Sunday, May 25

Childless by choice ... dream or nightmare?


From the day a girl learns to play, she is given dolls. Most girls will pretend the dolls are their "babies". They will pretend to feed them, and care for them. They lull them to sleep and kiss them good night.. They will pretend to be mothers. Most girls will love interacting with new babies, holding them, helping grown ups take care of them... by looking at these girls, one would think that motherhood comes naturally to females in general. The concept is taken and generalized... and becomes the norm, and the expectation of every adult woman. Any woman who dares think differently is not tolerated. As girls get older they are taught that motherhood is the most important role a woman could have. They go to school and get an education, but they are taught that children and motherhood come first, career comes second, if at all. Many are told that a career in something to fall back on just in case you never get married, or your husband for some reason is incapacitated and cannot work, so you can be the "backup" breadwinner until he recovers. Many girls spend all of their premarital life looking forward to the day when they will be mothers.... others will marry only to have children, the husband has a secondary role in their equation. To top it all off, religion dictates that a woman's "role" is child bearing and caring for the family.... This may seem like a traditional way of thinking... a no brainer.. really isn't this what all women want??


The answer to this question is yes, and no. Yes, because most, but not all women want to have children. There are no real statistics to verify this statement, but if you look at countries where having a child is not a necessity, it is not uncommon to see a woman who has decided not have kids. They are women who are childless by choice. They would rather go to the movies than spend the weekend feeding and changing diapers. They would rather spend time with their significant other, enjoying each others company, rather than fighting about whose turn it is to put the kids to bed, or fix a big healthy dinner, or change a dirty diaper. They would rather get a good night sleep rather than be up all night with a child with a fever. They would rather spend all their energy advancing their careers, rather than spending it dealing with issues relating to caring for kids. They would rather save their money for retirement and for fancy houses, great vacations and expensive cars rather than saving it for a child's education. Is this right? Is this wrong? No one can judge, it is an individual choice. If this is how these women want to spend their life, it is their prerogative. They make a decision, and go through with it, and whatever consequences there are, they bear them, because this is their choice. The other kind of woman is someone who wants to dedicate her life to her family and children. She enjoys caring for dependant children that are her own. She is happy to sing her baby to sleep. Saving money for a child's future gives her a purpose in life. It doesn't matter if her spouse does not do his share of the house work, or refuses to change the baby. Having this baby and caring for it is the joy of her life and the purpose of her existence. Nothing compares to the feeling of tiny hands around her neck giving her a good night hug and a kiss. When she is with her kids, her career is secondary, and whether it exists or not, is not an issue, as long as she has a happy healthy family. She is not concerned about the future if for example she gets divorced or her spouse dies.For this woman, this is her choice, and whatever consequences come of it, they are hers, because it was her decision to live life in this manner. Other women can combine both options together... this is also their choice, and if it results in lack of sleep or excessive stress, or being drained all the time from too much responsibility, they will be happy because they have both a career and a family. Again a choice they made. In this day and age, do women in our Egyptian society have this choice? Can an Egyptian woman decide not to have kids? Will she be ostracized by society for making this decision? What about women who cannot have children?? How can these women cope in such a society?

For an Egyptian woman, life after marriage changes dramatically. From day one of her marriage, she is asked if she is pregnant. If the answer is no, the question will be repeated on each subsequent visit, every phone call, every chance meeting in the street. Parents will ask, in laws will ask, siblings will ask. Friends, neighbors, distant relations, and even colleagues at work. Everyone who knows that she is recently married will ask if she is pregnant, and if she says no, they will ask so when do you plan to get pregnant? The pressure to reproduce is relentless. Delaying child bearing for a year or two will be frowned upon. She will be pressured to have a baby immediately or else. She is "advised" by concerned family members that if she does not have a child as soon as possible, her husband will run off with the next available woman. She is "threatened" by her in laws that if she does not produce the next heir... preferably a male baby, they will get their son a second wife. Religion will be mentioned in every conversation. Her God-given "role" has to be fulfilled as soon as possible.... she is told it is her duty.. it is why God created her. For many women, there is no way around it.... they will try to get pregnant as quickly as possible to please everyone.... and to fulfill the role society demands. Most of the time, one child is never enough... soon after her first child, the relentless nagging and social pressure will begin again to force her to have more and more children.. how these children will be supported is not their concern.... God will provide for the kids, so there is no need for her to look at her finances to see if she and her spouse can afford to take care of a new child. The only way an Egyptian woman can be childless by choice is if she never marries.... which puts a whole new stigma on her.... she will forever be "spinster" a reject, never a part of society.... never accepted for who she is... and constantly reminded that she is nothing without a man. Most women will avoid this stigma if they can.


