It was one of those rare occurrences when I was not too tired to make babysitting arrangements, dress nicely and head downtown for a night out with a group of friends, many of them single and almost all without children. It must have been after hanging up with my mom — who called to tell me to hurry back home because my 3-year-old daughter woke up mid-sleep crying hysterically, asking for me and refusing to go back to bed — that a friend sitting across the table from me casually (and cynically) asked, “So, why did you choose to have a child?”
I was startled. Angry. Speechless. I wanted to articulate all the wonders of motherhood. I wanted to have a quick and clever answer to how and why I made this choice, something perhaps more sophisticated than that I simply wanted her, my baby, with all my heart. I wanted to be mean and tell my friend that she would never understand. But my mind went blank.
When I was assigned to write about the choice of motherhood for the occasion of this year’s Mother’s Day, I was scared. How can one write sensibly about such an emotional and sensitive experience? But the question, it seems, will forever haunt me. Maybe this time, I thought to myself, I will come up with an articulate response to the choice of motherhood, to why I decided to have a child. And to ensure my success, I brought in an arsenal of women for support.
I began a conversation with a trusted circle of progressive mothers, mostly middle to upper-middle class, career oriented, independent and politically active. I asked them: Is motherhood a choice? Why did they choose to be mothers?
I am aware, of course, that choice in this case is a luxury — most women in Egypt and the region cannot escape societal pressures to get married, procreate, amuse their husbands, maintain a well-kept house, et cetera. I am also aware that women who choose not to have children, as well as those who cannot have children, have to face the ruthlessness of a society that imagines motherhood as a woman’s only “natural” path.
This, however, should not undermine the importance of listening to the stories of women who choose motherhood. In her formidable essay, “On Motherhood and Violence,” Egyptian poet and writer Iman Mersal explains how Western feminism has rarely looked into women’s individual experience of motherhood. Their fight revolved solely on battles against institutions, such as granting women paid maternity leave or supporting childcare centers. It is as if, she adds, “motherhood were an experience locked away deep inside the community of women as they do battle against patriarchy; they are better off without digging up this experience of ‘difference’ between women and men that could alter the consciousness of both.”
My aim here is not to defend the choice to have children, but to unlock it, understand it, without sensititives or fear of defending the “mainstream,” or offending those who choose differently. My aim is to narrate glimpses of women’s lived experiences away from what Mersal calls “meta-narratives” of women’s relationships with their bodies and the world. I would like to unravel what it means to choose what is often discounted as the obvious choice, or the “non-choice.” I might have an ulterior motive to ascertain that motherhood can be a feminist choice. The women I talked to are, to a great extent, empowered and strong-willed; if anyone has a choice, they do.
A number of the women I spoke to made the decision to have a child in the brief and glorious euphoria following the January 25 revolution in 2011. Nesma* tells me that she made the decision to get pregnant after she witnessed death in Egypt and Libya during the uprisings. “I felt that my decision to get pregnant is a vote for life. I used to take part in all protests when I was pregnant, determined to change the world so that when my daughter arrived, things would have changed for the better. But after I had her, I began to fear for her life and mine.”
“If it wasn’t for the revolution,” Mai told me, “I wouldn’t have made this decision till now. I was never fond of children, but now my son is the most beautiful and important thing in my life. I might not have made this decision to have him very lucidly, but I am certain of my decision to give him all I can offer, for he is the only thing I can change about this ugly world we live in.”
Darine was married for more than five years before she decided to get pregnant in 2011 after the revolution. “I was under immense pressure from my family during those five years to get pregnant, including from my mother, who is otherwise progressive … [But] the revolution gave me and many others the incentive to give birth to life.”
Many of the women I spoke to had delayed the decision to have children for reasons that ranged from their initial lack of interest in having kids — sometimes due to the frustrating political climate — to prioritizing their careers or studies, to focusing on their relationships with their partners. What I noticed, however, is that once they realized they might not be able to get pregnant — for medical reasons or due to age — they became adamant on it.
Nesrine tells me that she was never interested in having children, maybe out of a hidden desire to be different. “But once I turned 40, I was ready and I was willing to do anything to get pregnant,” she said.
“I was initially scared of motherhood. The responsibility frightened me. But when I started having delays in pregnancy, I got really worried. I was about to lose my mind,” Ghada said.
This is perhaps when I began to notice the cursor of “choice” blinking. In other words, women did not want to be deprived of this choice for biological reasons, or any other reason, for that matter. They did not want their bodies to fail them; they wanted to be able to command their bodies to make life, when and if they so pleased.
Sometimes motherhood was something women considered as they were grappling with loss — a painful miscarriage, perhaps, even if it was not a pregnancy they had planned for. Farida told me that she knew early on that she might not be able to have children for medical reasons, and didn’t care. She wanted to live with her partner away from her parents’ house. They wanted to have their own place, have friends over. They were not thinking of kids or marriage in the traditional sense. Five years later, she thought that she might be pregnant. But after the tests turned out to be negative, she sobbed, and couldn’t understand why.
