Population Matters

Mulling the Motherhood Mandate

October 29th, 2014

Of all the important decisions we make in our lives, questions about whether to have a child or not, or even when to have a child, have to be near the top of the list, and while that is true for men, it is certainly the case with women. Given the enormous personal stakes in childbearing, it is surprising that more women have not written a book about the pros and cons that go into making childbearing decisions.

The latest contribution to this field comes from Melanie Holmes, a mother with two grown sons and a 12-year-old daughter at home. Her book, The Female Assumption, seeks to free women “from the view that motherhood is a mandate.” The author makes it clear from the outset that she does not regret having three children, but she tells her readers that “females should be raised hearing that motherhood is only one option out of many paths that they might choose in order to live a full, happy life.”

For the vast majority of human history the ‘default’ choice for women has been to have a child, if not several children. And that’s been good on several levels, not the least of which is the survival of the human species. Looking back, if women on average had fewer than two children each, we would not be here today. Indeed, child mortality rates were so high for millennia that women, on average, had to have several children or population would have rapidly declined. Large family size, for much of human history, has been a biological imperative.

Today, however, with 7.2 billion of us on the planet and demographic projections indicating that world population will increase by another 2.4 billion by mid-century, humankind is in no danger of shuffling off its mortal coil and women with access to modern contraception can now space or limit their pregnancies, and can opt, if they so choose, to go childless. But despite their reproductive freedom many women in the world are still under a lot of pressure to have children.

In many developing countries a woman may have little voice in determining the size of her family, particularly if she was a child bride. But even in the United States women can be pressured into having children. Holmes writes that “girls are coached, almost from birth, to embrace motherhood,” and that “married women without children are often bombarded with questions.” In the course of writing her book, Holmes interviewed more than a hundred women with daughters, and she reports that 88 percent of them said that they “assumed” that their daughters would have children, though only 42 percent said they would actively encourage their daughters to have children.

In Chapter 4 of her book, Holmes lists seven “dirty little secrets” that mothers refrain from telling their daughters about raising children. In a subsequent chapter, she also writes about the many “joys” of motherhood, but she concludes that, once you opt for motherhood, life as you have known it “ceases to exist,” and that “you must forego many other choices that could be equally rewarding.” In reaching that conclusion, Holmes talked to dozens of women who chose not to have children, many of whom, including my wife, reported no regrets about their decision.

Holmes is not the first woman in recent years to publicly attack the “assumption” that women cannot lead fulfilling lives if they do not have children. A few years ago, Lisa Hymas, a senior editor at Grist, generated some debate within the environmental community when she criticized the pressure that family and friends often put upon young women to have children. In a strong defense of her decision not to have children, she coined the phrase, “green inclination, no kids” or GINK, for short.

What sets Holmes apart from some of the other “child-free” advocates is that she is a mother of three and still willing to defend women who opt not to have children. For obvious reasons, it is a bit of a tightrope act; Holmes does not regret the “three beautiful souls” who came into her life, but neither does she shrink from describing the downsides of motherhood. The result is a fresh and balanced perspective on the relative merits of having children versus not having children.

Holmes treats childbearing as a highly personal decision, which it most certainly is, but for some people, like me, decisions on childbearing can also include larger, non-personal considerations, such as the impact that ever growing human numbers are having on the planet. As a man who decided early on that he would prefer to not have any children, I do not question those who elect to have children, but by the same token I do not think parenthood should be entered into lightly. For all the reasons outlined in The Female Assumption and more, I believe that women — and men — should think carefully about one of the most momentous decisions they will ever make. If you are woman and you have not decided yet whether to have children, I urge you to read The Female Assumption.

This blog by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on October 24, 2014 on The Huffington Post

Child Marriage Undermines Progress on the MDGs

October 10th, 2014

Every year 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. Today there are 700 million women alive who were married before their 18th birthday, and 1 in 3 of these women, about 250 million, were married before they turned 15. If we do not take urgent action to address child marriage now, by 2050 there will be 1.2 billion women in the world who will have been married before they turned 18. Tomorrow is the International Day of the Girl and it is imperative that we recommit ourselves to putting girls at the center of the development agenda. Eliminating child marriage will help us to succeed on 6 of the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

MDG 1 Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
Poverty is both a cause and an effect of child marriage. Girls from poor households are nearly two times more likely to marry before they are 18 years of age than other girls. Once these girls are married they are often trapped in poverty because they are pulled out of school. Unable to complete their education, these girls will have limited economic opportunities and are more likely to remain poor.


MDG 2 Achieve Universal Primary Education
When girls get married they are often removed from school, which will limit their ability to lift their families out of poverty. Education is also one of the best tools to help girls avoid child marriage. Girls who have secondary schooling are up to 6 times less likely to be child brides than girls who have little or no education.


MDG 3 Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
Child marriage disempowers girls. It not only prevents them from completing their education; it generally means that they will have little choice or control over whom they will marry. Child brides are effectively denied gender equality, and are more likely to experience physical, sexual and psychological violence. Child marriage, in fact, may be the single biggest obstacle to achieving MDG 3.


MDG 4 & 5 Reduce Child Mortality and Improve Maternal Health
Child brides are often encouraged, or even forced, to have a child before they are physically or emotionally ready to become mothers. This has a devastating effect on the health of child brides. Girls under 15 are 5 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties. Child marriage, in fact, is one of the biggest impediments to reducing maternal mortality and achieving MDG 5. When a mother is under 20, her child is 50 percent more likely to die within its first weeks of life than a baby born to a mother in her 20s, undermining progress on MDG 4 (reducing child mortality).


MDG 6 Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other Diseases
When girls marry young they do not have the power or knowledge to negotiate safe sexual behavior, and are therefore more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS and other STIs.


These are just a few of the reasons why ending child marriage must be part of the post-2015 development agenda. If we do not end child marriage, it will undermine progress on many of the other development goals. So this International Day of the Girl let us raise our voices and speak out to prevent another 15 million girls from becoming child brides next year.

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy