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Book on childless women a problematic beacon of hope

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Melanie Notkin, the brains behind the lifestyle brand Savvy Auntie and a frequent Huffington Post contributor, wanted to explore "the place between motherhood and choosing not to be a mother." At 43, Notkin longs to be a mom, but hasn't found the right partner to take that step with. For her, love and commitment are essential parts of the equation.

Notkin wanted to connect with other women like her -- successful, independent, intelligent women for whom marriage and babies were always part of the plan, and yet, for whatever reason, it hasn't happened for them. Maybe it won't happen, and maybe that's OK.

Part memoir, part reportage and part anecdotal storytelling, Notkin's second book, Otherhood, certainly goes to bat for women who near the end of their fertility and with a hunger for kids. It reads like a series of frank, uncensored vent sessions among single girlfriends rightly frustrated by constant unsolicited, wildly inappropriate, tick-tock baby-making "advice" -- "Have you frozen your eggs?" "Why don't you just have a baby on your own?" "Maybe you'd find someone if you weren't so picky," and, "If you really wanted to be a mother you'd be one."

They wonder why, as single women refusing to settle, they are "scrutinized so unsympathetically, harassed for sticking by our convictions and invalidated as just plain less than everyone else." Fair. Notkin points out nearly half of North American women of child-bearing age don't have kids -- up from 35 per cent in 1976 -- and yet are still perceived as the exception, not the norm.

We live in a society that venerates motherhood, but a certain kind of motherhood, the kind that includes two married (or at least seriously committed) parents and means, the kind Notkin and her friends are longing for.

Notkin may feel scrutinized and harassed, but so does the pregnant single mom struggling to support the two kids she already has. Motherhood is not, in fact, always a lauded choice in our society: look no further than the cultural narratives surrounding "welfare queens," "teen moms" and "Octo-mom."

Otherhood makes great points about the way in which older single women are treated by society (not great), but comes from such a place of almost comically un-self-aware privilege that readers who aren't a part of Notkin's Manhattan-dwelling circle of impeccably dressed, beautiful, highly successful women able to choose IVF and egg freezing will feel alienated.

The book is repetitive -- Notkin really, really wants you to know she's not childless by choice. After a while Otherhood starts to read like a protracted version of the Sex and the City scene in which Charlotte screams at Miranda, "I choose my choice! I choose my choice!"

Except Notkin didn't choose her choice; she's grappling with circumstance. There's nothing wrong with Notkin expressing her grief and connecting with like-minded women -- that's her truth and it's the point of the book -- but by constantly reinforcing to the reader that she's not like those other women, she boxes out women for whom being child-free is indeed a legitimate choice.

In the book's introduction, Notkin writes about how women of the Otherhood are "chastised as if they've actively chosen their fate," taking aim at "delayer boom" -- the U.S. Census Bureau's catchphrase for the trend of women having their first born at a later age. Pop culture, she argues, portrays older women as being naive about their fertility and belittled in the media for being "too picky." Notkin's arguments ring true, but the problem lies in her wording. "All this further supports the assumption that our childlessness is something we've either chosen or, even worse, deserve," she writes. The qualifier "even worse" is telling, even if Notkin didn't mean it to be. Why being mistaken for being child-free by choice is so upsetting to her is worth exploring.

For many in Notkin's boat, Otherhood could still be a source of comfort and inspiration, particularly the interviews with women who have found ways to mother by being fabulous aunties to nieces and nephews, biological and otherwise.

Perhaps the book would have worked better as a memoir; the best chapters in the book are the ones in which she candidly describes her grief and her growth. Notkin, like the rest of us, is a work in progress. And despite its flaws, her book is obviously meant as a beacon of hope. After all, no one's life goes according to plan.


Jen Zoratti is an arts and life reporter at the Free Press and founder of the blog SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS: another feminist response to pop culture.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 8:45 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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