At Bay Area Book Festival’s ‘On Not Mothering,’ talk of freedom, lack of direction

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As a woman, choosing not to become a mother is still considered taboo, and each of the panelists present at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza’s Crystal Ballroom on Sunday for the “On Not Mothering” panel had a lot to say about this. As panelist and author Sheila Heti said half-jokingly, “If men were the ones giving birth, this topic would be the center of all philosophical debate.” The panelists noted a lack of public discourse around this subject matter, which makes their breaking of that silence all the more powerful. Choosing whether or not to have children, the panelists noted, is one of the most consequential decisions a woman has to make.

The selected works of panelists Grace Talusan (“The Body Papers”) and Emilie Pine (“Notes to Self”) are both nonfiction, dealing with the difficult emotions of having to give up the possibility of being a mother. Navigating the world as a child-free woman, Talusan and Pine affirmed, can be immensely difficult when a woman’s value is so closely tied to her fertility.

Heti also discusses mothering in her aptly titled novel, “Motherhood.” Her book tackles the complex emotions that come with this significant decision in a woman’s life. During the panel, she noted that in most novels, women have children as if there is no other option — and for many women, that lack of choice has been and continues to be a truth.

The panelists each discussed how the idea of not mothering is something that newer generations increasingly have to deal with. Until recently, women have not had to put much thought into the idea of having children because not mothering was even more of a taboo and because birth control options were scarce. With today’s advancements in contraceptives and diversion away from traditional gender roles, not mothering increasingly needs to be a topic of discussion.

All three panelists agreed that, as a woman living a child-free life, there is no path or guide to follow; it can be hard to resist feeling completely aimless. When a woman decides to not be a mother, she loses milestones in her life that she would experience were she to raise a child.

At the end of the talk, the panelists discussed the silver lining of not mothering: the freedom. Each of the panelists said the freedom to use one’s time as one wishes is often vastly underestimated. They also pointed out that there is freedom to mother in other ways, such as being more involved in the lives of nieces and nephews or friends’ kids.

As was demonstrated resoundingly at the “On Not Mothering” panel, not mothering does not have to be limiting — indeed, it can be quite liberating.

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].