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Society & Culture

Women Who Don't Want Babies

January 3, 2014
Sahar Bayati
7 min read
Women Who Don't Want Babies
Women Who Don't Want Babies

Women Who Don't Want Babies

“Can you imagine me being pregnant for nine months?” asks Mahsheed, a 30-year-old woman who works as an emergency worker for the Iranian Red Crescent Society. Life in such a profession has been tough, but there's something she's absolutely sure about: she does not want to have any children.

“I've worked side by side with male emergency workers on many missions,” she says. “How could I go out on a mission if I had a child? How could I pay attention to my job like before? The thought of the child that I'd left at home would always preoccupy me.”

Despite the myriad difficulties Iranian women face holding public positions in the workforce, their presence across virtually every sector in Iranian society has long been a reality. But increasingly many Iranian women say their careers are becoming more important to them than motherhood. Women like Mahsheed, whose jobs are demanding, adrenaline-charged, and have required years of training, the transition to the staid pace often required of working mothers in Iran is not an option. “With children, I could be prevented from going on challenging missions for years,” she says.

Mahsheed describes colleagues in the same field whose organizations tranferred them to desk jobs after returning from maternity leave. While Iranian society is open enough to women working in such traditionally male sectors, the willingness to accommodate working mothers in such professions is lagging behind. “I cannot imagine myself out of the field, bound to a desk,” she says.

Although Iranian cultural mores have shifted significantly in recent decades, responding to social and economic shifts that have seen women become breadwinners and attain higher education in impressive numbers, society still views motherhood as a crucial part of women's identity. What seems to be changing today, however, is that more and more Iranian women are shunning this traditional expectation altogether, pushing back against the adage that “paradise lies at the feet of mothers.”

A recent study by the Iranian Sociological Association (ISA) found that 60 percent of Iran's present young generation, defined as women who are today in their 20s and early 30s, say they are not interested in having children. A substantial reported that they were undecided, while only five percent said unequivocally that they wanted children. The reasons women most frequently cited were the lack of means and resources available to bring up children properly, challenges balancing work and family, and simple lifestyle preference.

While the government frets of a birthrate that falls just under 2 children per family, it appears that Iranian young people are contemplating an even more dramatic phenomenon no-child policy.

A Tale of Three Generations

This seismic shift has taken place across three generations, according to a member of the Iranian Sociological Association (ISA). “The first generation has a mythical view of motherhood,” she told the newspaper Ghanoon. “They think that when a woman becomes a mother then she has to retreat from all other activities of her life, forget about her own needs and spend all her care and energy on being a mother.” The second generation, she said, still “believes in the motherhood myth, but also believes that they must both be mothers and work outside of home.” The third generation includes young women who regard motherhood dispassionately as a social role that will only undertake if the conditions society offers are acceptable.

Driving this change in outlook, says Simin Saeedi, an Iran-based psychologist, is the higher level of education and social awareness among third-generation women. “For these women, motherhood is no longer a duty or a mythology,” she says. “They know that the birth of every child would put very serious and grave responsibilities on their shoulders. They no longer believe in the adage that ‘He who provides the teeth shall provide the bread.’ They no longer view motherhood as the their only social duty or effective role.”

With access to higher education having expanded for women for over two decades, women in their 20s to 40s with college degrees have had access to jobs in the marketplace in a manner unprecedented in Iranian society. These women play a major role in their household economies, and economic reasons are one of the key factors that that discourage them from having children.

Another factor, Saeedi points out, is the rising age at which women typically marry these days. “Making prudent and carefully planned decisions is a hallmark of the middle age, which is when more marriages occur now,” she says. “Today women are getting married in their 30s or even later, and we must accept that caution and evaluating decisions is a natural thing at that age.”

Laptops & iPads

Women who cite economic challenges aren't concerned about basic sustenance, but quality of life issues and difficulty in managing children's modern expectations with household budgets. Leila, a young woman in Tehran in her 30s, says lifestyle and budget reasons are the only thing preventing her from becoming a mother. “My spouse and I decided that we cannot afford a child after current expenses are paid.”

 “Kids aren't entertained anymore with a simple plastic ball,” she says. “Now a primary-school child learns to work with laptops and iPads.” In her view, having a child for one's own satisfaction is enormously selfish, when that child would be forced to grow up feeling the strain of inadequate opportunity and material comfort.

There are also women who point to Iran's decayed social conditions, its alarmingly high rates of drug abuse and prostitution, as serious disincentives to having children. “I'm afraid of having children,” says Beeta, 34, who has been married for the past two years. “I can control my child up to certain age, but after that the society controls them more. Nowadays drug abuse is a kind of entertainment for the youth. We are not like our mothers who were clueless when they married and had a child within a year or two.”

No Longer Clueless

Third generation women play active roles in the society and are no longer clueless. They read the news and have a wider circle of contacts. They are no longer housewives but participants in the society—a society that many believe is no longer healthy. “The more the Iranian society has become a closed society, the more destructive and corrupt events has taken place under its cloak. There was a time when a child would not sit spread-legs in front of parents. Now every 3-year-old is a full-fledged dictator,” says Beeta. “In today’s society, it takes a lot of courage to accept the responsibility of becoming a mother.”

Many couples, psychologist Saeedi says, come to consult her with her about such fears and worries. “Marrying later means that many couples today have been single for years and seen and done a great deal. They've been going to parties for years, gone on trips, been on all kinds of get- togethers. The've been to the brink and back, and it's only natural that they're more sensitive to the current social climate and find it more disturbing.”

With Iran's economy flailing and the country's international standing eroded by sanctions, couples find they lack even basic financial stability and access to foreign travel and medications. This sense of chaos, Saeedi says, contributes to women's reluctance to have children. Old beliefs have lost of their persuasive powers, and many women say they are not interested in having children until they feel that their daily lives are more stable. A currency that goes into free-fall overnight, a sudden inability to travel or afford the basic staples of middle-class life, are especially alarming to prospective parents.

While a sophisticated confluence of reasons are behind this dramatic shift in Iranian society, what's clear is that younger generations now consider the family sphere entirely private, and the decision to have children a personal one.

With women managing households and paying bills alongside husbands, they are now essential partners in life with greater responsibilities and commensurately more say. All of this has convinced many women to renounce the role of a mother who walks on paradise. These days, walking on solid ground is more important.