Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Mother of All Imbecilic Debates

The feminist blogosphere -, in particular - descended into nasty, holier-than-thou shitslinging today, mothers against non-mothers, all in reaction to an article published by Reason magazine defending from a libertarian perspective the decision to forgo childbearing.

I was dishearted by how quickly the thread at feministing crapped out into pure judgmentalism. The actual news item was perfectly reasonable, but the comments quickly degenerated into defensiveness about childfree lives and excoriation of women who opt to have children without first achieving perfect financial security. The mothers in the crowd then responded in kind. While I have more gut-level sympathy for the mothers' arguments and thought they were generally more civil, in the end it was the sort of debate no one can ever win.

I fully agree that women who choose to have no children aren't selfish, or at least no more so than the average human being. They contribute to society in a whole variety of ways - through work, activism, non-parental relationships to kids, etc. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon states this position well.

Those without kids do have an obligation not to whine about school levies and loud children in down-scale restaurants. We share our communities, we share our futures, and poorly educated, unsocialized kids who become equally rough-edged adults are in nobody's interest. As a mother, I have a return obligation to honor their choices and to defend them particularly when they're exposed to the sort of criticism that childfree men rarely face.

At the same time, I'm frustrated by purported feminists who imply that women who choose to become mothers are dupes. We can contribute through raising children who are feminist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and just plain kind and wise - who will leave the world a better place than they found it, or so I dearly hope. And mothers contribute in other ways, too, because raising children is rarely a whole life's work. Bitch Ph.D. puts forth these arguments at eloquent length.

Mothers and fathers have an obligation not to whine about the alleged shallowness of the childfree, and to appreciate when those without kids pick up some of the loose ends that parents of young children can't (and vice versa, of course - think of the SAHMs whose volunteer work is essential to many communities). We parents have an obligation to teach our kids to behave considerately in public. But we shouldn't have to face opprobrium from people who've never had to manage a child's sudden earache on an airplane (and yeah, we know about the drinking trick), nor should we have to apologize for our parenthood as a burden to the community or as an ostensibly anti-feminist choice. (Our kids will be bankrolling all of our Social Security, after all.)

But what I saw in the feministing thread is what I see in the culture at large: women eviscerating each other for the choices they've made. Welcome back to the Mommy Wars, now raging between the mothers and the non-mothers, instead of between mothers who work for pay and those who don't.

And who wins? Neither group of women, you can be sure. The only true winners are the capitalists who want us all to believe that material values and performance as "ideal workers" ought to be our preeminent goal.

I'd have said all the above before kids, and I'll maintain it even now that I have two lovable little stinkers who make my life both wonderful and sometimes nearly impossible. Kids change everything, yes. But that's at the personal level. Politically, it sometimes feels like nothing has changed since the mid-1970s. Motherhood remains the great tangled conundrum of feminism.

Gustav Klimt's Hope II at MoMA – image from Flickr user wallyg used under a Creative Commons license.


Sugarmag said...

Hey Sungold, I haven't visited Feministing in a couple of days so I haven't read it, but I agree with everything you say and yeesh! I wish people in general could be more respectful of others and each other's choices. Some people just don't like kids so they shouldn't have them. Fine. Others have other reasons for not wanting to have kids and it's none of anyone's business. How unfair would it be to a child if the child is not really wanted. Also, I had children because I wanted to, not because I thought I was doing the world a favor by passing on my genes and raising perfect citizens. Friend of mine loves being "auntie" to my children but has decided not to have any because of her history of mental illness, and she does not think she would be a good mother and does not want to pass on the possibility of depression. I think that she is smart and selfless for making that choice. She's a little sad about it sometimes.

Sugarmag said...

And thank for saying that about stay at home moms. Stay at home moms do a lot for communities. Sometimes I'm a little defensive about it. It seems that sometimes people think that I'm selling myself short by spending these years with my children. I look at it as a short time in my life, I did things before I had children and when they are older I will do something else, but right now I am enjoying this time because I want to and also because I can, since my partner makes enough money. I know that there are a lot of moms who would be unhappy staying home and still others who don't have that luxury. I respect that.

Anonymous said...

sadly, that's the problem with both feministing and pandagon: as they've gotten very popular, they've attracted more than their share of viciously opinionated people. we've seen more than one flame war over there. i mean, there's a way to thoroughly disagree with someone without personally insulting them...and screaming "YOU'RE WRONG" doesn't make ME right. perhaps it just comes with the territory when the posts are of such hot-button political/personal nature?

but, yeah, mommy wars, sigh. add me to that list of people that's choosing to remain child-free (having had a pair of siblings more than a decade younger than myself, i raised 2 children throughout high school, and won't be repeating the experience). i think what makes me nuts - on both sides of the debate - is the incredible sense of entitlement everyone seems to have about their very personal choices. nobody deserves an award for Supreme Feminist, regardless of which side of the choice you fall on.

and what makes it an issue at all is probably just what you said: "they're exposed to the sort of criticism that childfree men rarely face." nobody calls a guy a weirdo if he's not interested in kids...just like nobody does if he says he wants to be a father someday. it's apparently completely reasonable for that to be a choice for men, but an *issue* for women.

Smirking Cat said...

