cover image Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother

Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother

Peggy O’Donnell Heffington. Seal, $30 (256p) ISBN 978-1-5416-7557-5

Historian Heffington’s incisive debut examines how society demonizes women without children while increasingly failing to provide the supports that make it possible to raise kids sustainably. Noting that “births were down overall” during the Covid-19 pandemic, except for an uptick among middle- and upper-middle-class white women, Heffington posits that the choice to not have children is more “determined by economic pain, lack of support, and fear about the future” than is generally acknowledged. Discussions of the most frequently cited reasons, including work-life imbalance, infertility, and environmental concerns, feature profiles of Queen Elizabeth I, American ecologist Stephanie Mills, and others who embody each challenge. Throughout, Heffington describes how Western “marriage patterns” and the rise of the nuclear family “made it less likely people would—or could—create those families at all.” Ultimately, she concludes that in a society that doesn’t guarantee maternity leave or health insurance and a world that does not really need more people, giving birth as a default female obligation doesn’t make sense. Though women who make the choice to have children may find Heffington’s approach antagonistic, she effectively blends statistical data and personal histories to counter the notion that the issue is a purely modern one, and to shift the focus from individual preferences and challenges to systemic societal failures. This is a cogent and well-supported polemic. (Apr.)