The Motherhood Among Women in the Contemporary World

Feminist explanations for delayed fertility, valuing leisure associated with valuing motherhood for non-mothers

Motherhood is central to contemporary gendered expectations for women. The cultural expectation to bear and rear children is so strong that parenthood appears normative and childlessness deviant. The “naturalness” of wanting and enjoying motherhood has been explored and challenged by several mother who show the force about motherhood among women in the contemporary world gendered expectations that conflate motherhood and femininity.

The cultural tensions between valuing motherhood success and valuing work success have been characterized as “competing devotions”, and largely anecdotal accounts of lower rates of motherhood among highly-successful career women add weight to the idea that women seeking careers must make choices between devotion to family and devotion to career.

But does this mean that women who think motherhood is important do not value work success, and/or that women who value work success do not think that motherhood is important? Our goal is to contribute to motherhood among women in the contemporary world by assessing whether there is in fact a difference in the importance of motherhood between mothers and non-mothers, and why this difference might exist.

In particular, we assess the distribution of attitudes about the importance of motherhood among reproductive-age mothers and non-mothers, and explore the fruitfulness of various perspectives for explaining the distribution. Ultimately our findings challenge the thinking that motherhood inherently competes with work and reinforce efforts to restructure gendered organizations, institutions, policies, and families to facilitate better work-life integration.

Rational Choice/Economic Approaches:

We include the rational choice perspective to understanding the motherhood among women in the contemporary world because it is common in research on fertility behaviour, where it is applied to understand and predict childbearing. It is important to recognize, however, that rational choice theories have been criticized by gender scholars for under-theorizing gender as a relevant social-structural constraint on behaviour, and overemphasizing free choice. Demographers also recognize that economically-focused perspectives such as rational choice can downplay intangible rewards, such as emotional bonds and pleasure from children and hence underestimate the value of children relative to other costs and benefits. 

Because more educated women have greater economic opportunities and more alternative sources of self-esteem than less-educated women, the rational choice perspective suggests that level of education will be inversely related to the importance of motherhood. There is empirical evidence that the motherhood wage penalty increases with education level, and that higher education is associated with lower valuing of children and higher odds of being voluntarily childfree. Average fertility rates are higher for Black women than white women in the United States, but this is largely a function of educational attainment; higher education is associated with delayed and lower fertility for both Black and white American women.

Culture and Identity Approaches:

Religious and gender ideologies are both vital cultural factors that are likely to influence the importance of motherhood. Because many religions embrace pronatalist ideals, we expect motherhood to be more important to more religious women. There is evidence that higher religiosity is associated with less acceptance of childlessness. We also expect that women who have more egalitarian gender expectations will place less motherhood among women in the contemporary world because more egalitarian women are more accepting of childlessness.

Race and ethnicity have long been central to research on childlessness and intentions to remain childless. No single picture emerges from this research, however. There is evidence that white women are more likely to postpone childbearing and to express the intention to remain childless than black women.

Life-course/Situational Approaches:

A life-course approach to explaining variations in the importance of motherhood suggests that when life circumstances change, perceptions of motherhood change as well. As age is an important marker of changes in life circumstances, it should be associated with valuing motherhood. Older women, who came of age in a different, more conservative, generation, have more negative attitudes toward childlessness. We might expect that older women will place more motherhood among women in the contemporary world than younger women, however, provides evidence that more life experience should lower the importance of motherhood for older women, who have encountered the difficulties of combining work and motherhood.

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