Having a child feels like the most intimate act in human life, but lately it's erupted into the world of public discourse. An event that normally lurks in the background of our minds has been moved abruptly onto the foreground.
A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement recently began an article in words she obviously believed her readers would find agreeable: "The decision of whether or not to have a baby can be agonizing for some women." She noted several possible fears that might influence someone contemplating motherhood, including the likely loss of the mother's personal freedom.
The same feelings of reluctance about giving birth now turn up in blogs, books and conversations. A few women edge toward a belief that a childless woman can be better off than a woman who has given birth. (Many prefer the term child-free.) They exchange views on blogs like Life Without Baby, a discussion site for women who can't have children.
We can blame or credit this impulse on our moment in history with its habit of writing and talking about women. In recent years women have received unprecedented attention: we read about women's place in politics, about them being underpaid and frequently abused in their work, about their education, about their humane approach to civil rights. And much more.
Once everything about women is up for grabs, it seems reasonable to wonder whether their role as mothers should be seen as inevitable. And once the subject is raised, it becomes obvious that this is a seldom examined tradition and not all women are enthusiastic about it.
So women (some women) invent a new right: they want to avoid giving birth and at the same time avoid being criticized or pitied. And nobody should mention the alarmingly falling birth rate.
Life Without Baby asks its readers, "Are you facing a life without children and don't know how to begin making peace with your situation?" Lisa Manterfield, a California author who conducts the blog, tried to have a baby and failed despite consultations with fertility experts. So she joined the childless-by-choice women in their need for support.
"Maybe you feel as if your real life is passing you by. I'm familiar with the tangle of emotions that can creep up on you when you contemplate taking a different path in life." In her blog, which she started five years ago, she discovered "a worldwide community of women struggling with the same issues I was facing."
Sheila Heti, a much praised Toronto author, has taken this discussion to another level in her recent book, Motherhood, which she calls fiction. (It's also been called autofiction.) She invents a narrator, who sounds a lot like Heti herself and constantly worries about childbirth.
She tells us, "Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself." There's for and against: "On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them." She likes the freedom of not having children, but fears the loss of never having them. Heti writes with confessional directness as she ponders what sounds like the great conundrum of her life. Nearly 40, she knows she's approaching the end of her period of fertility.
She's an experimental writer and fears her writing and her reputation will be smothered under the needs and moral rights of the child. "I really need an infinite amount of time to work," she says. But her serious ambition for her work doesn't answer her mind's question. Heiti's narrator fears that if she has a baby and marries the father she will "never have an avant-garde life."
One way or another, avant-garde or not, Heti and those who think this way have installed the motherhood question on the public agenda.