"both choices are radical": the decision not to parent

In response to my last post about the children-as-people thing, my awesome friend Laura Cutter sent me this thoughtful email, which I repost with her permission. I think it's super-important to underscore the fact that arguing that children (and by extension, their caregivers) are marginalized in our society doesn't mean that people (read: women) who are not parents (by accident or choice) don't face enormous social censure.

No one's interests are served, I'd argue, by turning this into a case of oppression olympics, trying to parse out whose pain is more exquisite than the next person's. Instead, we need to place the blame where it belongs: fucked up cultural norms that demand one single best way for women and young people to be in the world and be in relationship with one another. The human species is just too awesomely diverse for us to waste our time on that sort of one-size-fits-all crap.

Without further editorializing, here's Laura.

I really appreciate your post from today - I find it heartbreaking when various groups (who are themselves often marginalized) insist on further marginalization. In my more pessimistic moments, I wonder if our biological minds, which from very early evolution needed to separate, delineate, and categorize everything from people to plants in order to survive, are somehow on overdrive - pushing us apart. That being said. One of the things that really struck me about your post and the links you added was this:

Our generation is one that is rapidly moving towards a time where some of us are choosing to have children. That is right now, the present. But what everyone seems to be forgetting is that many of our ideas and experiences were not formed in this cultural moment. Just as some of us remember feeling marginalized as children, others of us remember being told constantly that we would and should expect to have a child/children. I remember feeling livid as my protestation that I never wanted children were brushed aside by adults who were certain that they understood me better than I did. I am very aware that my own community and intellectual life is quite rarified - it is for many of us. But the underlying assumption to many of these arguments seems to be that it is so acceptable not to have children that the women who now choose to have them are the new marginalized poster child (red is the new black?). Many of us still must validate, on a daily basis, our choice not to have children. We experience invasive, insulting, manipulative, and inappropriate responses from people who, in other circumstances, would never pass judgment on another person's choice. This is my point: both choices are radical. Both choices carry tremendous cultural significance and personal meaning. In my world, it is still radical to choose not to become a parent, and I carry with me all the baggage of years spent being told that my choice was wrong. But I understand and respect that for many other women, the decision to choose parenting means other sacrifices, for which they, in turn, are judged.

* * *

I feel like it happens this way (as my friend Marie-Laure says, "tell me a story"): I have kids and you don't. In you, I see all of the people who told me that having children was a waste of my talent, a second choice, a vote for the patriarchy. I also see all of the freedom and choices that you have in your life and think it's a little unfair and that your life must be easier than mine. In me, you see everyone who told you that you were born to have children, that it is natural and beautiful, that you would never be complete without them, that you will change your mind. I also see all of the social acceptance and special treatment that you have in your life and think it's a little unfair and that your life must be easier than mine. But of course, that's not who you are and that's not who I am, but when we (especially women), have these debates, we bring into them all of this damage and judgment and project on each other with our own insecurities. I do think this parent/not parent issue really is a false dichotomy and everybody knows that progress is never made when everyone is just in fighting.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely put. From my perspective (which is that of a working academic and the radical parent of a young child, at the moment) I'd add that choosing to parent is not at all radical or risking social disapproval the way choosing lifelong childfree/childlessness as a woman. (Men seem to get off rather easily on this one, at least in the communities where I grew up and the one I occupy now.) Um, well, except if you happen to be disabled or fat or poor or 'too young' or 'too old' or anything other than cisgender & straight, in which case suddenly choosing to parent can in fact open you to all sorts of angry criticism. So very complicated!

    But for women like me who look like the mothers on the covers of 'how-to-be-a-mainstream-mommy' magazines, what's radical is to insist that you're still an individual human being while pregnant and parenting. And I think most people do want basic autonomy and full personhood and space for their own emotions and selfhood and all that, even if they're not radical feminists self-consciously opposed to the shitty power dynamics inherent in mainstream obstetrics and parenting culture. Becoming a parent is part of fulfilling a particular cultural role, but only if you try to be the Good Mommy. Choose a last name for the child other than his or her father's, keep working with the same seriousness on intellectual or creative projects and/or a career, fail to feel 'mommy guilt,' don't identify as 'a mother' or 'a mommy,' interact with your children like you and they are actually people, go out into public spaces (small children constantly need their mothers! you must breastfeed! don't bring children into public spaces! oh, god, don't breastfeed here!), make nonstandard decisions about pregnancy care and childbirth, have a drink while you're pregnant or breastfeeding, etc., etc., and suddenly you're just as ill-regarded and 'unnatural' as your permanently-non-parenting friends. As you say, how can anyone possibly win here?