I will never forget the first time I heard it.
‘You won’t be a real woman,’ he said, ‘until you have children.’
At the time I was struggling with my gender identity and I was fairly certain I wasn’t a woman to begin with, but the comment still struck at me. That this person would think that actual women weren’t ‘real’ until they had children, by which he meant specifically carrying children, disturbed me. I wondered if it was just a weird and privately-held opinion, but over the years, I heard it again and again, and again. Real women have children. Real women get pregnant. Real women get birth.
Real women aren’t transgender. Real women aren’t infertile. Real women don’t have disabilities that make it difficult, dangerous, or impossible to safely carry a pregnancy. Real families aren’t formed through adoption. Real mothers personally give birth to their children. Women who don’t have children aren’t complete, aren’t real, are ‘fake,’ are waiting to emerge from the chrysalis and become the people they’re supposed to be.
Real women this, real women that.
We live in a world surrounded by rules when it comes to what makes women ‘real,’ and some of them are paradoxical and conflicting, but all of them are oppressive. This attitude, that ‘real women have children,’ that you must carry children to become real, to become a certified member of your own gender, is pervasive, and it’s terrifying, and it has so many implications when it comes to families, sexuality, gender, and autonomy that I don’t see being picked apart — even in places where I might expect it to be, when people should be questioning rhetoric about ‘real mothers’ and ‘real women.’
Let us get one thing out of the way: real women are women. Period. Real women are people who say that they are women, because individuals are the most suitable, and indeed the only, people who should be defining their own experiences. Women live in all sorts of bodies, of all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of histories. Women don’t need to fit a particular set of tickboxes to be ‘real,’ nor do they need to perform some kind of ‘realness’ for observers in order to be accepted as who they are. Women are women are women. Anyone who has a problem with that needs to seriously question their life choices.
And real mothers are mothers, regardless as to the genetics of their children and how their children came to be. Adoptive families are real families. Women who love and foster and care for and delight in their children are mothers. And not every kid has a mother, and that’s okay — two gay dads can do a great job raising their child or children, just like two lesbian moms can. Families come in tons of configurations and none are more or less real than any other, any more or less deserving of social protections and respect. Not everyone who carries a fetus becomes a mother.
And not everyone who is physically capable of carrying a pregnancy wants to have children. Women, men, and people of any other gender who happen to have the ability to have kids aren’t required to, and the fact that they don’t have them doesn’t make them any less ‘real.’ A cis woman who chooses not to have kids is a woman, just as surely as a trans woman who’s adopted a child is also a woman — and a mom. What defines women isn’t the presence or absence of children, but women themselves, doing all the beautiful, diverse, amazing, astounding things that women can do.
The idea that women aren’t real until they have children has deep misogynist roots, and is part of a larger cultural attitude that women’s bodies are part of the public commons and subject to social control. Carrying a wanted pregnancy is an incredibly intense experience that every person experiences very differently, but it’s also a very vulnerable one. You are trying to bring new life into the world. Your body is shifting and changing and sometimes betraying you. You are both amazingly strong and fragile — here you are supporting a developing fetus, which is no mean feat, even as it sometimes feels like your body is tearing itself apart to accommodate it.
This is a unique and amazing experience, and for people who want to get pregnant, social and personal support are critical. But for those who do not, denying their identities and refusing to acknowledge that their bodies and choices are valid is just one more method of social control — ‘when are you going to get pregnant?’ cis women are asked when they get married, even as ‘you’ll never be a real woman’ is what people say to trans women, in part because of their biology, because they don’t have the ability to support a pregnancy.
At the same time that we tell women they’re fake unless they have kids, we’re not providing any social support for pregnant people and children. How does this make any sense? How is it logical to insist that having a child is a rite of passage that’s necessary for women to become women, while making it functionally difficult to actually have children and be supported and respected in society? How does this work? This puzzling contradiction serves as a reminder that women can do nothing right — have children and you’re a drag on society, don’t have children and you’re not a real woman. Which is it, people?
Image: Late for children’s day!, Seema Krishnakumar, Flickr.