Lately, I’ve been involved in some criminal cases in which the idea of motherhood was twisted to meet the psychological needs of the female perpetrator at the tragic expense of a child. There have been similar cases in the news. It’s really made me think about many of the female inmates I’ve evaluated and how complicated the reality of being a mother is in comparison to the idealized fantasy or simple ignorance that so often precedes becoming one.    

Consider the recent case of Alisha Newman, a 34-year-old mother and nurse who has been charged with making her 10-year old daughter get unnecessary – and life-threatening – medical treatments so she could play the heroic and long-suffering role of doting mother to a chronically ill child. This isn’t the case of an overly anxious mother who initially overreacted to normal childhood ills and things got out of hand. This was a trained nurse who, by the time her baby was 3 months old, was reporting fictitious medical symptoms to her child’s pediatrician. Despite repeatedly normal medical tests, over a six-year period, doctors inserted a pacemaker, a feeding tube, and an IV port all solely based on Alisha Newman’s stories. 

Or consider the case of 38-year-old Brooke Crews. In January 2017, she tells her boyfriend, William Hoehn that she is pregnant after they break up. She is not, but she is desperate to keep him in the relationship. Until August, 2017, she continues with the charade, producing a fake positive pregnancy test and a false ultrasound. As the months go by, he becomes suspicious, telling her she had better “produce a baby” soon or else. In August, she lures pregnant neighbor Savannah Greywind to her apartment, kills her, removes the baby (miraculously unharmed) and says the baby is hers. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Savannah’s close-knit family to report her missing or detectives to track her to Brooke Crew’s apartment, where the baby is discovered.       

Perhaps, you may be wondering, this was a woman in her late 30’s who was desperate to get married and have a baby of her own that she resorted to drastic measures. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. At the time she abducted Savannah Greywind, Brooke Crews had given birth to 7 children with 5 different men; her oldest child is now in her mid-twenties. She raised none of them; in fact, two of the fathers have sued her for child support. For Brooke Crew, the fun was in having a baby, not raising one. And, like Alisha Newman, the children were a means to an end, whether it was getting attention and sympathy or solidifying a crumbling relationship. 

The Messiness of Motherhood

There are few roles for women as culturally revered and – societally sanctioned – as being a mom. Women who choose to remain childless are often viewed with judgment or suspicion; after all, the reasoning goes, what married woman wouldn’t want a child unless she was selfish, or negligent, or unfeminine? Women are supposed to have children. Or, at the very least, they are supposed to want to have children. 

Let me be clear; as a mom of four, I could not imagine a life without my kids. They are my greatest joy. But, as any parent knows, parenting is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it genuinely sucks. And I don’t think it’s for everyone – not even every woman. And I think that should be okay. 

These are obviously extreme – and rare – cases. And yet, I often see women who never stopped to think about whether or not they wanted to be a mom or whether or not they had the psychological resources to raise a child. It was just something they did because their parents raised them that way, or they wanted someone to love them because no one did when they were growing up, or their boyfriend/husband wanted a kid, or their church said it was what good women do. These might be good starting places in deciding whether or not to become a parent, but they aren’t good places to end up.   

It is honorable to be a woman who values motherhood over everything. It should also be honorable for a woman to take a different path. Neither choice is inherently selfish; some of us may choose to be child-free for selfish reasons; some of us choose motherhood for equally selfish ones. Selfishness and generosity are not dictated by particular life choices. If love and generosity are worthy life goals, maybe our task as women is to choose for us the path that most creates the best opportunity for us to reach them.