The consequences of this peer pressure on women seems trivial when compared to the consequences suffered by women who cannot reproduce. These unfortunate women will have to sustain tremendous amounts of societal pressure, and they will have no way out. Explaining intimate details about her very private medical dilemma as painful as that will be for her, will only bring about looks of pity, and gossip behind her back. Some will even offer to find a new wife for her husband, so the man can have a family, totally oblivious to the feelings of the woman. It is as if she does not exist, and her infertility is a crime that requires she be punished for it. A very good read that discusses the dynamics of the cultural impact of infertility on Egyptian women is "Infertility and Patriarchy: The Cultural Politics of Gender and Family Life in Egypt by Marcia Claire Inhorn".

A close look at infertile couples in Egypt will show that the blame is usually placed on the woman's shoulders. Many men will refuse to be tested and will feel that being tested for infertility is an insult to their "manhood". Then the husband's family will blame the woman even if she is not at fault, and threats of divorce or a second wife will be constantly thrown in the woman's face. Lack of reproductive education in our society, and the stigma associated with educating youngsters about their bodies are contributing factors to the many misconceptions prevalent in Egyptian society. The image that comes to the minds of most Egyptians when sex education is mentioned is pornography. This is why most parents are so adamant about preventing their children from learning, or from being taught a course about sex education in the school curriculum. Parents also have many issues regarding this matter. It is often an awkward subject to discuss with teenage children, so many parents avoid it all together, also not all parents have all the answers, since they themselves never received the proper education. If only parents are informed that sex education is about Reproduction, how it works, and how the human body functions, they would understand why this is an important part of education that needs to be included in school curricula, and that it is in no way shameful or embarrassing, and it will not teach children bad behaviour. It will teach them information that will help them function as adults, and will answer questions that they already have, which will otherwise be answered by peers who don't have the proper information as well... hence all the misinformation circulating in society. In the previously mentioned book, the author interviewed Egyptian men who believed that a man deposits a fetus (rather than sperms) in a woman's body, and these men were shocked that women produced eggs, and actually thought that it was a ridiculous idea, because women are not like chickens!!!! One informant went as far as saying that if a woman does not produce children, then the man is feeding her for nothing!!! Another form of unacceptable women objectification. The point of view of women is not any better. Many feel inadequate, and unable to fulfill the role they spent their entire life preparing for. These women live in constant fear that their life as they know it will end because they have "defaulted" in an unforgivable way. They know in their hearts that they can wake up one morning and find that their husband decided to marry another woman, they may wake up one day to find themselves alone, while the man they spent years with has gone and started another family. He laughs and goes out, and sleeps with another woman. He has a life to live... but not the woman. Her inability to conceive is unacceptable. Many women in this situation will end up with depression, and some even contemplate suicide.... There are no support groups for these women, and the nagging society they live in is unforgiving. Even if this is through no fault of their own. I believe that if being childless by choice were acceptable in society, women who suffer from infertility would be less ostracized and less liable for devastation of their family life. Why not encourage careers for girls? Why do we hammer into their brains from the time they open their eyes that they need to be mothers? Why not give them something besides motherhood to look forward to?? The need for motherhood comes naturally to most people, so why are we reinforcing it at the expense of all other options in life? Why is a successful man without children accepted by society, but a successful woman without children ostracized? Encourage your daughters to be talented in music, art, science.... anything she likes.... let them have a life besides being mothers.... let grown women have the choice to be mothers... Why make it a necessity? why is it an order done under societal pressure? When will we be able to see "career women" who are childless by choice?? Why do people feel the need to dictate other people's lives and choices? Why ostracize someone for their ability or inability to reproduce? Just live, and let live. Let Egyptian women be Free!!!

