Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Q&A with Peggy O'Donnell Heffington




Peggy O'Donnell Heffington is the author of the new book Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is an instructional professor of history at the University of Chicago.


Q: You write, “The fact that we lack good terms for a life lived without children...is part of why I wrote this book in the first place.” Can you say more about that, and about the inspiration behind your writing Without Children?


A: Of course! I can trace the origins of the book back to my personal experience of moving from Berkeley, California, where I had just finished my Ph.D., to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where I had a postdoctoral fellowship.


I was 29 at the time, and I really didn’t know anyone who was thinking seriously about having kids anytime soon. Children seemed like a luxury–in time, money, and emotional resources–that I couldn’t imagine most of us could possibly afford.


But then West Point was, as one colleague put it to me, “one huge toddler birthday party.” Women my age had two, three kids. I remember thinking, “I didn’t know anyone did this anymore.”


This contrast got me thinking about the material, financial, and societal circumstances that make it possible for people to parent–and, conversely, the ones that make it impossible.


I realized that this didn’t really fit with how we normally talk about having children or not: as a choice, as a thing individuals opt into or out of consciously and freely. We think people without kids just didn’t want them, so they didn’t have them. But for a lot of women without children, it wasn’t that simple.


For many of us–certainly for myself–non-motherhood was arrived at slowly, indirectly, through a series of decisions that seemed like they had very little to do with reproduction: moving far from family and other community networks, the pressure to save for a house or for retirement, pay off student loans, work around the clock to get a career off the ground, find the right partner, set up a sustainable life in a society that provides little support for that project.


I wanted to write a book that captured the complexity of the reasons women end up not having children–and, as a historian, I wanted to show that women without children are not the historical anomaly popular perception would have us believe. There have always been women without children, and their reasons have always been complicated and constrained by the circumstances of their lives.


Maybe most surprisingly, as I try to show, their reasons weren’t all that different from our own. The big difference is that modern life and the society we’ve built are making those constraints more difficult to overcome–making it harder than ever to have kids, even for those who might otherwise have done so.


Q: The author Kate Manne said of the book, “At once bracing and beautiful, Without Children is a timely meditation on all of the reasons why women increasingly can’t, don’t, or won’t have children—along with the social penalties they pay, the freedoms they garner, and the feminist solidarity that we can all build together, whether we have children or not.” What do you think of that description, particularly the idea of building feminist solidarity?


A: First, I’m so grateful–and a little starstruck–to have Kate’s lovely, generous words on the back of the book. And I’m even more grateful that she got what, to me, is the most important part of the book.


As I said above, I initially set out to write a book that discussed the complicated reasons women didn’t have children, in history and today.


The final piece of the book clicked into place for me when I realized that many of the reasons that make it difficult to parent today–lack of support, money, time, the increasing demands of work–are the same reasons many women give when they say they don’t plan to have children at all. I don’t actually think we’re as different as we’ve come to think.


And in researching the book, I quickly found that this idea that mothers and non-mothers are irreparably divided and different on some fundamental, identity level is a recent phenomenon. History gives us lots of examples of women raising children together, whether they were biological mothers or not. 


I think we’ve forgotten that history, and it’s to all of our detriment: moms are overwhelmed and feel alone against the world; non-mothers feel shut out of the project our society values most.


So, yes, my primary hope for the book is that, in reminding us of this past, it offers us a potential future characterized by that solidarity–solidarity that could offer mothers networks of support and involve non-mothers in raising the next generation.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Without Children is what historians would call a synthetic history, which means it’s based less on my own archival research and more on the work of many (many!) other historians.


In other words, it means I read a ton of books by historians working across a wide range of topics and fields, from economic and labor histories to medical histories of gynecology, infertility, and birth, histories of feminism and women’s lives, demographic, cultural, political, and environmental histories of the United States and Europe, and then drew them all together in a narrative that spans fields, geographies, and a pretty long time period.


I touched on it above, but the thing that surprised me most was how women without children sort of disappeared if you went one and a half or two centuries back in the American or Western European past–not so much because historians haven’t paid attention to them, but because the distinction between biological mothers and people who hadn’t given birth wasn’t nearly as stark.


Social motherhood was a huge part of life: children were passed from homes that had many children into homes that had few or none (and therefore had more resources to care for them); women without children of their own played critical roles in helping their sisters and neighbors raise their biological children.


I really had to rethink the whole book when I realized that childlessness as this marker of difference was actually relatively new.


Q: What impact did writing Without Children have on you, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: I say this in the conclusion, but the experience of writing the book–and especially writing the book through the COVID-19 pandemic, which was so hard on mothers in particular–really softened me. I had originally intended to write a history of women without children, mostly because I thought they deserved more credit and attention. I still do, of course!


But as I researched communities of women in the past, and as I watched parents around me struggle to parent with all of their support networks stripped away, I realized that what we needed was more community, not more division.


It’s made me want to be more generous in my own life, more involved in supportive ways with my friends, my community, and the children in it. It’s a work in progress, but I’m trying.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next book is still such a new project that I’m not sure I can say anything intelligent about it yet! But it’s related to the themes in Without Children–about women building community and caring for each other. And it will have a similar approach to connections between past and present: it draws on the past to illuminate the present, and uses the present to spark questions about the past.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only that I’m so grateful for this chance to talk about the book! Thank you!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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