Frisky Q&A: Melanie Notkin, Author Of The Otherhood, On Women Who Want Children But Don’t Have Them Yet

The Otherhood: a growing population of educated, professional women in their 30s and 40s who have yet to find love or start a family. In fact, statistics show that almost 50 percent of American women are childless — yet our society still isn’t quite sure how to treat these women, placing all sorts of assumptions and opinions on them without truly understanding their decisions.

Enter Melanie Notkin, the successful founder of Savvy Auntie and a vocal representation of this demographic. Melanie’s new book, Otherhood: Modern Women Finding A New Kind Of Happiness, is part memoir and part reflection, digging deep into world of these women and the challenges they face.

The Frisky: I have to admit, as somebody who met my husband at 18, got married at 25 and was pregnant at 26, you opened up my eyes to a whole other world. For the uninitiated, can you briefly explain what the Otherhood is?

Melanie Notkin: The women of the Otherhood are the daughters of feminism, those who expected to have the social, economic, and political equality our mothers were not born with but we also expected to have the husband and kids they did. But so many of us — among the most well educated, most financially independent — end up remaining single and childless as our fertile years wane.

One common misconception that you address in your book is that women who make it to their late 30s and 40s without getting married or starting a family have put off those things solely for their careers.

There are a number of misconceptions:

A) We’re so-called “career women” as if we choose to pay the rent over finding love, [but] there are no ‘career men.” Men are not assumed to have made a choice. And we all know that most married mothers work. Having a career and living to one’s potential through that career is not proof of eschewing love and marriage and motherhood.

And B) that we are “delayers.” It’s hard to find anything written about this cohort that doesn’t subjectively assume they are delaying motherhood. In fact the US Census had a recent report that called this gen the “delayer boom,” as if college-educated women banded together in a co-conspiracy to delay motherhood. We simply choose to be in a strong relationship — often marriage — before becoming mothers

Do you think that because women who decide to be child-free by choice are now more vocal/visible that the women of the Otherhood get lost in the mix somehow?

Yes, the Otherhood is the silent majority. There was a Gallup Poll from September 2013 — after my book was done — about how the desire among adults to have children has not changed since 1990. When they conducted a similar poll: 90 percent of adults of childbearing age (in this case through age 40) say they want to be parents: 50 percent are, 40 percent want to be and six percent are childfree by choice. The voice is louder but the data hasn’t changed. I want to make it clear that I 100 percent defend and support the choice not to have children. But I also defend and support those who do [want children] and are assumed not to want them.

I really appreciated the fact that you kept bringing up the double standard when it came to men and women regarding dating.

Yes. Women are looked at as desperate — and yet we want to find love, get married and have a baby with that man before it’s too late. What’s interesting is that men in their 40s begin to feel the same way. Our timing is off. Women mature earlier and want those things at a younger age.

You introduced me to a new term via your book: “infertile by circumstance.” That was an eye opener to me because I hadn’t thought about it like that before.

Thank you. Somehow, some people believe that only married women suffer the pain of childlessness. And single women don’t. And the reason is ironically because they are not trying. Right …. we can’t even get to the starting line because we are single. And we want to have a child within the context of marriage. Every month, we get our periods just like married women do. We have a loss. We have grief. And we grieve alone. We are not just grieving childlessness — which would be enough, but we are grieving the loss of our life expectations, of our friends who move on without us, the loss of being recognized as a woman in society (because the Mom-opia has “woman” centered on “motherhood”), etc…

It’s funny, I write a lot about how mothers are seen as solely that — mothers. Many of us yearn to be seen less as these monoliths and more as complex women with a variety of attributes, with “mother” being only one aspect of our personality. Yet society sees anyone with kids as mother first, woman second. That line of thinking helps nobody: women with children, women without, etc …

Right, but we also do it to ourselves. I love when women who were more fortunate in finding love, marriage and motherhood read Otherhood as it offers perspective on a huge cohort of sisters and friends and coworkers who live a different experience

New York City feels like a huge piece of your story. And it seems like a lot of the conversation — particularly because it was honest discussion between you and your friends — speaks to that NYC, professional, upper/middle class demographic. Have you found evidence of the Otherhood outside NYC at similar rates? Are those women dealing with similar challenges?

In a word: YES! The book is part memoir, and I live and work in New York City. I have women sending me letters from all over the U.S. and Canada pointing to page numbers where they jokingly ask how I was at that restaurant with them that night when they were talking to their girlfriends about the very same issue. The experience is universal. In fact, the book has been a big hit in the UK as well.

Another insight that I found interesting was that despite how fiercely independent on many levels the women of the Otherhood are, there’s still a lot of discussion about desiring traditional gender roles in dating. Have you received any pushback to that notion?

No pushback. We are modern independent women looking for old-fashioned love and romance. We like men who are decisive and thoughtful. It’s confusing, but we need a remix of the old with the new, with traditional roles and modern lives. There is great power in our femininity. We don’t have to act like men to be equal to them. We were born equal to them. I found with every single woman I spoke with — whatever her ethnicity, race, religion, background, etc. — that the universal complaint and frustration is the man who cannot plan the date.

Somehow, feminism made us men’s social secretaries. It’s ironic. The matchmakers I interviewed said the same thing. Men got lazy and women let them.

So, the big question — how do we fix this?

We have to stop being scripted with what we ‘think’ were are supposed to say, eg “I am 38 and single because I’ve been focused on my career” (when she knows she would have done anything to marry the last guy she loved). Or say yes to meeting him by his office because he doesn’t know any places near hers. It’s OK to be authentic about what works for you. Yes, “lean in” at work (and the women of the Otherhood lean in every single day because we have no choice as single-income earners) and re-learn how to lean back in dating and romance.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.

[Photo credit: Ana Schechter]