“I got pregnant soon after and lost the baby after six months,” Farida recounted. “When the baby was born dead, I held him in my arms so they wouldn’t take him away too soon. I completely lost my mind until I found out at a year later that I was pregnant with my son, Ahmed … I always said to myself that, despite the struggle, what matters is that he is here and well. He is now my friend, but there were times when he was a constraint and a burden.”
The women I spoke to all discussed the struggle of motherhood, the constraints, the liability, the anxiety and the challenge to be mothers — or a specific type of mother — and how to not always be mothers. A mother of twins told me, “I want to do something for myself. I want my kids to think of me as a strong and successful woman, and not that their mom made the best béchamel pasta ever.”
“They will cherish you for having cooked them great food,” another woman replied. “Take it from someone whose mom cooked nothing but zucchini soup.”
But joking aside, the violence of motherhood is often absent from the mainstream narrative, which assumes it is only “natural” and “intuitive” for women to become mothers, to be inseparable from their children. This is why Mersal’s critique of the meta-narrative is important. Her essay opens with a poem by Polish writer Anna Swir speaking to her infant daughter: “‘You are not going to defeat me,’ I say/’I won’t be an egg which you would crack/in a hurry for the world,/a footbridge that you would take on the way to your life./I will defend myself.’”
Mersal uses the poem to address the struggle between the mother and her child, to speak against the mainstream idea of motherhood that “is seen as human instinct, naturally immune to conflict and anxiety,” to discredit the notion that anything outside this imagined ideal of motherhood is a deficiency or a crime.
“Motherhood is a big trap,” a single mother told me. “I chose to have a child, but now I don’t have the luxury of choice. My ex-husband migrated and he only sends us some money and calls sometimes. My daughter is more my friend than my child. But I still bear all the responsibility on my shoulders. I try to steal some moments for myself. But my life revolves around my daughter and work.”
Something changes after the “crack,” to use Swir’s and Mersal’s words. Sawsan told me that she has always been a pacifist and was against killing, even if for self-defense. “After I had my daughter, I felt for the very first time that I could literally kill anyone who threatens my child and me, without hesitation or a second thought,” she said.
There are many unsettling questions, some of which are expressed by Omneya: “I decided to get pregnant when I was 23. I was beginning my career and I was an active feminist. Everyone around me was telling me it would be the best thing that would ever happen to me, and that I will love my child more than anything else in the world. I had questions, however, which I refused to share with them: What if I loved someone or something more than him? Is he going to hate me for it? Will he realize it and decide to punish me and demand more love? Will this little creature that has just come out of me imprison me and restrict my movement? And will I punish him for it? Will I be happy when those around me tell me that he is only comfortable with his mother, or should I be wary that they say so only to trap me? What will suffer at the cost of answering all these questions, my relationship with my son or my relationship with my husband and my society?”
There are, of course, societies that support women who are mothers and others who push them down with unrealistic expectations and patriarchal duties, both in the household and workplace. And it is obvious which society we live in.
“Motherhood is a choice whose price is only paid by women in this society. I chose to be a mother, but society is making me pay. My career progression has been obstructed because maternity leave and child support are considered to be derailments from the production cycle,” one woman told me. “I know institutions who do not want to employ women at all because they take many days off to care for their kids.”
At the end of our conversation, a woman interjected, “But what is motherhood after all? Is this, what I am sharing with my son, motherhood?”
One woman explained how, during times of distress, motherhood kept her from completely collapsing. “[If I wasn’t a mother], I would’ve broken down faster. I would’ve been weaker … more likely to struggle. I now have many incentives to keep going.”
A mother of twins described it as follows: “I am anxious everyday. I feel that my fear for them, especially given the dire state of the country, is weakening me. But I also feel that everyday they empower me to find solutions and not fall apart.”
Another woman described how it is a “huge daily challenge not only to take care of your children, but to be the parent you want to be, which sometimes makes you question yourself.”
Mersal tells us that “it appears that guilt may be the single feeling that unites all mothers, in spite of their differences.”
Many women’s choice for motherhood is based on a desire to reproduce love and have a family. Love, after all, is what mitigates this bumpy terrain between self-preservation and giving that makes up this special relationship between a mother and her child. “There are moments of pure joy, like nothing else I’ve lived before,” one woman said.
So, what is motherhood?
Nothing good ever came out of generalizations or the imposition of umbrella terms that often perpetuate violence against those who do not adopt or fit within the model. Therefore, why would I even attempt to define motherhood? It is the women’s experiences that count, I thought to myself.
“It took me so many years [after having my children] to comfortably say that I am a mom, and have a real description for it. I moved from being just me to bearing a huge burden that I often wished I could escape from. I think after nine years, I was able to say that I was a mother by choice,” Yasmine said.
Whether a woman chooses to act upon a desire to have a child, or decides to give it a try, or has more calculated reasons — be they selfless or selfish — behind her decision, chooses not to have kids at all, or chooses to adopt a child, the important thing is to have a choice. What is important, it seems, is to live this experience and speak about it without pressures to conform or be different, without the need to conjure up a clever reply when confronted with the question of why you made this choice.
*The real names of the women who participated in this conversation have been changed to protect their privacy.