Audio Chat: Bridging The Motherhood Divide

A non-mother and a mother discuss birthrate panic, friendships across parenting lines, and that Liz Bruenig op-ed.


This is the free edition of Rich Text, a newsletter by Claire Fallon and Emma Gray. Rich Text is a space for the indulgent and the incisive, for witty and wistful explorations of the cultural, the personal, and the political in both written and audio formats. If you like what you see and hear, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Rich Text is a reader-supported project — no ads or sponsors!

Last year, it seemed like everyone was predicting a pandemic baby boom; this year, it turned out to be a baby bust (maybe because, thanks to reliable and accessible birth control, it takes more to get even straight people pregnant than forcing them into lockdown with their partners for months on end).

Cue the media freakout. “Experts sound the alarm on declining birth rates among younger generations: ‘It's a crisis’,” blared a CBS headline. Time went with “Why the COVID-19 Baby Bust Is Bad for America.” Arguments swirled about the need for stronger benefits to encourage young people to start producing kids in order to replace the population, or, conversely, the oppressive nature of pro-natalist policies. Should everyone be pushed to have lots of kids? Should everyone, rather, be discouraged from it?

As a mom and a non-mom belonging to the fail-generation in question — those hapless millennials — we were both vaguely aghast by this discourse, which seemed to betray parents and non-parents alike. In our free time, we talk a lot about motherhood and the ways in which it’s both fetishized as a concept by our society (especially for white women) while actual mothers are left without the resources or support they need.

We talk about the ways in which a lower birth rate can be reflective of hard-won and valuable new freedoms for women, but also of a failure by our country to provide economic and healthcare benefits that would make having kids feasible for more people. We talk about how non-mothers are made to feel as if they’re simply mothers-in-waiting, or as if they’ve failed to achieve the pinnacle of female value and experience; we also talk about how once women become mothers, their material needs are ignored and their individual identities are viewed as disposable.

We also talk about how fraught it can be for women to talk with each other about the big question of motherhood from different experiences. Moms and non-moms are often set in opposition, resentful of the freedoms or plaudits offered to women who made the other choice, rather than being encouraged to connect across different experiences and find shared purpose in improving the lives of women who have kids — and their children — and the lives of women who don’t.

So we decided to have a talk about it! We unpack some of the discourse around the baby bust news cycle, look back at the Elizabeth Bruenig essay on early motherhood that fueled days of controversy back in May, and try to sort through our feelings about parenting, or not parenting, in a society that is hostile to parents and yet, at the same time, hostile to childfree people.

We hope you enjoy! (And let us know if there are other topics like this one that you’d like to see us discuss!)