I’m not a girl, not yet a mother: The married women’s pressure to please


As the Lunar New Year came, so did my Thai-Chinese family gatherings and the question that crops up every year: “So, when will you have a baby?”

Since societal expectations for women to eventually become mothers seem to exist in almost every culture, I assume this is a common question posed to married but childless women in their 30s. Watching as those planning to start a family become occupied with their motherhood preparation stage, those without plans possibly cannot help but feel pressured. Even at this age, many women are still undecided if they are ready for motherhood. And more than ever, a greater number do not know if they ever want to become one. The study by the Pew Research Center following the pandemic found that as many as 44% of adults aged 18 to 49 in the United States said they were “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to have children, a sharp 7% increase from the 37% in the pre-pandemic year 2018 survey.

Yet even with the trend of remaining child free spreading across Europe as well as Asian countries including Thailand, a YouGov survey notes how people still receive pushback from partners or older family members. This pressure can be especially tough on women since they have to be the ones who give birth.

Among the many perceptions of the choice of remaining child-free, being “selfish” is probably one of the most common labels. Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s Catholics, once suggested that not wanting a child is a form of selfishness – a denial of fatherhood and motherhood that takes away our humanity. Ouch.

In many cultures worldwide, women still live with this fear of being judged on what they wish or decide to do with their lives and bodies. Going against the “good girl” norm can more or less get you shamed and stigmatized.

Last week, when my female French tutor casually asked me how my day was going, I asked her how I should translate the response that I felt a little under the weather because I was having my period. Despite being a native French speaker, she took some time to think before constructing the sentence, so I sensed that there might be something more to it. She later explained that discussing menstruation is quite a taboo subject in French culture, and women are told to keep quiet about it. Therefore, she was not sure how to translate this conversationally in her language.

This reminded me of 20 years ago when I first came to the United States as an exchange student and asked my host mom to help me buy some sanitary pads. I still remember how sweet she was to say she would keep it a secret because there were two boys (my host brothers) in the house and she thought I could be embarrassed if anyone knew.

In my conservative Thai culture, I grew up learning we need to keep girls’ topics like this private, but little did I know that was expected in what I had heard was a liberal country like America or again two decades later, in one of the topmost feminist countries like France. A study shows that worldwide, women these days are still reluctant to talk openly about something as natural as women’s periods for fear of being judged by others as “unrefined” or “improper”. But that is not only an issue in itself, this fear of being judged goes to show how much we have to carry the load of “behaving to please”.

Moving on to marriage, there is this additional idea of becoming an even more refined woman with the superpower to please. In today’s age, women are taught the modern value of excelling at their education and having careers outside the house. Yet, to comply with the norm of a picture-perfect society, it is also assumed that women take the nurturing roles of caretaking wives and sacrificing mothers.

So, when I first needed to move as a “trailing spouse” to follow my husband who works abroad and compromise my career in Thailand, I was not quite sure what to think. Will people look down on me? Will I become too dependent? But I decided I wanted to give this aspect of life my best. Then when I can balance things a little better, there comes this repeated question of “when” (instead of “whether”) I will have a baby. There are endless things that society expects from us as women.

Deciding to be childfree seems easier than in the past, but still not without pressure from certain traditions. I still find people asking me to justify my decision. Recently, though, I have come to realise that I do not need to explain the reasons to everyone. But I still want to debunk the “selfish” label, because many of my female friends who made the child-free choice do not just think about themselves at all.

Women decide not to have children for a variety of reasons. Some because they want to take care of their sick family members. Some because they see the growing world environmental problems and do not want to see their future children suffer. Some do not want to see children get sick or sad, which they certainly will at some point in life. For myself, I am fortunate enough to say life is beautiful most of the time. Yet, to me, life is still far from always rosy. However resilient one can learn to be, growing up means going through a lot in life, struggling, and constantly figuring out who you are and where you should be in the world. I have witnessed how not all of us are lucky, and finding a place in this world may not be for everyone.

But women also decide to have kids for various great reasons as well. Some sacrifice so much in hopes of creating a life that will make this world a better place. Others have kids because they want to give children their best. I salute all the mothers with all my heart, and would never question their choices.

As women, many of us have been through so much societal pressure and expectations – be it the way we speak, the way we dress, or the judgment of beauty standards. Surely, there is already enough stress to face each day in your life? There are plenty of days when women wonder if they are pretty enough, slim enough, good enough, or have done enough to please society. There should be no constant questions and judgment.

I still remember walking out of a movie theatre after watching “Barbie” and this quote playing on a loop in my head,

“"It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we always have to be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong. We have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin – you have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can't ask for money because that's crass. You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. You have to lead, but you can't squash other people's ideas. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people.

You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard. It's too contradictory.

I'm tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us”

— Gloria (America Ferrera)”

Writing this, I can only hope women will be respected in whatever decisions they have made in their bodies and their life choices—whether that meaning being single, married, divorced, a mom, or not a mom. I can’t wait to see us helping one another rise above being judged, having to please, and never, ever having to constantly explain ourselves time and again.