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SEXIST BEATDOWN: We Welcome Our Adorable Newborn Oppressors Edition

Babies! They don’t care whether you’re having fun or not! Such, anyway, are the conclusions of this recent NY Magazine article, which is a SHOCKING EXPOSE on how rearing a tiny creature unfamiliar with manners, basic safety precautions, the very notion that everyone around them possesses a unique subjectivity, and your more modern feces-disposal methods MIGHT JUST BE A WEE BIT STRESSFUL. Also, that creature might throw wooden boards at your face for kicks. ALSO, if you screw up, “SON OF FEMINIST BLOGGER BECOMES SERIAL KILLER, PREYS ON MOUTHY WOMEN” will be just everywhere and you will be so embarrassed.

You know who’s always had the notion that these things are stressful, though? Like every second-wave feminist ever! And, in a shocking twist, I wound up writing about this for The Atlantic. To wit:

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote of the mother who finds that “her child by no means provides that happy self-fulfillment that has been promised her.” Instead, when this woman is busy, and “particularly when she is occupied with her husband,” she finds that “the child is merely harassing and bothersome. She has no leisure for ‘training’ him; the main thing is to prevent him from getting into trouble; he is always breaking or tearing or dirtying and is a constant danger to objects and to himself.” Adrienne Rich opened her 1976 book on motherhood, Of Woman Born, with one of her own journal entries, in which she noted that her children “cause [her] the most exquisite suffering… the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.” Later in the book, she would go on to argue that a mother of eight who dismembered her two youngest children and laid them on the lawn as “a sacrifice” was not precisely crazy, just fed up.

And that’s before we take a look at The Group. Anyway! What is to be made of this recurring phenomenon? What are we to do with this data, aside from being intolerably smug about our unoccupied uteri? (You still might want to be intolerably smug about your unoccupied uterus. I know I am!) The amazing Amanda Hess of The Sexist and I will now try to figure this business out.

ILLUSTRATION: But why risk losing the sweet fulfillment of explaining to his pre-school teacher where he learned to do THIS?

SADY: Hello, fellow non-parent! Enjoying your non-parental non-miserable lifestyle yet? Because I sure am!

AMANDA: God, I am too. I plan on enjoying it until I have children too late in life, at which point memories of my blissful childless years will only contribute to my ultimate unhappiness.

SADY: If only we were all having children immediately after leaving our parents’ homes! Surely this would alleviate our misery. Also, it would help if we were not so rich and successful. This makes it harder for us, unlike the lower classes and immigrants, who simply take these bodily matters of procreation in stride. POOR PEOPLE: Not at all subject to undue stress in the matter of having kids!

AMANDA: Indeed. It is so very taxing to have the time to dote over our own happiness.

SADY: The thing is, I don’t think that the news that raising children can be stressful IS NEWS. Like 74% of second-wave feminists were talking about how grueling it is to raise children, and/or to have that as your primary responsibility.

AMANDA: Haha. And now that it’s shared, people are suddenly all like, “Should we even be doing this?”

SADY: Right? Like, “wow. It turns out this is HARD. Who knew?”

AMANDA: “Who” indeed! I do find these studies of happiness interesting, but I find it strange that people are looking for some sort of definitive answer from them: Like, Everyone procreate! Or, Condoms!

SADY: Right. I mean: “Happiness Studies,” in and of itself, which I hear is actually a growing field, is strange. We can measure what makes people happy or unhappy, but ultimately I guess I’m with Senior on this point: Are we questioning what role “happiness” plays in our life choices? I mean, I have recently come to feel that I might not want kids, but this has to do with the fact that I am (a) poor, and (b) high-strung. I can’t get a dog without Googling care instructions obsessively and researching what sort of terrible ailments might wind up killing it. But was “happiness” what people had children for, ever, anyway? Maybe the issue isn’t that “parenting has changed”—because it seems to have changed most fundamentally in terms of who has to do it—but that we EXPECT “happiness” from popping one out in a way we didn’t use to.

AMANDA: Right. I think the happiness part is some new-agey conception of raising children. It’s important to remember that joy aside, the fact is that now a lot of people get to choose whether they have children or not, and if so, when. And so it becomes much more of a quality-of-life question than a biological-necessity one. And so I think it’s fair to expect that you do the thing that you think will make you the happiest. But there’s also a lot of fear-mongering about that, because of that whole ovary-loss thing. So people are like, “If you don’t have kids now, you will never be happy and you’ll regret it for the rest of your life!” And people on the other end are like, “Once you pop it out, there’s no turning back! Life-ruiner!” When, actually, I bet that a lot of people could find meaningful, happy lives doing either of those things.

SADY: Yeah. I mean, women are so, so frequently scared out of, like, LIVING, or doing anything other than having children ASAP, because they’re told that their fertility is evaporating and they’ll be unhappy forever if they don’t have babies. And I think it’s worth noting that a ton of the parents interviewed, who were speaking most directly about being unhappy and frustrated, were women. Men in that article were mostly “experts,” even if they were also fathers.

AMANDA: Right, I think there is some stat in there that women are on the whole less happy. Which, you know, probably has something to do with that whole “shared parenting” thing not being completely shared, and the general added expectations placed on mothers. One of my favorite parts of the story was the suggestion that you “always regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did do.” Like, why does the “thing I do” have to be having babies? There are plenty of things I won’t be doing if I end up having kids.

SADY: Haha, yeah. “I will never regret not having children, when I die because my child threw boards at me and one of them had a nail in it and it punctured my skull and killed me.” But I’m also wondering if being told that children are the KEY TO HAPPINESS (if you are a woman) has to do with the disappointment (among women) that children don’t auto-fulfill you? I mean, Simone de Beauvoir talked about this. Her whole deal was that women are told having children will fulfill them, and then it doesn’t, and then they hate their children. Her solution: Make something else in your life more important than getting pregnant?

