By Grace McEvoy
Nineteen sixty-one, the year of my birth, is considered by some to be the last year of the baby boom. That puts me in the generation that grew up with many cousins and siblings but in my case, not one niece or nephew. Socially, things changed quickly as I came of age and I made adjustments over time regarding where I stood on the question of having children. The generation prior to mine didn’t ponder this so, in fact there was nothing to consider since most people assumed they would marry and have a family.
With thanks to those who came before us, women of my generation had birth control and legal abortion. Over time divorce became easier and professional options expanded. Women could get credit, own property and seriously consider life outside of a conventional nuclear family as an option. In the nineteen seventies the economy changed such that women had to work to contribute financially and with this came a desire for more freedom and autonomy. The Equal Rights Amendment was being debated as I came of age and while it did not pass, there is no doubt that women have gained equity in the U.S. since that time, in part, because of the ERA.
One consequence of these changes for me was ambivalence about the idea of becoming a mother, not only because it was now a choice but also, because of some of the political and social messages I was sorting through. My personal choice was a political conversation and felt like a statement regardless of what I chose to do. I took a long time to decide if I wanted to be a mother and like many women my age, waited until the last minute.
In my feminist milieu as a young woman, one message I got was to avoid having children. I heard, “Don’t get pregnant” so frequently that I would have been embarrassed if I had. I recall having these judgments about other women, thinking they had somehow failed if they got pregnant. I felt on some level that being a mother would be like turning my back on my feminist sisters. It seemed that some women got pregnant by accident but were glad that the decision had been made for them because making the choice was fraught with controversy. When I did have maternal urges, I usually kept them to myself and always kept them from any male I might be involved with. The sexual revolution of the sixties didn’t prepare me for the confusion of the seventies and eighties. I was supposed to be enjoying sex but ignoring how it made me feel. I had construed the fact that I really had a choice because I assigned too much importance to the political debate around the issue.
One consequence of freedom from marriage and motherhood was the extension of aspects of adolescence into my twenties and beyond. My mother’s generation had clear demarcations between childhood and adulthood. Once you reached adulthood you wore the clothes of an adult, and your hair was “done” like that of a grown woman. You had the burdens and responsibilities of an adult and that was that. There was no period of years roaming around from job to job and city to city and boyfriend to boyfriend, dressed in a youthful way with your hair down and with no particular plan for the future. I began to internalize the tension between conservative voices like that of Phyllis Schlafly and feminists who rejected her, but the idea that what I had was the freedom to chose would have made the most sense to me had the sides not been so polarized. To my eye, Phyllis Schlafly was crusty, mean, unattractive and just a pill. I wanted to be nothing like that. She had her own confusion also, because while she preached conservative “values” she paid someone else to care for her children so she could work for her cause. This was at odds with her message that the ERA was destroying families because women should be at home supporting their men and raising children.
On the other hand, women were and still are constantly subjected to images of themselves as sexy, cute and pretty, the importance of being attractive to men emphasized in every form of media on a daily basis. I recall my mother telling me many times as a child that I was going to be a “knockout.” I didn’t know how to express my utter discomfort for that expression or my confusion, embarrassment and horror at what I thought was expected of me. The Seventies brought us the book, The Total Woman, by Marabel Morgan, which advised women to submit to their husbands, be a sex object and bury any opinions or desires at odds with family harmony. Also, to do anything it takes to keep your man happy, including answering the door wrapped in nothing but plastic wrap holding a martini. It seemed that everyone was confused and there was no space for making a sane decision one way or the other about becoming a mother so I just put it on the shelf until further notice. I met no males who had any confidence about the subject either but none of them wanted children now or wanted to prepare to have them ever. Male ambivalence on the question persisted through the eighties and nineties in my life.
Meanwhile, I put myself through college, working three jobs, and began to build myself a career I really wanted. Biological urges came on strong in the eighties and nineties and I pushed them away, saying I didn’t think I would be a good mother. The fact is there was no one with whom I wanted to become a parent but in my thirties I knew for sure that I wanted to and so I did at the age of thirty-six. After some initial kerfuffle with the other parent, I sorted out motherhood on my own terms and can say that I have really enjoyed the last fifteen years. My son is a joy and I am a fully realized woman who enjoys peace and freedom. I have hit my stride in many ways that are important to me and have a strong sense of what I value. I don’t give a shit if I am a knockout or not nor do I spend any time wondering if I am making a man happy. I am free at last and I am very happy. My hope for all the generations of women to come is that they fully feel and enjoy the freedom they have to chose to be a mother or not with out the political and social confusion of my generation.