Motherhood is at once a relationship, a social construct, a full-time job and an identity. An estimated 85% of women have birthed a child (1), making motherhood, or at least the thought of it, a prevalent part of life for most women.
In popular culture, expectations of motherhood are often based on the ideologies of middle class white women. Mothers are often viewed as “competent” and “warm” and are admired for these traits (2). Mothers on TV and film sacrifice everything to nurture their child/ren. But this narrative isn’t representative of all types of mothers. Every experience of motherhood is unique, meaning something different to each person.
Let’s take a look at some of the more unconventional aspects of motherhood that you probably don’t see in the media.
Motherhood isn’t always biological
It’s true that there is an intersection of motherhood with female biology. Human reproduction requires genetic material from a person with XX chromosomes and genetic material from a person with XY chromosomes to make an embryo (3). Certain anatomy and physiology is then required to maintain a pregnancy and birth a newborn (3). After birth, specific hormones influence how parents bond with their children (4). While certain biological processes are needed to create an infant, none of these processes are required to make a mother.
Mothers earn the title in many ways that aren’t biological. The tasks and duties of mothers are often carried out by the people who didn’t physically create them. Around 10% of children are parented by their grandparents, and about 3% of children are parented by other family members (5). Over 100,000 children in the USA are adopted each year (6). About 16% of kids in the USA live with a stepparent, stepsibling, or half sibling (7). In the UK, almost 60,000 children live with foster parents who aren’t biologically related to them (8). Millions of children worldwide have been born using assisted reproductive technology, some of which includes the use of donor eggs and sperm (9). Men can be mothers, too (10). Transgender men and other gender non-conforming people can become pregnant and birth a child, and have many of the same parenting desires as cisgender mothers (11).
Motherhood requires love and a dedication to be responsible for a child — most moms will tell you that the origin of a child’s DNA is not important.
Not every woman wants to be a mother
Some people simply don’t feel a pull toward motherhood. Others want to focus on other priorities. Academic achievement and participation in the workforce are two of the main reasons why women choose not to become a mother (12, 13). About 13% of women who are childless by ages 40-44 report that the decision was voluntary (14). In all age groups, about 6% of women are voluntarily childless (1). Motherhood just isn’t for everyone and although being childfree by choice can be empowering, childfree people are often viewed as selfish or materialistic and stigmatized for their choice (2).
For women who are mothers, maternal regret is a taboo subject, but it’s important to know that some women regret their choice to become a parent. Some women find the path to motherhood without their consent, either through rape, coercion, or lack of access to abortion. Other women who willingly pursue motherhood grow to regret their choice when they find the social promises of motherhood are unfulfilled (15).
Not every woman is able to be a mother
Some people make the purposeful choice to opt-in to motherhood, but they find themselves unable to become a parent or maintain parenthood. This can occur due to inability to conceive, death of a child, loss of stepchildren to divorce, loss of custody, and loss of ability to parent. It’s hard to find up-to-date data, but one estimate from 2002 suggested that about 3% of all women were involuntarily childless (16).
Data likely poorly reflects how many women and people with cycles want to be parents but cannot be, for whatever reason. We do know that roughly 1 in 100 fetuses die from stillbirth (17) and an estimated 186 million people worldwide live with infertility (18). For political, financial, and environmental reasons, some people feel becoming a parent is impossible. Unemployment, underemployment, and unstable housing leaves many people delaying the transition to parenthood or avoiding it altogether (19).
Making space for mothers
There are many paths to motherhood, and none of them are smooth. The transition to motherhood is a beautiful, transformative time for some people, but for about 20-25% of women, perinatal depression and other mood disorders make pregnancy and postpartum a scary and threatening time (20). Traditional gender roles and gender inequities make motherhood difficult (and cause some people to delay or avoid motherhood) (19). In the USA and UK, systemic racism within the obstetric system means that Black mothers have higher rates of complications during and after pregnancy, including death (21). In the USA, pregnancy-related death is at least three times higher for Black, Native American, and Alaska Native women (22). Globally, migrant and ethnic minority women are less likely to experience optimal maternal care (23).
Although mothers need social support from their friends, families, and communities (24), busy schedules and lack of structured support systems leaves many mothers without the necessary support. When mothers are well supported, they are less likely to experience postpartum depression (25), and more likely to stop the intergenerational cycle of child abuse (26). Infants of well supported mothers are more likely to meet cognitive developmental milestones (27).
Celebrating moms comes down to a lot more than sending cards on Mother’s Day. Making space for mothers includes policy change that makes the path to parenthood less dangerous, including legislation to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality. Motherhood should be less financially dangerous, as well. The financial costs of motherhood include lost wages and lost retirement in addition to childcare costs. It also includes making space for mothers of all genders —LGBTQ parents are underrepresented in the current dialogue that surrounds mothering (28).
The motherhood narrative that says all mothers are ready and able to sacrifice everything for their children isn’t inclusive of people who have varying needs and desires. Changing how we talk about motherhood can make space for all moms — the moms who choose not to breastfeed, the moms who are depressed, the moms who had scary pregnancies, the moms who don’t have partners, and the moms who are moms even though it wasn’t really their choice. Motherhood is never easy, or simple, and while it’s hard to make sense of all of its complexities, making space for all moms can make the path a little bit easier.
Clue is working to make space for all moms on our Pregnancy Feature.
If you are pregnant or postpartum, you can access it by changing your life stage in the app. Click on the three dots next to Your current cycle to see where to change it. You can find more about pregnancy and the Pregnancy Feature on our Instagram.