By Jenny Enos
Whether, when and even how to have children are increasingly complex questions facing women today. On the one hand, the resurgent abortion debate and restrictive legislation in many US states could mean forced motherhood for those who do get pregnant; on the other hand, both cultural and financial pressures on motherhood are weakening. For the first time in history, there are now more women than men in the college-educated workforce, which means fewer women are staying at home, and our culture increasingly sees motherhood as an option rather than an opportunity. expectations.
In addition to greater financial and cultural freedom, affordable contraception also allowed women to be more deliberate about whether and when they wanted to have children than before. in 2018 approximately 65% of US women of reproductive age (ages 15-49) used some form of contraception, and there were no significant differences by education level. Whether they’re high school dropouts or PhD holders, they all have one thing in common – most of them are taking active steps to control their fertility. These efforts have also been successful: the number of unintended pregnancies has decreased significantly over the past two decades.
As the sociological imagination invites us to explore, these larger social forces have a real impact on the decisions women make about motherhood. Since the mid-2000s, women have become much less likely to have children before the age of 30 and are increasingly waiting until their 30s or 40s to have their first child. While these trends are positive as women can make more informed choices about when to start a family, they may also face some challenges. For example, if more women chose not to have children, we’d end up with a host of economic problems: Without a large enough labor force to support an aging population, social safety nets like Social Security and Medicare could become underfunded.
Another challenge that comes with greater control over women’s fertility is the practicality of getting pregnant when they decide they are ready. In an article published last year Sociological forumEliza Brown interviews heterosexual women who are trying to conceive about the work they put into getting pregnant.
Brown believes that contrary to the “romantic” cultural ideals of what sex between partners should be, women are having sex with their partner for the sole purpose of getting pregnant, which is another stressful full-time job. Because they don’t want to wait to get pregnant “spontaneously” or have struggled with fertility, they need to carefully plan the best time for intercourse to increase their chances of getting pregnant. Women reported feeling emotionally exhausted and drained by the process, especially as they struggled to keep their partners excited and engaged, fulfilling their desire and interest in being intimate beyond conception.
In this new era where women are more in control of their fertility, pregnancy planning is another way in which the sociological concept of “emotional labor” manifests itself for women. Originally coined by Arlie Hochschild, the term refers to work that “needs to evoke or suppress feelings in order to maintain an outward face that creates the right state of mind for others” (20). Hochschild said that women do much more emotional labor than men, both in their personal and professional lives. From an early age, women are taught to set an emotional tone in interpersonal settings and to display caring emotion in acceptable and “thoughtful” ways. In the case of pregnancy planning, Brown says women are forced not only to monitor their bodies (constantly checking for signs of ovulation), but also to do this emotional work with their partners: they have to those who want intercourse, not just to get pregnant, so that the ideal of romantic marriage remains intact. So while it seems increasingly possible for women to “have it all”—that is, a career and a family on their own terms and on their own timeline—this research shows that all of this can also come at an emotional and mental cost. .
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