Book Review: The Female Assumption

The Female Assumption: A Mother’s Story: Freeing Women from the View that Motherhood is a Mandate by Melanie Holmes. CreateSpace, 2014.

I started out feeling that everyone who reads the Childless by Marriage blog must read this book. It’s loaded with information we all need to know while deciding whether or not to have children. Now I’m not so sure. Despite the fact that Holmes has three children, it leans heavily toward the childfree viewpoint and doesn’t much address situations where women who want children are unable to have them. Still, there’s a lot to gain from reading this book. I’ll let you decide.

The Female Assumption includes:

  • Convincing testimony that motherhood is hard. Holmes writes about the lack of personal time and space, the financial cost, and the opportunities lost while providing full-time care. Even though she tries to reassure her own children that she’s very glad to have them, I’d be wondering about that if I were them.
  • Clear information on birth control, including the various methods and myths about how they work. She also goes into abortion and “morning after” options.
  • A list of questions women should ask themselves before considering motherhood. If nothing else, read this section and think about how you would answer these questions, things like: why do you want to be a mother, how much are your feelings about this being influenced by other people, and how would you manage childcare and career if you did have a baby?
  • A discussion of how even in the 21st century, women still do most of the childcare and housekeeping. Until partnerships can become equal, women will still bear more of the burdens of motherhood.
  • “Dirty Little Secrets,” things mothers don’t admit out loud for fear their peers will hate them and their children will feel unwanted. Two examples: “Mothers yearn for time alone,” and “Your ‘stuff’ will never be your own again.”
  • How women are held to a different standard than men. Who questions the validity of male leaders or achievers who don’t have children, yet it happens with women all the time. Holmes suggests women are given an impossible choice: give up everything else to be mothers or live alone, childless, with work as sole consolation.
  • How the American workplace is behind the times, offering lower wages for women and failing to offer paid family leave.
  • The often-negative effects of parenthood on marriages.
  • Examples of successful women who never had children.

As I said, Holmes does not spend much time on infertility or women whose partners are unable or unwilling to have children. She seems to be encouraging readers to remain happily childfree. However, this book does contain a lot of useful information. Holmes really did her research. Read it and use what you need. Skim the rest.

As always, I cherish your comments. Go back and read some of the comments from last week’s post, “Are You Delaying Parenthood Until Conditions are Perfect?” We got some great ones. You can still join the discussion.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Female Assumption

  1. Dear Sue, I’m honored that you reviewed my book on your blog. I acknowledge that my book doesn’t address the “grief work” that someone like Jody Day of Gateway Women does. Jody was a self-published author when she endorsed my book in 2014 and called it “measured, loving, and thoughtful.” She is childless-by-circumstance, she’s an integrative psychotherapist, and now holds conferences worldwide for “childless” women who need to do the necessary grief work. Karen Malone Wright also wanted to have children but biology blocked that path. Karen started The NotMom website which led to a conference in 2015 (and 2017), which drew women from the UK, China, Iceland, & across America. A great majority of the women were “childless” and at various stages of grief work. Karen invited me to be a speaker at the inaugural conference; while I was there, a young woman turned to me, in tears, and asked how she could help her own mother to feel better because of this woman’s childlessness—my answer was, “Do your grief work, sweetheart; when your mom sees you’ve found a way through the darkness, she will feel better.” It was there that I met Canadian Catherine-Emmanuelle Delisle, who started the award-winning Femme Sans Enfant (French for Female Without Baby) in order to work through her own childlessness. She does podcasts and she made an exception in order to interview me—in English—what Catherine-Emmanuelle loved about my book was the chapter on Rewriting the Scripts, which seeks to teach people to speak more sensitively to women without children. (You can google Femme Sans Enfant and my name and you’ll find the interview.) For this topic, I reference your own April 11, 2018, blog post, “When people assume we have children.”

