Ages and ages ago (2004) Bitch, Ph.D. wrote this post about reproductive choice. It’s a response to those who twist the rhetoric of choice to try to show that having children is a lifestyle choice just like gardening, skiing or ultimate Frisbee. This is an argument that pops up with some regularity on feminist sites and career-oriented sites, usually in reference to things like maternity leave and other family-friendly workplace policies. The idea is that when (selfish, lazy) mothers take time off work to give birth or to care for a vomiting child, the (hardworking, steadfast) childfree have to pick up the slack, creating an unfair situation at work. This is hogwash on its face–family-friendly workplace policies are good for EVERYONE : parents, those caring for aging or disabled family members, and those who want to use their time off to do something else. I’m skimming over this argument here and not providing links because all I really want to do is give a little background for Bitch, Ph.D.’s post–I’m not at all interested in entering this fray but rather in examining one of Bitch, Ph.D.’s arguments as it relates to those of us who are childfree-despite-our-choices. Bitch, Ph.D. writes:
“I thought that people who have children do it largely because they want to.” No. People have children because if you fuck someone of the opposite sex, chances are that sooner or later you (or, if you are a man, your partner) will get pregnant. It’s lovely that we have ways of avoiding this, and tragic when people who want kids find out they can’t, but let’s not be stupid: having children is not the choice. NOT having children is the choice.
Let me repeat for emphasis. “Having children is not the choice. NOT having children is the choice.”
In other words, reproduction is the default state of the human species. This makes some degree of biological sense–after all, reproduction is one of the basic functions of all species–but in a social sense, as it applies to humans to the exclusion of other species, it is problematic. Let’s pick at it a little, shall we?
I can’t fault Bitch, Ph.D. for the larger point she is making (that parenthood is a necessary function and that those who carry it out should never be punished for doing so, particularly when, as I noted in my last post, “reproductive choice” is to some degree illusory and a pregnancy can happen with or without planning). It’s the dichotomy she sets up between mothers and not-mothers.
If reproduction is the default (“not the choice”), then women* can be classified as mothers (the default state, assumed by strangers unless proven otherwise) or not-mothers (the exceptional state, defined only by its relationship to the default). Any time there is a default state, anyone who is not in that state becomes the Other. This is clear–we don’t even have a word for women who don’t have children (not a polite one, anyway), which is why I’m using “not-mothers.” It’s a state that is defined only by the absence of the default.
What does that mean in society? It’s what we’ve all experienced: people making assumptions about our choices. There are those who assume we are the default: “Happy Mother’s Day!” There are also those who assume we are choosing our Other status: “When are you going to have children?” Or on the other side: “You’re smart not to have kids.”
I know that mothers are by no means immune to assumptions–backseat parenting is appalling and all too common, as is the shaming of those mothers who don’t fit the ideal societal profile–but assumptions about those of us who are currently not-mothers come from this place of othering, of our failure to conform to the default. There are lots of not-mothers in the world, who are not-mothers for all sorts of reasons, and it’s none of our ever-loving business what someone’s reasons might be. As I tried to say in my other post, real reproductive choice would involve acceptance of many different choices, as well as acceptance of those of us whose lives don’t reflect our choices: Bitch, Ph.D. says that “NOT having children is the choice.” Except when it’s not.
So what’s the answer? How do we get to that acceptance, how do we break down the dichotomy of mothers and not-mothers, of default and alternate “choice?” I believe very strongly that you have to be the change. I have been turning over in my mind how to fit a consciousness of infertility into my feminism, how to start to be the change, and I think blogging about these questions may be a good start.
*I’m using “women” and “mothers” here not only because of my personal strong interest in feminism, but also because infertility, as well as all reproductive choice issues, are largely seen as “women’s issues,” and even here in the infertility blogosphere most of us are XX, despite the phenomenon of male-factor infertility. I don’t mean to exclude men from this discussion, but honestly I think that the presumption of motherhood-as-default is stronger and more harmful in our society than that of fatherhood-as-default. Please feel free to correct me in comments if you find this focus on women exclusive or offensive.