When my former colleague became pregnant with her first child, she revealed that our health insurance provider filed maternity leave as short-term disability. Despite the fact that she was about to bring new life into this world—essentially the most able-bodied function of any such mammal that comes to mind—to the insurance company, she was handicapped for the foreseeable future. Handicapped! Paid leave debates have raged incessantly in recent years, for sure, but few discuss the methods used to secure such benefits in our current climate.
However, upon deeper consideration, such perceptions of new mothers seem right in line with how society treats women overall. For some reason, we’re regarded as weak creatures whose sole purpose on this planet revolves around perpetuating the species—a responsibility that requires the sort of strength no man can comprehend. By the time every woman reaches the age when most start families of their own, in society’s eye, we’ve merely transitioned from “boy crazy” to “baby crazy,” for our true aspirations are limited to mating and procreating only.
Except that’s entirely untrue.
Countless women have little desire to pursue motherhood. Despite society’s assumption that unmarried, childless women are lonely or unfulfilled, many genuinely prefer this sort of lifestyle.
In an Op-Ed published by The Huffington Post, actress Jennifer Aniston specifically addressed the issue, as she’s likely the most famous victim of society’s tendency to shame women who refuse to adhere to the unwritten handbook that dictates how we should live our lives. For decades, Aniston has had her face plastered across tabloids, her life on display for all to see, as the public speculates whether this angle or that purchase indicates that she might be pregnant.
Although Aniston rarely acknowledges said tabloid fodder, in this instance, she could not help but highlight that the sheer amount of resources spent on trying to uncover her supposed pregnancy “points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.”
“We are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child,” Aniston wrote. “We get to decide for ourselves what is beautiful when it comes to our bodies. That decision is ours and ours alone.”
“Let’s make that decision for ourselves and for the young women in this world who look to us as examples. Let’s make that decision consciously, outside of the tabloid noise. We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own “happily ever after” for ourselves.”
But Aniston fails to recognize that, in many cases, people who swear by marriage and motherhood can’t fathom a world in which women opt out of this traditional path by their own volition. Women who have no use for these institutions must constantly justify their decisions, as if these choices are unnatural and embarrassing. Doing so almost feels like being the one non-Stepford wife in town—you are unwelcome and irrevocably misunderstood.
Collectively, we must allow people to live as they see fit, even if those choices aren’t what we’d choose for ourselves. Might those who don’t want children right now inevitably change their minds? Absolutely. If I were to meet someone whose genetic code seems worthy of reproduction, I’d certainly entertain the prospect, but I won’t fall to pieces if Prince Charming’s horse accidentally makes a wrong turn along the way.
To most, I’d likely be considered a spinster at the ripe, old age of 30 simply because I’m not married and I have no urge to walk down the aisle any time soon. Thus, in my lonely state, I’m left to listen to the ticking of my internal clock—the metronome that beats in rhythm with my waning childbearing potential.
Except there’s no time bomb, no sadness, no jealousy. In fact, I can’t help but wonder how many of the married couples I know will get divorced when they finally realize they subconsciously settled for the one they were with because it was a logistically appropriate time for them to start a family. Society might’ve paved one path, but no one said it was the only way to go. Find another route or blaze your own trail. Listen to what’s in your heart, not what’s been put in your head, as that’s the only surefire method for finding your way.
(This post originally appeared on Storia.)