This past Sunday was Mother’s Day in the United States. (Mother’s Day in the UK is in March.) It may have been the last US Mother’s Day for a while on which someone could make the active choice to continue a pregnancy or not. It may have been the last Mother’s Day for a while on which someone could make the active choice to take measures to avoid getting pregnant in the first place.
When I reached out to filmmaker Therese Shechter to see if I could get a screening link of her new documentary My So-Called Selfish Life (which I had read about in the Guardian), I imagined it might be a nice addition to my Movies for the Resistance merely for how it appeared to be pushing back against the culturally programmed notion that all women naturally want to be mothers. Which is damaging enough, and total bullshit, and desperately needs pushing back against. But my email to Shechter was sent just before — literally, mere hours before — the bombshell leak from the US Supreme Court about how it plans to strike down Roe v Wade. Having now seen the film, I have to endorse it as one of my Movies for the Resistance also because it is advocating for a life choice for women and other people who can get pregnant that may soon be much more difficult to deliberately opt out of in America.
I am so, so angry right now.
But My So-Called Selfish Life is not an angry film. It is deeply informed and informative, yes, but also, perhaps, a bit bemused, populated as it is by women (and one trans man) who simply have no interest in giving birth or raising children, are happy to say so, and don’t understand what the big deal is. Why is the world so upset by us? What does it matter whether we want kids or not?
I include myself in this, as Shechter herself does. She opens the film by stating that she’s “known since high school that [she] did not want to be a mother.” Same here! This attitude is not uncommon, as one OB-GYN says here, and yet you’d never know it to look around. As Shechter demonstrates with her nonstop array of vintage footage and retro (and not-so-retro) clips from pop culture — some enraging in their overt insidiousness under the guise of “comedy” — the default assumption of our society is that every woman wants to be a mother, that every woman will be a mother eventually, and that every woman absolutely loves being a mother.
Haha LOL: nope.
With brisk, cheeky humor and efficiency, Shechter dismantles those misconceptions. And she does so in ways that become a brief history of how and why our patriarchal, racist society has tried to control female fertility over the past few centuries… which in turn is what has fostered the myths about motherhood that we all live with today. (Oh yes, there are clips from Fox News.) It’s an intersectional history, too, touching on how the children of enslaved women in America were considered property, the deeply unethical experiments — on nonwhite women — that led to the development of the birth-control pill, how male-dominated medicine has sidelined women’s historical and current knowledge and experience of our bodies, and more. Eugenics and white supremacy lurk everywhere.
Shechter is white, but she gives plenty of space for people such as Dr Kimya Nuru Dennis, who teaches a college class on reproductive justice and pronatalism (the entrenched cultural propaganda for parenthood), to explain how presumptions of motherhood differ for Black women and in Black culture. But many of those presumptions are near universal, including the one from which this terrific and necessary film takes its title: that anyone who doesn’t want to be a mother is being “selfish.”
Smacking down that ridiculous idea gets plenty of play here. I discussed it as well in my review of Maxine Trump’s (no relation to that guy) complementary 2019 documentary To Kid or Not to Kid. Just knowing that there have been two films in just over two years about women who really, honestly, definitely don’t want kids — and not only don’t regret it but are seriously happy about it — gives me hope. Because there is almost nothing in our culture that says it is okay to not want kids. Women desperately need to hear that it is okay, and that, in fact, we do not all have a biological clock ticking away in our uteruses. (That stupid idea? As Selfish says, it was invented by a male journalist in 1978. Just more evidence that when women make even the tiniest bit of progress toward controlling our own lives, patriarchy will push back against us.)
There is no cultural script for women that includes a life without kids; choosing to be child-free does force you to make your own path. Which can be scary! You have to make it up as you go while people are screaming that you’re doing it wrong. And so women do also need to see other women living full, complete lives without children: and here we meet a young woman who lives in a collective with other artists, and an older lesbian couple creating their own retirement community, and others forging their own ways without kids. (There’s a reclamation of the term spinster, too.)
My So-Called Selfish Life is, then, ultimately, a joyous celebration of women defying expectations and, far from the narrow concept of selfishness, living as fully self-realized, fully connected people. I know, I know: This isn’t supposed to be possible for women who don’t have kids. Haha LOL: yep, it is.