by Emily Newton
Nb: This article was submitted for a Masters university assessment in 2016 and as a result all information was correct at the time of writing.
In an old, rented apartment in Sydney’s west, a small brown paper bag is hidden amongst 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, as lifestyles have shifted dramatically over the past 30, even 60 years. Millennials are now society’s new mothers, but their experiences are no longer like the generations before.
From infertility to social expectations and feminism, what does it mean to be a mother for the women labelled as the “Me Me Me Generation”?
Katherine’s voice waivers as she visibly becomes upset speaking about her experiences, until tears slowly begin to fall 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 Katherine and her husband, but they fear continuing to wait and keep trying will only disadvantage them further.
She explains she gets judgement that only damages her confidence further, as even her loved ones tell her it will happen “if I 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 barren 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 regulates your emotions and the hormones that tell your ovaries to release eggs. In Katherine’s experience, it is impossible to accept these comments and not be stressed.
She says that while there is nothing wrong with not having children, 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 as tears begin to well.
“Where are you little baby,” she whispers.
“My quality of life was terrible. I didn’t see my friends for weeks and I was so sick,” Mary 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.”
Mary was left feeling isolated and constantly guilty during and for the months that followed her pregnancy, as people through she was “embellishing the truth, if not lying.”
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 generations, telling her that mothers of newborns were supposed to be tired and unwashed. Mary 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 guilty anytime she would wear makeup or choose to pay attention to her appearance. When Mary expressed the desire to engage in sexuality again with her husband, she was met with “guffaws and scoffs from men – and women!”
“I was shocked by the negative reactions,” she explains, at times being made to feel ashamed for trying to meet her own needs with a newborn.
Today, Mary 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. [Being a woman] means wearing a hat with many feathers, each representing a different part of who you are.”
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, fuck everyone else!”
Charlotte 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 a mother, the majority through choice.
However, Charlotte’s closest family member is her biggest critic, as her sister labels her decision to be childfree “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 at least the decision would be out of my hands and 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, as she filters 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 can 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 is connected by more than their generation. They share the experience of being a woman in today’s society, fear of speaking about their struggles because of the seemingly endless unwarranted judgement from others.
Today, each of them chose to break that cycle, and speak up. Perhaps the generation should be more accurately called “Generation We”.
*Names have been changed for security purposes.