Feminist Fridays: Motherhood as a Choice, Not a Duty

Motherhood is no longer the all-consuming, defining feature of modern women.

This post belongs to a series formerly known as “Frauenbild Fridays”, where I analyze German art song through a contemporary feminist lens. Click here to see the original post.

I have a lot to say about An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust, the seventh song in Frauenliebe und -leben,  but before I do, I want to be cautious. I am not a mother, and I have never been pregnant. My feelings about having children and watching people I know give birth to babies are complicated by my views on womanhood and resisting the bonds with which biology and culture have chained us.

Listen, I love babies. See? Sheer joy.

Technically, this is the only song in Frauenliebe und -leben that isn’t about a man. It’s about the baby our protagonist produces with her man and how she hadn’t felt joy until she had a child. Honestly, I have heard that it’s an experience unlike any other from both mothers and fathers, so I’m not going to discount that, I swear.

Luckily, we live in a country and time where most women have the freedom to choose whatever path they like, regardless of whether or not having children is involved.

That being said, there is still a cultural stigma against being a childless woman.

Here’s a list of questions and comments young men are simply not receiving:

  • When are you getting married?
  • Are you going to start having kids soon?
  • What do you mean you don’t want kids? I’m sure that will change as you get older.

Don’t forget the judgments if you are pregnant:

  • You’re breastfeeding, right?
  • What type of birth are you doing? 
  • You’re only supposed to gain a certain amount of weight.
  • Oh, that’s a very interesting name you’ve chosen.

People seem to forget that childbirth is inherently dangerous. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics branch of the CDC, approximately twenty maternal deaths occur in the United States as a direct result of pregnancy and childbirth per 100,000 births. This number is shocking- the USA has by far the highest maternal death rate in the developed world. For example, in Germany, maternal mortality hovers at around five deaths per 100,000 live births. There are various complicated reasons for the disturbingly elevated maternal death rate in the USA. Most are focused on issues of racism and accessibility of prenatal care, complicated by instances of intimate partner violence and the overall health of American women

Source: World Health Organization courtesy of Washington Post, 2015. Maternal death rate is currently on the rise in the US, so it’s actually higher than what this graph portrays.

It’s not all doom and gloom today– childbirth would have been much more dangerous for our dear Frauenbild in 1840. According to a study published by the National Institute of Health in London, between 1700 and 1935, approximately 5-29 per 1,000 women died in childbirth. This number was considerably higher in women unassisted by medical professionals. If we convert this back into our modern measurement, before the advent of modern healthcare, anywhere from 500 to 2900 women per 100,000 live births were dying in childbirth in London. Never mind that childrearing was the woman’s sole responsibility and birth control wasn’t an option– women just kept popping out babies until menopause or dying in childbirth. No thanks. Then, women had the heartbreaking experience of watching their kids die from a childhood illness. Thanks to vaccines, we no longer need to worry about this unless people keep neglecting to vaccinate their children

Childbirth in developing nations continues to endanger women. According to the World Health Organization, “Women in less developed countries have, on average, many more pregnancies than women in developed countries, and their lifetime risk of death due to pregnancy is higher. A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is the probability that a 15-year-old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause. In high-income countries, this is 1 in 5400, versus 1 in 45 in low-income countries.”1

I applaud and respect women who choose to embark on the fabulous journey of motherhood and hope to be among you someday. However, we need to acknowledge that pregnancy is inherently complex and dangerous and should only be undertaken at the desire of the pregnant person in question. 

I’m grateful that motherhood isn’t the all-consuming, defining feature of modern women. It is no longer a woman’s duty to birth babies, but rather a privilege and choice.

Some folks might think this tempo is a little frantic, but I think this piece is meant to be VIVACE! It’s just cuter this way. Deal with it. Barbara Bonney soprano | Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano.
Translation courtesy of Google Translate.

The aspect I appreciate most about this piece is its sheer, unadulterated joy. What makes my eyes roll toward the back of my head is the sentiment that motherhood is the only feeling that elicits such joy in women. Maybe if a female poet had written the piece, I would feel differently, but the idea that men were doing women a favor by occupying them with children is an old-fashioned view that I am glad has mostly gone by the wayside.

I find intense happiness when I get a coveted gig for which I auditioned. Elation rushes over my body when I receive positive feedback regarding my writing. I experience a boost in serotonin when friends laugh at my jokes or when my boyfriend tells me how much he loves me. Adrenaline floods through me at the top of a roller coaster and during the high note of a showstopping aria onstage. Love radiates through me as I hold a difficult yoga pose or taste delicious flavors prepared just for me. Joy comes to me in all places and times if I allow it to enter my life.

Many of my friends have started having babies. Meanwhile, I struggle with the inherent unfairness of women who want satisfaction both in career and family because women still bear the brunt of domestic duty, even in the healthiest relationships. Like Liz Lemon, many contemporary women want to “have it all.”

Where are my 30 Rock fans?

I want to enjoy what I have without expectation. That’s my hope for our Frauenbild and all of us.

Joy is breaking out into song and bathing in the applause. It’s the delight of positive feedback and laughter from a joke. Joy comes to me at the top of a roller coaster, and when I’m alone with the person I love. Happiness is a baby’s laugh or a satisfying workout. It finds me when the smells of my cooking fill the kitchen and when I’m sipping a cup of coffee. Joy is everywhere, it is me, and it is you. I live in happiness as a woman without expectations.


 1World Health Organization. (n.d.). Maternal mortality. World Health Organization. Retrieved December 16, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/maternal-mortality#:~:text=A%20woman’s%20lifetime%20risk%20of,45%20in%20low%20income%20countries.


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