Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Women and the Global Imagination: Fear of the Barren Womb

by Rachael Hanel

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Rachael Hanel explores the hyper-critical obsession with motherhood that exists in our modern media landscape. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Fear of the Barren Womb

At the bookstore, I stopped in front of a table to leaf through The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, the graceful cool of the cover drawing me in on a hot day. A child built out of snow who comes alive to bring joy to a childless couple. Clever concept, I thought. A few weeks later, I read a review of The Light Between Oceans. In this novel by M.L. Stedman, a child washes up onto shore to bring joy to a childless couple. Then, at the movie theater, The Odd Life of Timothy Green was showing. Finish this sentence: “A child grows out of a garden to…”

I teach an introductory mass media course at a local university, where I tell students that media content doesn’t just “happen.” All media messages, in some way, reflect our society. The media not only tap into our collective hopes and dreams, but more often, our fears. Fear of the Soviets during the Cold War launched a tide of foreign invader films featuring zombies and aliens. Fear that the U.S. had lost its military prowess in Vietnam led to the Rambo franchise, in which a renegade Vietnam vet single handedly defeated the enemy to correct an entire country’s failure. And now we’ve circled back to zombies, those undead who rip apart bodies in gruesome ways, much as polarized political ideologies threaten to rip apart our society.

So it’s not surprising the modern-day fairy tale stories of children appearing out of nowhere are based upon fear, too—fears directed toward women. Fears women have about being mothers, or more precisely, fears about not ever being a mother.

We love to examine every minutiae of motherhood, view it from every possible angle for flaws, weaknesses, cracks. We tell mothers they’re doing too much, or that they’re not doing enough. They’re working too hard, or they’re not working enough. Their partners are too involved, or their partners are not involved enough. Even the most confident mother is susceptible to “mommy-wars” battle fatigue.

Despite this hyper-critical attention focused on motherhood, this does not deter the women in today’s fairy-tale stories. They still strongly desire children. They want to play the game, too, not watch from the sidelines. After all, no one wants to be left out. They fear they might be left behind and not given a key to the mommy club.

These stories dredge up fears of centuries past. A barren womb was a curse. Traditionally, women were blamed for the failure to produce children, even though it could have very well been their man’s fault. Throughout the course of history, childless women were hanged, ousted from the community, set on fire. They were forced to drink tonics of blood, urine, or catnip.

Today’s narratives play into the stereotype that non-mothers are unfulfilled, that they must all have unmet dreams and wishes. Women without children are confronted with ever-present fears of inadequacy. Am I a complete woman without children? If I don’t want children, will I be ostracized? If I’m sterile, am I useless to society? Even with world population hovering around seven billion, there’s still intense pressure for women to reproduce.

We’ve put away the chalices of blood and urine, thank God. But instead of bodily fluids and strange herbs, we feed women stories from the likes of Ivey and Stedman. If you can’t, or won’t, produce a child, something’s wrong with you, the stories whisper. You must find a way, any way, even if you have to take a child that is not really yours or conjure one out of snow or soil.

I may be more sensitive than most. I’m 40 years old and childless by choice. I married at 19, but even then I knew that motherhood was not for me. If this choice were accepted by the larger society, I wouldn’t have had to answer the same question year after year, often from strangers who feel they have a right to know my reproductive business: Why don’t you have children? I’ve long grown weary of the quizzical looks and the awkward silences I get when I say it’s my choice, that I don’t desire children. Instead, people assume there’s something wrong with me, whether it’s a barren womb or a mental defect.

Where are the books and movies that tell young women it’s OK to forego children, that it’s OK to run counter to society’s expectations? How many women have conformed to the media “ideal” of motherhood even if they haven’t felt it in their hearts?

Today’s stories keep the fear of the barren womb alive. The fear looms large, just as aliens and zombies loomed large in the 1950s, just as Rambo’s ripped physique loomed before us in the 1980s. Maybe this, too, is a trend that eventually will recede, but I doubt it. Fears of the barren womb have existed since the days of Rachel and Leah in the Bible. There’s no reason to believe it’s going to stop now.

Rachael Hanel is a writer and teacher in Mankato, Minnesota. Her book, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2013.