The changing nature of motherhood and femininity

Emily Newton

In an old, rented apartment in Sydney’s west, a small brown paper bag is hidden in storage boxes and faded receipts.   

Unworn baby singlets are neatly folded where they have rested for the past 3 years as gentle sobbing can be heard over the sound of the world moving outside. Inside, time stands still as one woman reveals the heartache of her unsuccessful journey to fall pregnant.

She is one of many women facing the changing nature of femininity and motherhood. Millennials are now society’s new mothers, but their experiences vary greatly compared to generations before them.  

From infertility to social expectations and feminism, what does it mean to be a woman from the “Me Me Me Generation”?

Young women often fear speaking up about their maternal choices for fear of judgement. Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/evelynized/
Young women often fear speaking up about their maternal choices for fear of judgement. Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/evelynized/

CAILEY, 27

Cailey’s voice waivers as she speaks about her experiences with tears slowly falling down her cheeks. The more she embraces her emotions, the more heartfelt her confessions become. 

She’s wanted to be a mother for as long as she can remember, but now after years of failed attempts, feels lost.

“It’s hard to explain, but there is a void missing, my husband and I talk about it, we’re missing a part of us,” she explains, unable to make eye contact as her hands clench. 

The cost of IVF is inaccessible to Cailey and her husband, but they fear continuing to wait and keep trying will only disadvantage them further. 

She explains that judgements damage her confidence further, as even loved ones tell her it will happen “if [they] want it bad enough.”

“It just feels mean spirited,” she says, as her voice quickens.

“It makes me feel like a bad wife, daughter – like a baron spinster. Of course I want it, and hearing people say that destroys me.” 

Stress has been found to be a large contributor to the inability to conceive, as it affects the functioning of the gland in the brain that tells your ovaries to release eggs. In Cailey’s experience, it is impossible to hear these comments and not be stressed.

She says that while there is nothing wrong with living childfree, it’s hard to accept that lifestyle when it’s not what you want.

“We’re not supposed to talk about the struggle, or the hardship, but not being able to talk about it is only hurting us and our chances of falling pregnant more.”

 She reaches into the brown paper bag and places her hand over the small baby singlet with a love heart she hand stitched herself years ago. Her arms fall to her stomach.

“Where are you little baby,” she whispers.

 KIM, 26

“My quality of life was terrible. I didn’t see my friends for weeks and I was so sick,” Kim recalls of her experience being pregnant last year.

“I struggled through work, having to take over a month off from health complications that I was in hospital for.”

 With currently over 2 billion mothers in the world, Kim was surprised when she felt isolated and guilty during and in the months that followed her pregnancy.

People thought she was “embellishing the truth, if not lying,” she says.

While no one would say anything to her face, the attitudes and behaviours of her colleagues sharply changed as her ability was constantly questioned.

 “At times I felt I had to excuse my pregnancy rather than be proud of it.”

The most detrimental comments came from older people, telling her that mothers of newborns were supposed to be tired and unwashed.

Kim rejected this idea, saying it makes “women believe that sacrificing their womanhood in the sexual and self-fulfilling way is not only expected, but inevitable.”

She was made to feel embarrassed anytime she would wear makeup or choose to pay attention to her appearance. When Kim expressed the desire to engage in sex again with her husband, she was met with “scoffs from men – and women!” 

“I was shocked by the negative reactions,” she explains, being made to feel ashamed for trying to meet her own needs with a newborn.

Today, Kim wishes she had someone by her side telling her everyone was different, and to ignore the judgemental comments she received.

“Every [woman] has to choose her own path, no matter what it is.”

She is hopeful about the future, citing the changes in her generation focusing on emotional health leading to a greater chance of awareness of the greater struggles of motherhood.  

She says, laughing to herself that in the end “you know your baby and family best, f— everyone else!”

MEL, 30

Mel recalls the frustration and anxiety she experiences every day as she chooses to live her life childfree.

“I always grew up with the belief that one day I would get married and have kids,” she explains, “then I realised whenever I thought of having children, I only thought about the bad things –the sleepless nights, the dirty nappies, the screaming, crying…I just didn’t want any of it.”

Today, a record 25% of women will never be mothers, the majority through choice.

But Mel’s closest family member is her biggest critic, as her sister labels her decision “selfish.”

This causes feelings of guilt around women who are trying to fall pregnant but struggling, like her sister was for many years. It put an immense strain on their relationship together.

 “Sometimes I wish I was sterile so then people would stop trying to change my mind.”

“I know that I will never understand the devastation and heartache that comes from unsuccessful pregnancy attempts…I avoid talking about my own opinions,” she says, filtering herself out of fear of offending someone else.

Almost daily, people assume she will change her mind. Multiple times she has experienced people thinking they’re being helpful by suggesting adoption or fostering with the assumption that she “must be lonely and incomplete” without children. These comments come from family, friends and even strangers.

“I don’t think people can accept that some people can just be happy in themselves,” but she is, and is looking forward to a house full of books and laughter with her husband as they grow old together.

Each woman shared the fear of speaking about their struggles because of seemingly endless judgement from others.

 Today, each of them chose to stand up and speak up – perhaps they should be more accurately called “Generation We”.