I wrote another piece for Broadsheet yesterday because this Daily Beast piece made me tremendously ranty, and I figured I might as well get paid for it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the social advantages and disadvantages of motherhood these days, so once I started, I couldn’t shut up even more than usual. Which meant that the piece I turned in was absurdly long, and I fully expected to see large chunks of it missing in the final version.
What’s missing, as it turns out, is the last three paragraphs. They were exactly the right thing to cut, since I’d already made my argument (and then some) by that point, and the rest was a combination of tangent and reiteration. But the tangent was one I really wanted to get in there — that choosing not to have kids really doesn’t come off as a glamorous, attractive choice, just because it might increase a woman’s chances of reaching the top of her field. If you know you want kids, the message childless* women send is kind of beside the point. I know people who want/have kids, who don’t want kids and who are ambivalent — and sometimes, ambivalence gives way to a default decision one later regrets — but I have yet to meet a woman who’s like, “I am absolutely certain I want to be a mother, but I’m going to completely ignore that overwhelming urge because it might ruin my career.” Some women gamble on delaying pregnancy and lose, but that’s really not the same as saying, “I desperately want children but have officially decided I will never have them because Sonia Sotomayor is my hero.” And that’s what Beinart seems to be worried about.
So. Please do go read the Broadsheet post, because that’s all about how brutally hard it is to balance motherhood and career ambition, and if you just read this part in isolation, you’ll think I’m missing the point entirely. (I’ve been writing and thinking a LOT lately about my own ambivalence toward having children and how much of it stems from the fact that neither childless women nor mothers get the social support and respect they need, so committing to either feels like asking to have a load of shit shoveled down my throat — whereas existing in this liminal state allows people to project whatever future they think is best on me, and thus not harass me too much about my choices. Problem is, this state has a fast-approaching expiration date.) But I think there are lots and lots of important points that arise from Beinart’s piece, basically — too many for one post — so I wanted to put up the rest of my rant, and open a space for discussing the whole thing that’s free of Broadsheet trolls. And make sure you all saw Tami’s piece, because it’s brill, and I basically spent the whole rant working up to quoting her, but then that got cut.
Without further ado, the last three paragraphs:
And trust me, young girls are hardly getting the message that choosing not to have children is an easy path — or if they are, they shouldn’t be. If you haven’t thought too hard about it yet, girls, let me break it down for you: In addition to the potential for lifelong regret, which you’ll never stop hearing about from the Hewletts of the world and their proxies among your friends and family, you will be widely regarded as a freak, as incomplete, selfish, irresponsible, unfeminine, somehow broken — what kid of woman doesn’t want kids? — and you’ll spend half the time and energy you saved by not having kids defending that decision and your credibility to people who inexplicably think it’s their business. So basically, the message you should be hearing loud and clear is that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t — which means the only good reason to have kids or not is because it’s what you feel is best.
Blogger Tami of What Tami Said nails it:
The problem is not that women without children are getting too many extra goodies, too many shots at the brass ring. The problem isn’t that working mothers don’t have enough role models to demonstrate that they can have it all. The problem is that for all our superficial obsession with “baby bumps” and our pledges that “the children are the future,” we aren’t willing to walk the walk. We don’t support women in having it all. We fail to back up our supposed belief in families with legislation and societal values that truly establish successful nurturing of the next generation as a priority. (I can pretty much guarantee that our “family values” friends on the right would be the first to rail against any sort of strengthened parental leave or socialized childcare.)
Beinart concludes his argument, “[C]hoosing Wood would send the message that women can have kids and still reach the apex of their profession. That’s a message that I’d like my working wife –and our 2-year-old daughter — to hear.” Hey, as a married 35-year-old professional currently grappling with the question of whether I can handle motherhood, that’s a message I’d love to hear myself — but only if it’s true. And for the most part, right now, it’s just not. Right now, the number of women who reach the apex of their profession, kids or no kids, is still so tiny relative to the number of men who do, the girls and women I know will take any dingdang role model we can get. So instead of scrutinizing potential Supreme Court appointees’ reproductive choices, it would probably be more helpful if men who care about their wives’ and sisters’ and daughters’ futures would help women agitate for longer parental leave, subsidized day care and a culture that supports women who choose motherhood, women who don’t, and women who want to balance parenthood and career ambition without being condemned as either coldhearted monsters or half-assed employees, just like men always have.
*I’m using “childless” because I actually find “childfree” just as problematic, in addition to the fact that not everybody without kids identifies as such. To me, “-free” overcorrects for the lack implied by “-less”; now, instead of implying that people without children are missing something, we’re implying that people with children are burdened, and those of us without have dodged a bullet, suckers! I don’t particularly like what that says about parenthood or about people who choose not to have kids, who are often stereotyped as simply unwilling to sacrifice and take on the responsibilities of parenting. So what I’d really love is something in between, but since I can’t think of anything, I revert to the word that’s more commonly used.