My feminist stances hinges on choice, and having children or not is certainly a personal choice. The implication that a woman should be judged by whether she's had children or not is ridiculous. When will women stop perpetuating sexism by fostering it among themselves?

Mollyfa said...

I totally agree. It seems that the feminist movement was so that women could be free to choose. So why is that choice, no matter which role we've chosen, often criticized by other women choosing something different? (How many times did I use some version of "choice" in that sentence?)

I also wonder at how defensive people get, and if they are not over reacting because there is some unnecessary guilt that they feel for the choice that's been made?

Either way, it seems that we should embrace each other, and support whatever decision has been made.

By the way, I do not think that deciding not to have children is selfish, I often think that it is just the opposite. Not everyone will be good mothers, let's face it, there is overwhelming proof. So why pressure those who don't want the responsibility for whatever reason.

Mollyfa said...

Ok, I just re-read my comment, and I in no way meant that women choosing not to be mother's are choosing it, because they would be bad mother's. There are many reasons. So please, I really did not mean to offend. :-)

Emma said...

Since I'm the commenter who first mentioned that I think people should be able to afford children before they actually have them, I thought I would weigh in here in the hopes that this forum is more civil than Feministing.

I wholeheartedly believe that people should be able to provide for the basic necessities of a child before they have, clothing, shelter, love, and nurturing.

Unfortunately, my opinion was twisted to mean that I want to oppress poor women and sterilize them, which is not at all what I wrote. I think we should help lift people out of poverty, not bring more people into it. I really don't think that's oppressive in the least.

For the record, yes, I'm very childfree and plan on staying that way.

Sungold said...

Wow, thanks to all of you for weighing in on this. I'm really pleased at the tone here. Emma, it's a pleasure to see you in a less embattled, thus more reasoned mode, than during the dust-up at Feministing.

I will say that all of us discussing the topic here have made very conscious and rational choices, and that's just not true for everyone. Plenty of people make choices - including the life-changing one to have kids - that are not necessarily rational.

More interesting to me, though, are the alternative systems of rationality that exist in our society. To take the issue of childbearing in poverty: For some women, it appears to be their most attractive option. It gives them an identity and passage to social adulthood in a situation where their educational and occupational choices are grim. Yes, I may wish that they made different choices, but I don't think we (as relatively privileged women) can understand why they choose as they do unless we try to empathize with their constraints and influences.

That all sounds really abstract, but in the end it comes down to cultivating empathy and reserving judgment. I really appreciate how much of each I've seen in this conversation. It's a pity that this is not the norm at the "big girls' blogs" - I read tons of interesting things there, too, but they sometimes get shouted down by those who holler the loudest.

Thanks to all of you for your civility and interesting reflections.

Sugarmag said...

Hi Emma,

I can understand why you would say that people should be able to financially support children before they have them, but I can also understand why some people might react so strongly to what you said. Many people get very upset when someone else tells them what they "should" do and one thing I have learned in life is to avoid doing that. There are many reasons why people have children they can not afford. Sometimes women get pregnant because their birth control failed or because they just didn't believe that they would get pregnant and so they weren't using birth control, but now they are pregnant and don't have a lot of resources but they feel that abortion is wrong or they just don't want to have one and they want to keep their babies. Just as I would defend a woman's right to have an abortion, I would defend her right to not have one and to keep her baby. Also, sometimes people's circumstances change, people lose their jobs, their partners die, and so they are suddenly unable to afford their children. Yes, not having children when one can't afford them is the responsible thing to do, absolutely! Yet life is complicated and when people do have children they can not afford, we are all morally obligated to offer some form of assistance.

Emma said...

Another commenter on Feminsting had a great line: That safety nets are wonderful and should certainly be available, but they can become a problem when they're used as hammocks. I agree completely.

I also agree that it would be much better to use our (society's) resources to help lift people out of poverty (education, training, employment assistance, etc.) so they CAN afford to have children, if that's what they want. But I also realize that there is a very large segment of the population who never even considered that being childfree was an option. It's just assumed that they will have children. And I think that's really sad that people don't think about whether or why they want children.

Sungold said...

Emma, I do think most people *think* about having children. Even many "surprise" pregnancies have an element of people taking calculated chances. Those aren't chances I'd ever want to take, but I can't impose my version of rationality on others. Certainly most educated, middle-class people think long and hard about childbearing decisions, but even for them there's never a state of "perfect" readiness.

I do agree that as long as women are considered incomplete without a child, such decisions will be distorted. But it's not just ideology that drives women (and men) to have children. Most people seem to have a deep-seated and pre-rational urge to reproduce. That doesn't mean everyone should. It just means that our society can't treat parenthood *only* as a choice, because it's too deeply rooted in our makeup. (Here's my secret biological determinist coming out!) :-) It's just too big a part of being human. Bitch Ph.D. has written eloquently on this, if you follow back the link to her in my original post.

I agree that it makes more sense to prevent poverty and to defer childbearing until one has gotten as much education as possible and started earning some money. But given that many people are going to have children in less than ideal circumstances, we at least have an obligation *to the kids* as Sugar Mag says, no matter what you might think of their parents' decisions. Kids grow up into adults, and if they are screwed up as a result of poverty and/our a lousy upbringing, our future world will be screwed up too.