Essay: Unmothering

Arabic version of Unmothering.

I am childfree by choice. 

My paternal grandmother had eight children. My maternal grandmother had 11 children (she was pregnant 14 times). My mother is the eldest of those children and she has three children of her own. I am the eldest of those children and I am glad to have none of my own. 

It is still a taboo to say that. 

I vowed to myself at 16 that I would never allow myself to be in a situation that I could not walk away from. The year before, my family had moved to Saudi Arabia where, as soon as we moved there, I felt like I had been sentenced to a lifetime in prison. There, I was traumatized into feminism. There, I promised myself that I would always be free enough to be  able to walk away anytime because being in Saudi Arabia was so suffocating and stifling. Without actually saying “I’m never going to have children” -- without thinking about children at all -- I had already vowed to myself not to have children.

At around the age of 17, I was having nightmares that I married the wrong man so I thought this marriage thing is not for me. My parents never pressured me to marry. My aunts and uncles in Egypt though! Soon after I moved back to Egypt when I was 21, they began lining up husbands for me. They tried everything.

“Mona, he owns five buildings. He has so much money.” I don’t want money, I would tell them.

“Mona, he’s going to take you around the world.” I’m going to take myself around the world, I would say.

“Mona, he’s going to buy you all the jewelry you want.” Every piece of jewelry I’m wearing right now, I bought myself.

Without actually saying “I’m never going to have children” -- without thinking about children at all -- I had already vowed to myself not to have children.

I had a boyfriend in Egypt and we were very much in love. One day, he told me he had just seen a little girl on a bus that day who looked like she could be our daughter and he asked me to marry him and I said yes. Two weeks later, I was having panic attacks. Sixteen-year-old Mona was ringing the alarm. “Hello! You fucking promised me!” 

That proposal-yes, I’ll marry you-Mona has a panic attack and then takes it back happened two more times. Then he dumped me because, he said, “You’re never going to marry me and I want to get married and have children.”

Two years later, I fell in love with an American and in the biggest mistake of my life married him. Seventeen-year-old Mona to 33-year-old Mona: “Are you fucking kidding me?!” I left him two years later.

If marrying him was the biggest mistake of my life, not having children with him was the biggest relief of my life. If at age 16 my vow to not have children had been unspoken, it was loud and clear when I was 35 and newly divorced. You can walk away from a marriage and I did. You can fly away from your family and your country of birth and I have. But you can’t walk away from children. I want to be free.

A couple of years after my divorce, my mum asked me “Are you happy like this, with no children?” And I said I was. 

When I started saying in public lectures that I was childfree by choice, women would track me down in a corridor, backstage, or in the bathroom to whisper “Thank you. I have never heard another woman say that out loud before.”

Most books/essays I have seen about being childfree by choice are written by white cis women. We need to hear from more women of colour and women from different cultural and faith backgrounds as well as trans men and non-binary people who choose to be childfree. I have my own book planned.

You can walk away from a marriage and I did. You can fly away from your family and your country of birth and I have. But you can’t walk away from children. I want to be free.

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When I was growing up, and mostly still the case, Egyptian women were expected to wait until they got married to have sex and to get pregnant as soon as they got married. When I was growing up, a maternal and a paternal aunt could not get pregnant and I remember what a struggle it was for them. They were the only examples of childfree women I knew and it was not by choice for either one of them and I know it was difficult.

I am the first grandchild on either side of the family. And I am the first of those grandchildren who is childfree by choice. I hope my choice has provided an alternative for my cousins.

I am happy with the life I have created. I have never wondered what it would have been like to have children. I say that because we often hear “you’ll regret it when it’s too late.” Well, here I am on the other side -- it is “too late” -- and I am here to say: I do not regret it. 

What would the freedom to choose, for all, look like?