24 comments:

gjoe said...

Okay.I can understand the points you are making very much. You have a very well structured argument.Motherhood is supposed to be a choice. I agree..but what i disagree about is
1-There is a subtle tone that motherhood is overrated.portraying it as something that is very tiresome that is unappreciated from anyone.A selfless act that is not even worth it.
2-And at what era exactly are you talking about?I feel that you are talking about an old Egypt.A place where women are voiceless and submissive.I can not see this any more. And the people you are talking about are probably in suburbs and they have other priorities than an 9-5 job.(BTW, most of these jobs are also overrated, and unappreciated,I happen to be working and know about it.)Their life style oblige them to care more about their children and the welfare of their husbands.This is not wrong.It is just different.
3-Stop the stereotype please.Seriously, I can not see what are you talking about around me.There is not witch-hunt for women who don't want to have children.Feen dah? Shawreeleh 3aleehom?

Still.with all the differences, I congratulate you for the sound-argument.

raaasa said...

Well-done, EFC, for a thought-provoking and timely argument.

GJoe, I beg to differ with you on your second point. This attitude is very much alive and well and living in Egypt today. In way too many marriages, it is the husband's decision when and how many children to have. The wife's refusal or inability to have children can topple her security in her marriage and her future, in other words every thing that she has invested herself in. This is particularly so if her only role is as housewife (likely forbidden from working by the husband).

EFC, for me, this situation of children or no, like many of the other subjects we have discussed here, comes down to, "who does the female body and decisions regarding it belong to?" By this, of course, I mean female sexuality and reproductive capacity...who does it belong to and just who decides? I think these questions and discussions around them begin unravel what is at the bottom of these many forms of limiting female potential.

Fantasia said...

excellent post as usual, dear EFC. you are absolutely right. and I'd like to say that the pressures you described are so much alive as raaasa says, and even in the cities and among middle and upper classes too.. because as we all know, the current egyptian social classes are defined according to money, regardless of the educational or cultural backgrounds. social values which are so strongly being forced onto the egyptian society are those of the lower classes and who have their origins in the rural community. so, although the social patterns might change on the surface, the beliefs are still the same. and many social behaviors remain totally untouched.. like this motherhood myth.

Dr. Eyad Harfoush said...

Dear EFC,
It is surely a personal choice. However, I will still perceive a man or a woman who decides to be childless electively as too self-centered to be a good friend for instance. Yet, this is a very personal view as well. Greetings for the new unique topic
Regards

Fantasia said...

i so much liked how you interwove the idea of sexual education into this article. yes, this is one very good example of how sex is not only a matter of the actual intercourse. in fact the act itself is a very trivial part in this field of study. and yes, our sex phobic culture automatically related it to the adults' personal obsessions and they totally reject any knowledge related to something which they themselves know very little (if any) about it. the ostrich strategy again.. we'd better coil up into our dark cocoon than discover what's out there.

Egyptian Feminist Chic said...

Gjoe,
Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to express your point of view. I would like to make a little clarification. I did not intend for the post to indicate that motherhood is overrated. I myself am a mother, and I would not give it up for the world. It is in fact very tiresome, and not veryone appretiates the kind of work mothers do, but this does not make beig a mother worthless.... I personally believe that being a mother is a privelage, and people who have children are very lucky to have them.

With all that being said, my objection is not that people want children... my objection is about society's attitude towards women. I believe that if you leave women alone, most will have children, however they will do it at a time that is suitable for them both emotionally, and financially. They will not be pushed into having a baby immediatly or else, regardless of the different circumstnces going on in their lives. This is the choice that women need to be able to make. I also think that some wome will choose not to procreate, and this is fine too. why make someone responsible for a child when they dont want to do it? how can a person like this raise the child well?? i think it is in the best interest of the children to be loved and cared for rather than resented and cast side by people who do not appretiate them, or who feel that they are an obstacle they need to overcome.

