An Israeli sociologist says there are significant downsides when society limits women to certain roles or expectations, particularly if their aversion to having children is not respected, a theme tackled in her taboo-shattering book, "Regretting Motherhood."
"We must have the opportunity to decide whatever we want about our lives. There is no one certain way to be a woman. There is no one certain way to be a feminist," Orna Donath said in a recent interview with Kyodo News.
Donath said people must acknowledge the potential of "a spectrum of feminine identities," and also urged them to be more willing to listen to women who are unhappy about being a mother.
Her book, first published in Germany in 2016 and then in other countries including Japan in March 2022, details how 23 Jewish-Israeli women of different ages and financial statuses say they would not have gone down the path of motherhood if they had their time again.
"There is a universal expectation for women to become mothers," Donath said in the late February interview. "It seems still in 2023 that this is the main essence of women's lives and they need to do their job."
Part of the criticism of women who regret motherhood stems from the mistaken belief that they, therefore, do not love their children, she said.
Invalidating their feelings is "really cruel," she added. "As long as we don't talk about the possibility of regretting motherhood, we are not talking truth."
Her book also resonated with women who prefer to remain childless.
Donath has moderated groups of women for 10 weeks annually since 2015, giving them an opportunity to discuss their misgivings about becoming mothers.
Donath also hit out at subtle and overt messages from people who believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with women who regret having children or those who choose to be childless.
Childless women are "still being expected to prove that they have an essence in their lives," she said.
The sociologist knows there is a long, difficult road ahead on which traditional concepts about women will be reassessed. She recognizes that the relentless societal pressure toward certain ideals limits the panoply of "road maps" for women.
She believes the gender role division -- that of acting "like a woman" or "like a man" -- is also limiting women's options.
"Either you are a real woman and therefore you want to be a mother...(or) you don't want to be a mother then you have no option but to be like a man and have a career," she said, adding that societal pressure is "gaslighting" women.
Donath wants women to be free from being forced to constantly improve themselves and for them to be able to say, "I don't want to improve. I don't want to prove. I'm just not a mother, that's all, and I don't want to participate in this chase after ghosts."
Donath said it is helpful to be aware of how capitalism, the patriarchy and other systems affect society's expectations of women, and by doing so, one can protect one's identity from pressure to conform.
"History is not a linear process. We can also see it also in the United States about the laws against abortion," she said, speaking about the controversial recent roll-back of abortion rights in many U.S. states. "The rights that we have are not necessarily ours forever. It can go back and be worse."
Ultimately, her message is simple. "We are the owners of our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our dreams, our yearnings, our abilities."