not-mothers

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.

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8 responses to “not-mothers

  1. Absolutely gorgeous post. My thoughts will be disappointingly shallow in comparison…

    This is just different language for your distinction: In linguistics, there’s a notion of “marked” and “unmarked”, where unmarked is the statistically less frequent variant. It applies here in that a woman choosing to have children and subsequently having them is unmarked. And the discussion centers on the unmarked version of reproduction, ignoring both biological and situational IF, particularly in the sense of ignoring same-sex couples, ignoring the male perspective. And it makes sense to center a discussion on the most frequent cases, even if it denies a voice to those of us who are “marked”. This writer ignores the fact that choosing to have kids doesn’t result in having kids, while you gloss over other complexities in the situation. It’s how a discourse about a hugely complicated aspect of human existence has to proceed. I guess to the extent that I have a point at all, it’s that some acceptance of our minority status seems important (to me) in figuring out how to integrate this aspect of identity with others. Let me be clear that I don’t disagree with you about anything you’ve said, and think it’s all thought provoking and sensitively expressed.

    I like to imagine a future in which workplace baby showers and questions about pregnancy are no longer considered appropriate, where it’s universally understood that there’s a potential to hurt others by taking reproduction for granted. Where IF becomes part of diversity training. I suppose I could make that future a little more probable by coming out of the closet at work. Betcha I won’t do anything.

  2. This is another amazing post. It’s true to most people that if you’re not having children, it’s by choice. MOST people don’t have a clue that infertility exists, and if they do, they probably still think (like most people) “well, if they really WANTED kids, they’d adopt”. So it somehow probably justifies their whole logic over again.
    Now that I have walked this path of infertility, I NEVER plan on asking anyone ever again what their reproductive plans were. I was never that nosy into other people’s plans (just assumed that if someone got married, they would eventually want children, so what’s it to me when?).
    I think when the human body is working well, just like throughout the rest of nature, the default IS to reproduce. I would definitely agree with that. Unfortunately, disease and many other things can get in the way, as we very well know, and since we’re humans and are more complex than any other animal, there is just no black and white when it comes to parents and NOT PARENTS BY CHOICE.

  3. What has been pissing me off lately is this schizo attitude, where people think that reproduction is an easy, sort-of default occurrence (they think it is odd to NOT have children, a sort of eccentric choice to live child-free. ha!), but on the other hand, see their OWN children as some sort of tremendous accomplishment on their part. Their child = wonderous achievement. Others’ children = default, mundane. People with no children = sexless kooks.

    Arghhhhhhhh!!!!! This is why I currently hate people.

  4. Here from LFCA. This is a fabulous post. It’s true that so many people assume that these days, if you REALLY want to get pregnant, you can! & even if you can’t, well, there’s always adoption. Everything is black & white, either/or. Nobody sees the shades of grey hovering around the edges — it’s not always that simple. Thank you for this!

  5. Very thought-provoking… thanks for this.

  6. Thank you for making me think.

  7. Pingback: an ethics question « ginger and lime

  8. Loved this post. Thanks

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