I believe that if women had this choice, some women can, and will decide not to have children. If we reach this point, then the pressure to reproduce will be minimal, and people can live he way they want and not the way society dictates... in short.. it is more individual freedom for women.

The group of women who will benefit greatly from this are women who suffer from infertility. You would e surprised to see the number of women who suffer from this in the community. One of the any caues of female infertility is called polycystic ovaries. These women will eventually have children, but they require months and years of treatment and trials, which may or may not work. This condition affects about 10% of women in the reproductive age... and this is only one cause!!! there are many many more causes... Multiply that by the number of women in Egypt in this age category, an you will see that millions of women have this problem.

My perspective is that if these women concentrate less on motherhood as their sole purpose in life, they would accomplish so much more and be much happier than if they spent their lives wallowing in grief over something they cannot control. Also pressure from society will decrease significantly so they will not have to be pitied or looked down upon or ostracized unnecessarily. And their choices can remain private.... Privacy is a very big plus when it comes to a woman's personal life and decisions.

I am realy not stereotyping... I am talking about events around me, and incidences I have witnessed. These things happen everyday, and in all social classes.

Thanks for coming by and I hope to see your input here again :)

Egyptian Feminist Chic said...

Raaasa,
Glad to see you come by :) I am glad you like the post. I agree with you completely on the first point...

Regarding our scond point... who should be responsible for a woman's body , sexuality an dreproductive decisions.... I actually have a different point of view... I think that once a woman agrees to marrying someone, it is also an agreement to start a family together. Deciding to have a baby is not just about the woman's body alone, it is about 2 people who would like to add another person to their individual family unit. I think the decision is a joint decision. The woman cannot make this decision on her own, and the man definitly cannot decide to have a baby rgardless of what the woman wants. It is one of these things that require mutual understanding and consideration. It is for this reason that I find some men's argument that they need to make all the decisions in a marriage so obsolete. Many religious figures come out and say things like the man has the "qawama" and he needs to be the decision maker,comparing it to sailing a ship,where you can have only one captain, forgetting that some of these decisions cannot be made by the man alone.....

ultimately it is the womans body and she should have the power and control to decide when she will subject herself to the stress of pregnancy, but since babies are also part of the father as well as the mother, the dad needs to have input as well.... and he cannot be the decision maker in this situation.

Sometimes I wish that the masseges in the media would be about reminding people that men and women are qual, both are adults, and all decisions in their life as a couple affect them both, so should be mutually agreed upon, they should promote marital harmony and understanding rather than tyranny and opression....more on that in another post.

raaasa said...

EFC,

Thanks for your thoughtful response.

I am happy to tell you that we absolutely agree on my second point as well. Clearly, marriage is a union of two people who aspire to build a future together. Hopefully, that union will result in children. The husband and the wife should both contribute to deciding their future together as a couple and as a family. I see marriage as a collaboration of husband and wife rather than a dictatorship led by the husband.

When I spoke of who the woman's body belongs to, sorry for the confusion, I meant that it is her body which is to say that that body is also attached to a mind which is capable of decisions, not that only the wife in marriage should decide if or when to have children. There absolutely should be a balance. But then, there needs to be balance in the law and customs in society as well to ensure that the woman's choice to have children really is a choice rather than the only way she has of keeping her man and securing her future.

(More to say but no time a present to continue.)

Egyptian Feminist Chic said...