I know--from friends and women in my social circle of Muslim women and women from the Middle East--that a growing number of women are having/trying to have children outside the “acceptable” i.e. marriage to a man. They include: women who are not married, women who are lesbian or bisexual, women who marry a friend or agree to co-parent with a friend so that they can have a child. 

Such arrangements are still taboo that an Egyptian TV presenter was sentenced to three years in jail in 2017 for daring to talk about ways to become pregnant outside of conventional marriage on her show.

It is also taboo to say I own my body and that you will not enlist my womb for capitalism. You will be called “deficient” and “incomplete.” And sometimes the patriarchy will say the quiet part out loud--HAVE BABIES FOR THE ECONOMY--while ignoring what many who do indeed want to have babies have long been saying out loud—YOUR ECONOMIC POLICIES HAVE MADE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR US TO HAVE BABIES TO BOOST AN ECONOMY THAT BENEFITS VERY FEW OF US. We are more than walking wombs for capitalist patriarchy.

That drive to draft wombs into the service of producing workers is especially sharp in the United States of America and China, each vying for global leadership and each reeling from population decline and plummeting birth rates. Notably, it is the decline in white babies in the United States and Han Chinese babies in China especially that worry the powers that be. We are more than walking incubators for ethno-supremacist patriarchy.

In China, feminists who refuse to offer up their wombs to the patriarchy are punished for it. So threatening is the rejection of heterosexual sex, marriage, and child-rearing—an idea known as 6B4T, which originated from South Korea’s radical feminism movement—that feminist groups espousing it were abruptly kicked offline.

I have never wondered what it would have been like to have children. I say that because we often hear “you’ll regret it when it’s too late.” Well, here I am on the other side -- it is “too late” -- and I am here to say: I do not regret it. 

I wonder if I am my ancestor’s wildest dream or wildest nightmare. I am 53, divorced, queer, polyamorous, and childfree by choice. I am determined to become the wild ancestor for future generations that I have always wanted to have. Can you be an ancestor if you are childfree by choice? Can you celebrate your childfree descendants, when you yourself are childfree?

I am on a mission to find the ancestors who would celebrate me.

My family name--Eltahawy--can be traced back 12 generations. It is somewhat of a family badge of honour to recite the names all the way 12 generations back to that patriarch Eltahawy. The names are all men’s. 

I want to find out the 12 generations of women’s names that connect us. I want to know who that matriarch was 12 generations ago. Who was my ancestor who first bore this family line? Who are my foremothers? I want to know and honour those women.

I can start with these women who were alive when I was born:

- Nazira, my paternal grandmother

- Na’ima, my maternal grandmother

- Amina, my maternal great-grandmother

I am Mona daughter of Ragaa daughter of Na’ima daughter of Amina. Now to do that with nine generations of women on my mother’s side. And on my dad’s.

Who are you the daughter of? Who are your foremothers? Who is your mother? And her mother? And her grandmother? Do you know the name of your great grandmother’s mother? How far back can you go with your foremothers’ first names?

When I asked those questions on Twitter in 2019, the responses created one of the most beautiful and powerful streams of responses I have ever seen. It was like standing in a hall together calling the names of our ancestral mothers, invoking them, honouring them.

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If I had a child, it would be a daughter so that I could tell her about my lovers. She would hate it, I am sure. But we would slay shame and taboos and I would kick her out into the world with the exhortation: LIVE. 

So, because I am childfree by choice, I will instead tell my unmothered daughter about my lovers and we would slay shame and taboos in a book I am writing: Feminist Giant’s Guide To Losing Your Virginity. 

If I had a daughter, I would have taught her to disobey everything I taught her. I wrote this poem for her.

To My Unborn Daughter

I would not have known how to love you.

I would have taught you to be too big to be a wife.

I would have taught you to disobey everything I taught you.

What could I teach you when I’m still unlearning everything I was taught?

The revolution came too late for you, my love;

I fight for your unborn daughter.

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Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. It is now available in Ireland and the UK. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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