How maternity is instilled in young girls from childhood to adulthood

Perrine Arbitre

Children. We see their cute little faces in advertisements and movies ; our attention is fully focused on them, their health, their cries, their laughs. One person stands in the shadows and yet holds all the social expectations. This person is different ; her role is public, her body belongs to the society, her mind has to be oriented towards one precise task : bearing the providential child. This person, you may have recognized her, is the mother. This immortal figure comforts and supports us, even during the toughest times. In women's magazines and tabloids, you will find plenty of articles discussing how she should do this or that, along with plenty of cute baby faces pictures Yet, one question remains unasked : do women have to conceive a child in the first place ?

Some women want children, some don’t. In any case, society expects them to consider the holy conception as a necessary conclusion of their lifestyles. How could it be different, though ? They have reproductive organs, they have breasts and, above all, they have the almost magical, miraculous instinct of motherhood. This instinct is showcased in every step of young girls’ socialization, from child play to TV series. The little girl has to take care of her doll and consoles it when it fake cries ; the adult woman sacrifices herself to the profit of her rebellious son by working harder and harder, the father having left years ago. In our society, motherhood is conceptualized as a biological phenomenon belonging to the female sex, without any doubt on its existence and effectiveness. 

Several studies have been conducted among female subjects in order to prove the following point : maternal point is inherent to women’s brain and unconditional, even from a very young age. When conducting my research online, I quickly realized that two schools were opposed : the one that believes in it and even promotes it, and the other that believe in a more sociological perspective of the so-called “instinct”.

 A french neurobiologist, Catherine Vidal, argues for the social construction of it ; she explains how the “instinct” as a pure, raw form of act is absent from human beings compared to other mammals, which suggests a rather “imitation instinct” encouraged through gendered education.

On the opposite spectrum, a 2017 neurobiologist experiment was conducted and published in the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America), arguing for an instinctive response in mothers’ brains after hearing an infant crying ; a precise area of the brain is stimulated, thus an immediate action from the mother towards the baby. From my personal point of view, I would say that the results of this experiment doesn’t contradict at all the point of Mrs Vidal : conditioned from a very young age to care about nurturing babies, women have internalized a certain pattern of behaviours that has now become their natural response to a particular social situation. In any case, we can see how this question raises debates among society, as it appears so important for everybody to understand how it could be possible to not want children at any point in one’s life.

Why is society so afraid of the non-use of women’s wombs ? The imperative of maternity takes its roots centuries ago, when women were no more than baby factories and took care of the household, alone. However, we would think that this injonction evolved in a more comprehensive way of living one’s life ; the rising presence of feminist movements in the public sphere is also an undebatable upheaval of our time. Nevertheless, the heritage remains untouched : you will bear the child, just like your parents and grandparents did. No need for justification here ; however, when comes the time to explain one’s refusal to raise babies, there’s an inevitable need for explanations. Why ? Don’t you like your brother/sister/cousin’s children ?

A strange phenomenon happens as a consequence of these pressures : the so-called “child-free” women ( both the young and older generation) feel the need to justify their “choice” at all cost. And here we go again : it cannot be a natural absence of desire, it has to be chosen, driven by some egoistic thoughts, right ? Several child-free movements saw the light quite recently. For instance, a new movement came across as a new ideology regarding maternity : the GINKS (Green- Inclined No Kids), which one of the most iconic figure is Lisa Hymas, co-founder of Grist magazine. Her main argument resides in the climate urgency we actually face and how it is necessary to question our will of babies in a world gangrened by consumerism and natural resources exploitation. Far from being majority nor popular, her assertions are seen as aggressions by young mothers and society in general. This statement is debatable indeed ; the surpopulation theory could largely be discussed here, but it is not my point in this article. I want to show how ironic it is to claim one’s own body rights and, at the same time, feeling the need to rationalize and justify it at all cost. We have now two sides, almost enemies : you defend mothers and their babies or you hate them with all your heart.

Nobody asks about the other ones, these silent women who doesn’t want children just because they have no feelings leaning towards family but no valuable reasons to do so in the eyes of the social body. We have come to the point where a personal, intimate choice becomes a public judgement of one’s desires and worth, and, as for many other things, it affects women in priority

When one expresses the willingness to stay child-free, theorized or not, comes the traditional saying : you’ll change your mind ! This happens even more when one is a young adult woman constructing her social and professional life. How could she know what
she wants yet?

The potentiality of the motherhood instinct suddenly bursting into the room of femininity appears more powerful, to put it clearly, more important than her decision at a particular moment. The assumption of non-maternity is then swept away with an awkward laugh and discreet whispers. “She wants to get attention, she’s young, you’ll see, I’ll be right”. From now on, every occasion is good to remind her to procreate, every child in the family becomes a pretext to prove her that she is wrong, that she indeed wants children, because one is of course not enough. An only child will be bored, too many will be unmanageable. It must be mixed, too, so that the bloodline stays diverse and thriving. The non-existence of children seems unbearable, an insult to the sacrifice of the parents, but we must not forget that maternity too is subjected to social norms and expectations.


I would dream of an ideal society where women could choose whatever they want for their uterus, from having ten children with a wonderful career to none with a wonderful career too. Although I realize it is a herculean task that will require more and more activism from modern feminists, I hope I managed to expose in a clear manner this heated debate and perhaps change our judgement towards child-free women.