Fanta,

you know what?? I never thought about the reason until you actually mentioned it here... and you are so right!!The whole financial classification of people causes so many different backgrounds to be mixed together, so you never know what to expect... several years ago I read an article in bareed alahram by a man who was criticizing the way girls dressed in Cairo. He mentioned an outing he had with his mother (whom he mentioned came from a rural town to visit) where he took her for dinner at chilis in heliopolis :) [when i was in college in cairo several years ago, it used to be a popular teen hangout, and was populated by college students mainly...I dont know if this is sill the case]and he felt that what was going on in Cairo was unacceptable, and that according to his point of view, the only acceptable behavior for girls was not to be seen in public unless absoloutly necessary, and if they are there, men and women should not interact, and if they had to interact , then the girls should be ashamed of themselves for allowing such a thing to happen... also they all needed to dress in long flowing black dresses, like his mother used to wear:) I swear I thought he was trying to be funny, and kept reading it over and over again, and finally realized this guy is serious!!! he wanted to impose the upper egyptian opressive culture onto women in Cairo, and in his eyes, anything else is unacceptable!!

i guess when too many peple think that way, all the rural behavior will gradually transfer to larger cities... and not the other way round!


Regarding Sex Ed in Egypt, everytime i think of people's attitudes, I think of " altagroba aldanmarkeya" where 3adel imam walks in on his sons watching porn with the supposedly danish visitor, who felt that they knew nothing about sex.... Everyone around me always thought this part of the movie was hilarious, but I find it quite disturbing to say the least.... it expresses exactly how people feel about sex ed in egypt, and not in a good way!! The movie in general, funny as it may be, demonstrated a degree of female objectification that just bothered me for some reason... It pictured egyptian men as rabid animals that have nothing on their minds other than sex.. and I realy did not like that at all.I can ramble forever about this subject but I will stop here :) Anyway, I am glad you like the post Fanta :)

Egyptian Feminist Chic said...

Eyad,
glad to see you came by, I always welcome your comments, and I am glad you took the time to put in your point of view.

While I agree with you, that some people may be too self centered, I hate to generalize, because I feel that so many factors come into play when a decision like this is made. Some factors may be financial, or it may be something psycological... for example someone who had a bad childhood or suffered from abuse as a child... and knows what he is capable of in terms of dealing with his own children... you will find that most abusers where themselves abused as children.. and it is very difficult to overcome this behaviour, and it requires a lot of effort and dedication, and psycotherapy... which of course is not publicly acceptable in Egypt...
While I would never make a decision like that, I still sympathise with the other point of view.... and I am sure everyone has their legitimate reasons... but no one owes me an explanation, so I may never know the real cause. For example if someone who cannot have children comes out and says I do not have children because I dont want them, in a way it is a protective mechanism, for this person, which will make him/her look better infront of himself, so in a way he/she is saying i am not deficient in any way, am just as good as everyone else and to prove it to others they will make this claim.... in a way this makes sense to me... so i would rather judge a person exclusive of how many kids he has and whether he intends to have any.... since I will never know everyones circumstances....

raaasa said...

So nice to see the comment section come to life again:)

Dr. Eyad Harfoush said...

Dear EFC,
under the financial or psychological constrains you talked about I think I can agree with you. Talking self-centered I had in mind only normal circumstances. Kind Regards

Dr. Eyad Harfoush said...

Dear EFC,
under the financial or psychological constrains you talked about I think I can agree with you. Talking self-centered I had in mind only normal circumstances. Kind Regards

Dr. Eyad Harfoush said...

Dear EFC,
under the financial or psychological constrains you talked about I think I can agree with you. Talking self-centered I had in mind only normal circumstances. Kind Regards

Dr. Eyad Harfoush said...

ohh sorry all, this stupid thing happens frequently to me. Sorry for taking that big space.

Renee said...

I actually just have a question...Is there really a degree of choice as to whether or not a woman works? In the west though we claim that there is a choice most famillies could not survive without the womans income.

Egyptian Feminist Chic said...

Renee,

Thanks for coming by. Actually there is choice for some women, while for others working is a necessity. However many men who can afford to support their household on their income will force their wives to quit work... and some will even make it a conditon , where they will not marry a woman unless she quits her job... no matter how succssful she is. This is actually the topic of a post I am crrently working on... so I will elaborate on the subject of women's choices when it comes to having a career. I am hoping you will visit again, and share your point of view :)

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Abominatrix said...

Renee..

