Does having a baby make a woman more of a woman?
The folk wisdom of what Irvine psychotherapist Deborah Hendlin calls our "pro-natalistic society" says it does.
But Hendlin's own research, a study of Orange County and other Southern California women with and without children, says motherhood has no effect on femininity--not even if you define the term according to pre-feminist stereotypes.
Hendlin studied three distinct groups of women, all between 35 and 39. The first group was made up of mothers who had successfully planned both the number and timing of their pregnancies. All had been married at least five years and had college degrees. The second group consisted of voluntarily childless women, with similar marital and educational backgrounds. The third group was made up of voluntarily childless lesbians with the same education levels, in committed relationships of five years or more. Most of the 60 women studied were from south Orange County.
Hendlin looked not only at the women's perceptions of their own femininity, but also at the process the childless women went through in making that choice, the emotions they struggled with, the stages they went through.
Hendlin, a general-practice therapist with many clients who are well-educated, successful professionals, says she "began to see a number of women who were struggling with this issue. It's a very painful decision, and there's great ambivalence and questioning about what is the right choice."
Many of the women, she says, "are asking themselves, 'Am I a real woman? Is there something wrong with me?' " Most are aware that the struggle within them is about motherhood. But others show up with problems, such as excessive drinking, eating disorders, anxiety or depression and "may not be aware at a conscious level of what's really precipitating this. Once we begin talking, they begin to realize what's causing the problem."
When Hendlin began searching for references to voluntarily childless women in psychological literature, she found little available. "This is a whole untapped area," she says. "Society is so pro-natalistic, women who choose not to have children are somewhat overlooked."
One reason may be that the option of forgoing motherhood hasn't been easily available for long. "We are one of the first generations that has had to face this kind of thing," Hendlin says. "For our mothers, there was no question. They got married; they had children; there was no choice. But when the pill came along in the mid-'60s and the women's liberation movement followed, things changed. Now motherhood can be an option rather than a mandate."
For the part of her study that dealt with femininity, Hendlin used a standardized "sex role inventory" made up of adjectives traditionally applied to feminine and masculine stereotypes, along with other neutral adjectives. The stereotypically feminine adjectives included such words as "soft" and "warm-hearted," while the masculine stereotypes included words such as "aggressive" and "assertive."
Hendlin is quick to point out that these are not necessarily her own definitions of femininity and masculinity. What she was trying to determine, she explains, is how the three groups differed in how much they identified with those stereotypes.
All three groups responded similarly to the "feminine" adjectives, Hendlin says, although the two voluntarily childless groups responded more often to the "masculine" ones, making them not less feminine but more androgynous than the mothers, with a better balance between supposedly male and female characteristics.
"But I saw no difference in any of the groups as to degree of nurturance or femininity," Hendlin says. "Childbearing doesn't seem to enter into it." Neither, apparently, does sexual orientation. The lesbians scored slightly higher than the other women on their view of themselves as nurturers, Hendlin says, but the difference was not statistically significant.
Hendlin also asked the childless women how they had made the decision, what factors entered into it, and what advantages or disadvantages they perceived with their choice. She found three distinct methods of making the decision.
"The first group, the postponers, did not necessarily plan this. They got involved in a childless life style and kept postponing children and finally got to a point where they made the decision.
"Then there are the early articulators. From an early age, they knew they didn't want children, and they didn't experience themselves as being particularly maternal. They just knew it wasn't right for them, and they talked about it openly with their partners," Hendlin says.
The third group, she says "are ambivalent. They really never make the decision. They just put the biological clock on 'snooze' and wait until it finally stops."
About two-thirds of the childless women were postponers, with early articulators making up nearly another third, and only a handful were ambivalent women.