There was an interesting comment posted on the feminist blog The Hand Mirror this past week. It was on a post titled “Pro-choice Means Opposing Welfare Reform”, and the commenter wrote, among other things:
Some people seem to have the attitude that ‘no-one has to have children, so if you do, you should be prepared to look after them’. This is NOT a pro-choice position. It does NOT value a woman’s choice, which may be to go through with a pregnancy despite the fact that the timing is inconvenient and she’s not well resourced to look after the child.
As I read it, I thought, gee, I’m among the some people who think if you choose to have children, you should be prepared to look after them. Cold, huh.
The commenter did clarify that a bit in the following sentences, and I largely agree with what she says there: if you have a child and need help, it should be available.
So while the content seems OK, but there’s something about it that left me feeling uncomfortable. I think it made me wonder just what the “feminist position” (if there is such a thing) is on state support for motherhood. Is it:
1. Women should be paid by the state to have babies.
2. Women who have babies and need help should be paid. Otherwise, parents/family should support their own children.
I support something like the latter, but not the former. Paying women to have babies comes too close to the nasty pro-natalist kind of policies aimed at pushing women into motherhood. If you’re a student of history, you’ll know that (often racist) pro-natalism has been behind some pretty egregious policies, here and abroad. They’re used to restrict access to contraception and abortion. In New Zealand, a lot of the anti-abortion rhetoric of the 1930s was focused on (white) women not doing their duty by having too few children. According to The Dominion in 1937, women’s “selfish refusal to bear or rear children is a crime against the nation.” (from Helen Smyth’s fabulous book “Rocking the Cradle”)
So what the modern feminist movement wants is not clear to me. (As noted in other posts, I’m a feminist of a certain age, so not particularly modern.) But if there’s confusion, I think it reflects a society-wide confusion about motherhood that feminism hasn’t help resolved – indeed, has made worse. The commenter touched on it when she wrote “no-one has to have children”. Well, in theory, yes. But how easy is it to choose not to have a child in this society and culture. Even as a feminist? Stuff ran a rather annoying, but still interesting piece from the Sydney Morning Herald titled “Dropping the No Baby Bomb” about what it’s like when you “come out” as childfree. (I’d say childfree by choice, but it seems, the author’s ‘choice’ to not have children was not actually a ‘choice’ after all, which undermines the piece somewhat.)
Back to that confusion: As a society, and as feminists, we laud motherhood, emphasise its “specialness”, identify women first as mothers in our own sphere (“As a mother, I….), just as the mass media does in its sphere (“Sally, a mother of 3, blah blah blah rest of story”. This vs. “Tom, a builder, blah blah blah rest of story”). And raise our eyebrows inquiringly (or, in some cases, disapprovingly) at those who, like Shelly Horton, don’t fit the mold. (Remember what they did to Helen Clark for it.) Some in the pro-choice movement even like to highlight that a majority of women who have abortions are already mothers, as if to say, see, it’s not that we’re child-haters!
As a society, and as feminists, we don’t laud women who choose not to be mothers, we just ignore them (apart from the occasional “no-baby bomb” article). Why should we, they’re not doing anything, there’s nothing to praise them for. Some even see them as perhaps a little selfish. As a result, few women probably see choosing to remain childless as a live option. So I suppose I’m just casting a bit of doubt on the commenter’s original premise: “No-one has to have children.”
But while culturally, we put motherhood over and above non-motherhood in myriad ways, what we don’t do is follow that up with anything concrete. Yes, you’ll get lots of lovely feedback about your babies from friends, colleagues, family, society, politicians-kissing-babies, etc.. You’ll also get unaffordable childcare and early childhood education. You’ll be told that while it’s “the most important job in the world” (an insulting lie coming from those who are really in control), you have to get back into the paid work force (where there are no jobs), pronto!
We are all over the map on motherhood. We being society. And We being feminists.