The choice in the West is not so much about needing the income as much as it is about the choice of accepting the circumstances. In the West, women have the choice of leaving a relationship they find unsuitable (excluding those in abusive ones because those are an entirely different nature). If one partner is not making enough money or the partner has not been active enough in finding a job the woman/man has the right to get out of the relationship if they wish to do so. In Egypt on the other hand, the alternative for women is far worse. If she chooses to leave the man, he has to give consent, and if he doesn't and she goes to court she will be dragged for years. And even if she does get out, she is labeled with the stigma of divorced women. For Egyptian women it's a lose-lose scenario.

Speaking of pressures to reproduce; my husband and I decided we didn't want children right away when we got married. After 5 years we decided it was the right time, but for the entire five years family in Egypt kept asking and pressuring me to bear kids some of them even suggesting I should stop birth control without telling my husband and put him on the spot. After three years they assumed I or my husband were infertile and kept pressuring me to see a specialist!

But, I held my ground, and we had a child when it was the right time for us. Egyptian women do not have the choice unfortunately.

Renee said...

The choice in the West is not so much about needing the income as much as it is about the choice of accepting the circumstances.

See that is where you are wrong. Most families cannot survive unless the woman works outside of the home. The cost of living is skyrocketing every single day. With gas at 4 dollars per gallon and the price of food escalating it really is an economic necessity unless one partner is extremely successful.

In the West, women have the choice of leaving a relationship they find unsuitable (excluding those in abusive ones because those are an entirely different nature). If one partner is not making enough money or the partner has not been active enough in finding a job the woman/man has the right to get out of the relationship if they wish to do so.
Okay I am not going to do the competing oppression thing with you but I will point out that many women choose to stay in relationships in which they are unhappy simply because to leave would mean poverty. Economics plays a huge factor in how decisions are made whether or not we acknowledge them.

Raouf said...

Another excellent post which raises fundamental questions.
It is true that there is extreme pressure on a woman to have children and if she cannot then it is considered normal for the main to divorce her and get a "good one".
But the pressure on the man is also quite strong and I can speak from experience.
I am married but am childless by choice. It does not matter what reason I have for this, to my Egyptian friends it is just incomprehensible and not natural.
(Are you sure that there is nothing "wrong" with you)
To my mother it is much more of an offense since I have deprived her of her right to see her grandchildren.
What was the point of bring you to this world she asks.

Raouf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jessyz said...

I liked the general idea that it should be a choice but I think you need to think about the fact that women tend to be less fertile as they grow older, so even if we take out societal pressure the woman's own biological clock works against her. Even if she does get pregnant later on in life, babies a physical and emotional strain that are more suited for younger women.
I am a career woman, I had my whole career planned out and I did manage to achieve my career objective in 4 years then I got married and had a baby (which is a totally new career) I am still career oriented and have been experimenting with a different job format that would still give me my own success but is flexible to fit around my family. Perhaps this is what the future is really about, flexibility.
On a totally different note, I really do like the blog but with the long-ish posts have you ever considered using a wider template and different formatting to make it easier to read?

Childfree Sebby said...

Not commenting on the situation in Egypt which I know nothing about, I must make a comment about why women choose not to have children. I knew instantly that this piece was written by a mother, because the reasons for forgoing motherhood were nowhere near the truth. "Rather than" does not come into play in the choice. It's not that we choose what we would rather do than have children, children are simply not even an option. That is something we know we do not want to do, even if it was the only thing to do in the world, even if it meant that we have to sit in an empty room for the rest of our lives, motherhood STILL won't be a tempting option. I know it is hard to understand for a mother, to whom the children are the most important thing in the world. For me personally, I have always known, since I was 6 or 8 that I didn't want to have children. I knew I wanted to get married though, and spent a lot of my energy to finding the right guy. Once I found him, I realized I was in a bit of an identity crisis, as the "next step" would be having children, but I knew that was not an option for me. So the question was: "What the hell am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?" as happy as I was about it. I envy women who are career driven, they have a ready set of optional things to do, but I'm also not driven by career, which makes my situation difficult. But that is just to say that it's not "rather than", it's "anything but".

"When I dare to be powerful - to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid" - Audre Lorde