hebrew Bible for a paper due in September. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

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    • Judith, have you found any examples of “voluntary childlessness” in the Hebrew Scriptures? I can’t think of any examples among women, but didn’t some men stay single because of war or the call to prophesy? Being unmarried seems to take some importance in the Christian era when the “second coming” was expected at any moment and there was no time to raise a child. Will be interested in how your paper develops.

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      • Thank you, Judith, for sharing your experiences. I am not too familiar with the Hebrew Bible or Christian scriptures, although my husband a Biblical scholar, says he can’t think of anything in the latter that suggested or encouraged voluntary childlessness. I too would love to know how your paper develops. Good luck with it!

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      • Hi, Barbara, I have not found any examples of women who say they don’t want children, but there are some (the most notable being Miriam and possibly Deborah) for whom no husband or at least no child is mentioned in the scripture itself. Good point, to compare them to the male prophets.

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  3. Very interesting post, thanks, Vibha Shetiya!

    I mentioned recently that the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, of Great Britain, is married but has no children and her opponent for that role of PM, also a woman, tried to flaunt the fact that she was a mother whereas Theresa was not. But that criticism was such a mess-up for her with the public, she had to drop out of the race, and thus the childless candidate, Theresa May, won instead. Nobody took that criticism as anything but a lack of respect for the right to make our own choices in life.

    And that impressed me, too, since I have no children either. Theresa May is a conservative politician (financially) and yet she strenuously supports gay rights and the right to choose, and many other viewpoints that involve a person’s liberty. If you click my name, the link will take you to a website with a fabulous video of a speech made recently by Theresa May. During the speech she names herself as — “This is what a feminist looks like.” And I sincerely agree. As you watch the video, remember Teresa May, the woman speaking, is the current Prime Minister of Great Britain. Absolutely mind boggling!!

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    • Thank you, Sarah, for your valuable comments and for pointing to current topics through Theresa May. I had read a little about her, but did not know she was such an interesting person!

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  4. Vibha: This is a courageous piece, and very appropriate. The Archetype of Mother can be played out in many different ways besides physical childbirth, and you may find it emerge in other ways. When I met my current wife, 31 years ago, I already had 3 daughters, and had a vasectomy, so my wife had to make a conscious decision about Motherhood right from the start. So far as I know, she has never regretted her decision. To the extent that the Mother Archetype emerges in her life, it is played out with my physical daughters and grandchildren, and we both regard my ex-wife as a Sister nowadays. I have seen her Mother Archetype also in her love for 3 Collies we have owned, and we are all totally engaged with the annual birth of Osprey chicks, which is broadcast live all spring and summer every year by the Chesapeake Conservancy, and another broadcast by the Audubon Society. And, as your piece correctly observes vis-a-vis Pigou, Motherhood does come through in many ways. This is even true in men as well, because I find myself just as mesmerized as my wife and mother-in-law by the emergence of a new Osprey family every summer. I think your piece is a very important contribution!

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    • I love how you bring up the different ways the Archetype of Mother is fulfilled, biological parenting being only one, something that my post does not specifically address. I appreciate how you – a male – are consciously aware of all this, and how you are able to acknowledge the fact that a woman is not confined to her reproductive organs. Thank you, Skip, for being a part of this discussion. I think it is very important that men too participate in the dialogue, for the larger issue is about questioning norms.

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  5. If I had been more aware of who I was I believe I would have made the decision not to have children. Children require all of one’s energy – it wasn’t until my children were grown that I realized that I didn’t know who I was. The Mother “hood” can’t be cast away – one is stuck with mother – like it or not, although I have created a meaningful life since those early years. Motherhood doesn’t build character, Personhood does!

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    • Sara, I truly appreciate your honesty. I think most parents will want to admit that raising children is no easy task, but are afraid of being judged or misread as not loving their kids enough, when clearly, one has no bearing on the other. Thank you for your courage!

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  6. Interesting article , it ‘s good to view young people s life decisions, and how your feeling right now, I think, that not being a mother will be hindrance you as a women, there is so meny vocations and personality traits of a women, there are so meny disiciones, like this one, that are the same, example: Not getting married, living with some one or being on your own, but they can all lead to positive things and making the most of your flowering of women hood.

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    • Thank you, Gloria. As you rightly observe, there are other ways for especially women to challenge norms, all of which have the potential to cause stress, while at the same time, leading to growth.

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      • In my motherhood, I to have made decisions, I was only going to have one child, and then ten years later changed, my mind, and had 2 more, I wish, I would have had them all in same time period, the gap between them is so big. Yes, us women carry so much on our shoulders, just like your cats.

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