Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Careers, children, choices: why the usual feminist argument against “career vs. family” is actually hurting us

by Molly Borowitz

Last night I posted a comment in response to Amelia’s link to a recent survey on maternity leave, which revealed that about 75% of British moms believe that women who don’t have children should also be entitled to some kind of leave equivalent:

“While I have the greatest of respect for working moms, I do have to point out that perhaps some kind of not-motivated-by-a-change-in-your-parental-status leave isn't actually as ridiculous as it first sounds. After all, there are quite a few people in the world who choose not to (or, for whatever reason, are unable to) have children. We talk a lot on this blog about empowerment, and yet women still face the implicit belief that we are intended to have children, and that our lives cannot be complete, significant, or meaningful without them. Obviously maternity leave is a medical and mental-health necessity, but it does represent a right that comes with a specific lifestyle choice—one that we usually celebrate with parties and gifts. Our culture dictates that we support and reward our friends who choose marriage and/or children (and often quite lavishly), but no such system of encouragement and congratulation exists for the men and women who choose to be single and/or childless. Why? Because we don't regard it as a CHOICE; spinsters, bachelors, and childless people are more often construed as social, emotional, or biological unfortunates who missed the marriage-and-babies boat. The government is absolutely obligated to respect and honor a pregnant woman's choice to have a child—but wouldn't it be pretty cool if it was also obligated to respect and honor a woman's choice NOT to?”

Like Amelia, I can’t immediately think of many ways to resolve this issue, and I absolutely agree with her that the introduction of non-maternity maternity leave might diminish our appreciation for the physical and mental significance of childbirth and a new mom’s need to recuperate and adjust. However, I think it might be productive to meditate further about the ramifications of treating childlessness as a choice; if we abstract away from the specificity of the maternity-leave issue, it’s possible to contemplate the complicated relationship between women, employment, and motherhood in a new way.

Several months ago I wrote a piece about the cultural stigma that working moms face, wherein I said that “we seem to be stuck in a catch-22 where stay-at-home moms aren't ambitious enough, working moms neglect their children, and super-ambitious women are selfish for choosing not to have any children.” At the risk of a reductio ad incommodum, I think the underlying cultural assumptions that motivated this point and my earlier question about choosing childlessness are as follows:

1) Unmarried and childless people rarely choose to be so.

2) Working women have to choose between fulfilling their career potential and having a family.

Assumedly both these statements have some elements of truth, since they carry so much popular currency. Frequent EW readers (and Sarah Haskins watchers) will be familiar with the pressure that popular media exerts upon women to find mates—everything from milk ads and chocolate commercials to romantic comedies and Disney films —and with the feminist complaint that ambitious women are forced to choose between a family and a career, while it’s rarely necessary for men to make such decisions. However, constructing the choice in this way actually does more to reinforce these stereotypes than to combat them. If we describe the working woman’s difficult position as a societally-coerced choice between being a good employee (or boss) and a good wife and mother, we make several gendered assumptions.

Firstly, we assume that all working women should have mates, and therefore martial responsibilities that their jobs might make difficult to fulfill—and by making this assumption, we reinforce the implicit (or, as in the case of popular media, rather explicit) cultural beliefs that all women should be married, and that few single women remain so by choice. Secondly, the constructed opposition between “career” and “family” assumes that all married couples should want to have children—which again upholds the notion that childless people rarely choose to be so (not least because, as I mentioned earlier, parenthood is often construed as a woman’s true fulfillment). But perhaps most importantly, by constructing the problem in this way, we advance a woman’s career as her only excuse to be childless—the only reason she should ever decide not to have children. By placing her career immediately at odds with her family, we automatically presume that all women (whether employed outside the home or not) should want to have children, and that the pursuit of professional success is the only legitimate and fulfilling alternative to motherhood.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find this construction empowering. I think what we really need is to find a way of describing these difficulties that doesn’t presuppose marriage and children as the necessary and appropriate outcomes for all women, with a high-powered career being the only possible alternative. In my opinion, learning to conceptualize a woman’s single or childless status as an active choice rather than a social misfortune is a way of empowering her, giving her greater agency in negotiating the relationship between her identity as a woman, her profession, and her lifestyle choices. Obviously a simple discursive change isn’t going to overthrow the complex system of pressures and restrictions that working women face, but I do think that if we afford women this greater agency—wherein we respect and acknowledge the active choices of women who are single and/or childless just as much as we do those who are married and/or mothers—eventually the term “choice” won’t just be a discursive label, but an empirical fact.

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