Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Parenting and reproductive choice and feminism....again

It pains me to inform you that a little light housekeeping is in order. Feminism housekeeping, that is.

So let's start with some basic tenets of feminism writ large: 
  1. women should have control over their own reproductive choices and experiences
  2. women are the sole owners of their bodies
  3. all individuals, male or female, should have the freedom to determine the direction their lives will take - to choose the life that works the best for them

These are fairly uncontroversial, right? Of course, we could make #1 and #2 inclusive like #3, but that would be a bit redundant, since we automatically assume these things are true of men in our culture. Of course men are the sole owners of their bodies - what a dumb thing to say.

...but I digress.

We have these three claims around which there is a great deal of consensus. That is, pretty much everyone (who identifies as feminist) will agree to them if they are explicitly stated. And yet, right alongside these basic tenets, we have the perennial conversation about parenting - the one about whether parenting makes you happy and whether mothers resent their childless peers, and whether the style of parenting you choose makes you a good feminist or a bad feminist. And the co-existence of these conversations alongside these basic beliefs we claim to hold is so contradictory and incoherent that it makes your head spin.

If we're willing to fight for your right to avoid pregnancy and childbirth under circumstances you're uncomfortable with, then shouldn't we also support your right to avoid pregnancy and childbirth and parenting altogether - no questions asked? If we think you are the sole owner of your body and should be free to determine the direction your life goes in, how does this view leave room for debates about whether or not you ought to have children?  

So, let's get some perspective on this, shall we?

On the issue of whether or not parenting makes you happy.......why the fuck is this question even being asked, and why do we think it's relevant to feminism?
  1. If you're popping out babies because you think it's going to make you happy in some shallow, short-term, experiential way, you probably shouldn't have kids.*
  2. Given the context in which parenting takes place in 21st century western cultures - the social narratives and systemic flaws that place unequal burdens, privileges, and risks on mother and fathers - the question of whether or not parenting in itself makes you happier is impossible to really get to.** Thus it can't be useful as a means of upholding or rejecting cultural claims about women's "natural" desires or roles or propensities.
  3. If mothers do in fact resent and envy their childless acquaintances - which they undoubtedly do at times - then what does this say about parenting itself (nothing - although it says a lot about the conditions under which we experience parenthood) or about whether some women are justified in remaining childless?
All of this indicates the need to take a giant step back and re-evaluate the questions on a deeper lever. We might think questions of whether or not parenting makes you happy are relevant to feminism because of the age-old claim that parenting and nurturing is the only activity that will allow women to be truly and fully fulfilled in life. But the proper response to this is not to go around asking parents if they're happy, or defending the style of parenting you've chosen, or expecting childless women to mount a defense of their choices. All of this just feeds into and confirms that fundamental cultural narrative that's so anathema to all the basic tenets of feminism. The proper response is to question the framework and underpinnings of that narrative itself, and to work to expand the viable options available to women and support their choices - no questions asked. But to allow yourself to get dragged into the mud of a debate that rests on profoundly anti-feminist assumptions is counterproductive and damaging. So let's just knock it the fuck off already.

*If you were to ask me if parenting makes me happy, I would say sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. If you ask me if parenting is a worthwhile life project, then I would say yes. For me, definitely yes. For you? I don't know. But the question of whether parenting makes you happy is very different from the question of whether it's a worthwhile activity. And it assumes that it's the kind of experience you could sum up with a yes or no answer to questions about whether you're happy. Parenting opens you up to a range of experiences - good and bad - that would not otherwise be available to you, and forces you to grow and think and explore the world in ways that you would not if you never had kids. For me, this is incredibly fulfilling in numerous ways, many of which are hard to articulate. What's more, this growing and exploring thing is a collaborative experience between you and your child. But that's the kind of thing that's hard to measure and impossible to capture in a happiness study. 
**And assumes that there is no variation between individual persons who are also parents.