Maternal identity now a side hustle

  • June 6, 2024

How big a role do women’s fears about losing their identity play in low fertility rates? 

Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution and host of the excellent Maiden, Mother, Matriarch podcast, raised the question on a recent episode. Hearing women on TikTok and other social media talk about the issue of identity as a barrier to motherhood, she said, “I don’t get it. I can’t interpret what it means.” 

I think I can. To my mind, the concept of who we are as women, aka identity, is a major driver of low fertility, perhaps the main driver. 

Perry is an agnostic Brit, and Helen Roy, her guest that day, a Catholic American, but I’ll start with some relatively new Canadian data for the perfect Anglosphere trifecta of reactionary feminist discussion. My think tank Cardus did a foundational survey of Canadian women’s fertility desires and intentions in summer 2022. 

We asked women under age 30 who desire kids why they would not have them in the next two years. Many factors influence Canadian women in having fewer children than they desire, but the top two most commonly expressed barriers were “wanting to grow as a person” and “needing to focus on career.” These both strongly represent concerns about identity, the fear and belief both perceived and real that one cannot become a mother prior to other achievements. 

One wouldn’t want to end up being “just a mother.” It’s is a sentiment I have often heard. It’s a sentiment I once said. 

“Just a mother,” is how we consider the art of mothering. Mary Harrington, another splendid British thinker and author of Feminism Against Progress tells the story of how being a stay-at-home mother resulted in so many people assuming she had nothing to contribute. Indeed, I’ve seen one “just a mother” come to tears at a networking event because the main question people ask is “What do you do?” If you say “I’m a mother” you can pull out a stopwatch and count the seconds it takes for the person to find a new conversation partner. 

Motherhood is, as mother of eight Catherine Pakaluk puts it in her new book Hannah’s Children, the Women Quietly Defying the Birth Dearth, an experienced good. If you go to a restaurant, you know in broad strokes that you will eat a meal. But you don’t know precisely what kind of evening you will have. For that, you must go, sit down, order and eat. Motherhood is something that is understood—sort of. It means you’ll have a kid or kids. But the details of how that feels are truly only to be experienced, for better or worse. 

For young women, the compelling course of action is to stick with what you know, and not dive in to having kids too early, which would bog you down and take you from the achievements that actually bring recognition and earn money. 

I once heard a man give the advice to young fathers that the most important thing in becoming a father was to allow fatherhood to change you. It would be possible, he said, to become a father and simply trundle along doing the same things but, he cautioned, that would not be as fruitful as allowing a child to nurture important growth in a man. 

I’m not sure we always needed to teach women this, but today we do. The way our culture approaches motherhood is to make it into something of a side hustle to the primary concern of life, which is waged work. 

Ultimately I believe it will be up to women to re-honour the beauty of motherhood before we see any substantive cultural change ensue or an uptick in fertility. Some legal/policy change might contribute, but Canada is currently a case study in having significant family and maternal benefits without a commensurate boost in respect for mothering and/or family life. 

Instead of respect for motherhood, we have female leaders like Lisa Hepfner, a federal MP, talking about the need to provide affordable menstrual products to “people who get their period.” And Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, championing free birth control.  

One lingering question I have is this: if career and personal growth expectations are so high that having children will break them, then do you really actually want children? But answering this is its own research project.  

Meanwhile, yes, identity concerns are a definitive and very real barrier to women choosing to have children today. 

Andrea Mrozek is Senior Fellow at Cardus Family. 

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