    I wrote my book for my daughter; she was 13 when I started writing. I wanted her to know that no matter what path she found her feet upon, I would never badger her about motherhood (I found a great number of mothers who DO badger their daughters, did you know this?). Mothers live in fear of complaining too much about their children lest someone suspect that they are not happy to be mothers; then someone asks, “Why didn’t you ever tell me how hard it was?” (I was asked that by a younger family member years ago.) I was surprised when my book was snatched up by NYC’s famed ICM agency because I was willing to “blow up” some of the platitudes of motherhood (that a woman is incomplete unless she’s a mom, etc.) I didn’t know how to say to my daughter, “Please, my sweetness, please think carefully about your choices; please don’t think life is a yellow brick road, there are many bumps.” I didn’t know how to say it without it coming across as a series of lectures, thus, I decided to write a book. When my book was hawked to the big publishers, one of them said I should pick a side; told me I needed to write about one or the other, motherhood or women-without-kids; so I walked away and self-published. That publisher missed my core thesis—that women are whole beings no matter their path. We know that some women live with a heaviness their whole lives because of unchosen-childlessness. Such as “Donna” from Madelyn Cain’s book, The Childless Revolution, which she wrote because motherhood almost passed her by (she struggled with infertility). Madelyn Cain (who wrote the Foreword for my book) wrote that “Donna” struggled for years with infertility; finally she wrote a letter to the child-that-would-never-be and held a funeral of sorts; she buried the letter and put a small headstone with the word “Dreams” on it. Donna’s dream was dead, and she said, “I thought if I couldn’t be a mother, life wasn’t worth living.” Donna’s statement took my breath away. I imagined my daughter saying it; or my nieces or friends. Perhaps it is naïve of me to think that my little book could make a difference for someone feeling that way, but I wanted to try.

    Every woman who wanted to become a mom and couldn’t works through the grief in her own way. I interviewed “Helen” who was 62 when we spoke; she never found a partner and considered adoption at one time. Helen worked through her grief already by the time we spoke; reading her words, that she is happy, seems like words that would help women see the other side of grief. I also interviewed a “childless-through-marriage” woman who said she married someone who found out he was sterile, and that the sterility was caused by a childhood illness; he didn’t want his parents to feel guilty, so he wanted to keep his sterility a secret. His parents targeted this woman, labeled her “too career driven” and selfish. She couldn’t take it anymore and they divorced. On the flip side, there’s the woman who was married to someone she felt was her soul mate for 10 years, he never wanted kids, but she had a change of heart and prevailed upon him to have “just one.” Within 2 years, they were divorced (their one child has had significant issues, sadly).

    You have put into words the very nightmare that haunted me as I wrote my book—the idea that my children might construe regret. I talked to them about the book; two of my three kids read it in advance (the other was in the military and couldn’t)—if they’d said, No Mom, please don’t write that, I would have walked away. But they believe in me as much as I believe in them. And luckily, in the vein of “Show, Don’t Tell,” my children know how much I love them because I have “shown” them, and I continue to show them. My daughter is almost 21 now, and I still don’t know what her life will look like in 10 or 20 years. One thing for sure, she knows that choices come with consequences; and sometimes those consequences are not well understood in advance. Also, in 10 or 20 years from now, she will still know my love.

    You hit a nerve, Sue, as you can see. Thank you; because you gave me a chance to visit this topic of regret with your audience. Thanks again for reviewing my book. I wish you much peace. (P.S. I see you blogged about Melanie Notkin recently and how great it is to be an aunt; I met Melanie at the 2015 NotMom Summit, she’s a lovely woman; I too love being an aunt!)


    • Thank you for this comment. I appreciate your taking the time. I spoke at the 2017 NotMom Summit. It was wonderful. I’m so glad so many of us are contributing to the discussion. When I first started working on Childless by Marriage near the turn of the 21st century, there wasn’t much to read about childlessness, and now look at us.


      • Aha! That is why your face looks familiar.
        Madelyn Cain’s book still feels very relevant even though she pubbed it in the 1990s. I like how she devotes practically the whole book to interviews with women in the various categories of women-sans-kids. It does seem like men are left out of the dialogue, but not sure what to do about that one.


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