AMANDA: But there’s nothing more important than hating your kids! If you never do that, you will regret it for the rest of your life!

SADY: It’s true. You’ll never regret hating your kids as much as you’ll regret not hating them. It is fun to think about fathers in all this, though. I mean, I like to imagine they’re at least MARGINALLY more involved in dealing with the poop and the breaking things and the eighteen years of college prep these kids are all being put through now.

AMANDA: Right. The story did mention that the most unhappy parents of all were those who were the non-custodial parent (mostly fathers). So having a kid and not raising it? Depressed for life. Having a kid and raising it too much? Also depressed—single parents and moms in general were less happy. Solution: Move to Norway?

SADY: Right. I, predictably, DID enjoy the part where they were all like, “maybe if we had state-sponsored child care?” “Also, longer maternity leave helps?” Like: All of these things that feminists are advocating FOR WOMEN would actually make parents’ lives easier, in the long run. OR, you could just live a life of heedless wanton non-impregnated self-satisfaction. Until you die, and there is no-one who will visit you at the nursing home. Except for that one robot seal thing.

AMANDA: Right. I mean, is that the whole point of it? That someone will be there to care when I die? That seems to be the last-ditch explanation when I press people on why this is necessary. I’m guessing it’s more like a Stockholm syndrome thing.

SADY: Yeah. Probably. We love our tiny oppressors!

AMANDA: The baby captors stole our happiness! Join us!

23 Comments

  1. aldrovandi wrote:

    Having recently become a mother at the ripe old age of forty-one, I can say that I wasn’t all that surprised by how much work motherhood is. What did surprise me is how much women are expected to be the Default Parent by every-damn-one. When I’m not happy about being a mother, it isn’t because my kid is refusing to go to bed or put a shirt on, it’s because I’m pissed off that all of that stuff is always Mama’s problem.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Permalink
  2. KMTBerry wrote:

    It is not NEW that women are being told that motherhood will insta-fulfull them. Women have been told that since language and culture were invented.

    There may even have been some truth to it when we lived tribally, and failing to produce children brought on tons of shame and decreased worth. The way things are NOW, though, it is a double-whammy: You are told you won’t be fulfilled unless you have them, and having them is made ULTRA-EXPENSIVE and difficult, and THEN you are told that your worth in the marketplace (where all our worth is decided) is near-zero because you are a mother and therefore cannot be promoted and cannot REALLY have the best interests of the Company at heart.

    Plus, YOU decided to have kids so TOUGH TITTY!

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  3. JoannaWNYC wrote:

    I think having a child can be very fulfilling. It’s a difficult thing to do well, and there’s a sense of pride in a job well done. At least that’s how I’ve experienced motherhood. Basically, like any other job. What I DIDN’T like was feeling as though I had 3 jobs (mother, wife, employee) and couldn’t do any of them well. That infuriated me, so I quit my corporate job, started my own business, made my husband start working full-time, and decided to devote myself to my son. That made me a lot happier–not so much because devoting yourself to you child is automatically so fulfilling, but at least I knew where I supposed to be and what my priorities were. It’s harder to cut out on one’s kid or one’s spouse, but jobs are easy enough to kick to the curb. Of course, there is that money thing …

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  4. JfC wrote:

    When I saw the title of this post, I thought it was about how people think it’s so funny when young boys get all prematurely skeevy and perverted about women, and it’s actually terrible. i.e. this kid
    There’s not enough ‘ew’ in the world.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Jessica wrote:

    Best solution, if I were to massively oversimplify the dilemma (and who doesn’t)? Adopt a kid when it’s already past the screaming, diaper-changing age and old enough to realize its parents have feelings. That way, you avoid a big chunk of the misery and still have someone around to regret your death.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  6. One thing I think changed is there is increasingly less reason to have children if you know going in that it’s not going to make you happy. It no longer involves forgoing sex or distinguishing abortifacents from poisons or breaking the law to acquire condoms or convincing your partner to wear condoms or even, I think, in some parts of the U.S., convincing your doctor to prescribe hormonal birth control.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  7. SaraB wrote:

    I don’t have children (yet) but thinking about having them always reminds me of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which my father first introduced me to, then later by an awesome prof.

    At the end of the story it’s said about children that “She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.” This balance between giving up and sacrifice is fascinating. At that’s from 1899.

    Friday, July 9, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink
  8. Melinda wrote:

    What about smug occuppied uteri?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJRzBpFjJS8

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink
  9. Miasma wrote:

    …Is it wrong that I’ve actually given a lot of serious consideration towards what Jessica said before? I like kids (not enough to have them at my age – maybe much later I’ll think about having some) but I am not at all baby friendly.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 6:24 am | Permalink
  10. Girl Detective wrote:

    I just can’t commit to an 18-year relationship with someone I haven’t even met yet.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  11. shallowwater wrote:

    I think there actually is a LOT to the “someone there when I’m old” argument. I’m currently watching my Dad’s family take care of my Grandmother, and she would be so much more fucked if they weren’t around to watch out for her and make decisions about her care. She is basically on the long slow decline and sort of wanders in and out of lucidity. This might be my cynicism talking, but I’m not sure the nursing home has a lot of motivation to provide A++ care when there isn’t a family there keeping an eye on things. Someone has to be paying enough attention to see that it is needed and someone has to make the decision that there is enough money to pay for the live-in companion/move to a more supervised place.

    That said, I’m still not having children. I might be ready for a cat in a few years, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  12. Victoria wrote:

    I get a lot of shit, both on the internet and in real life, for not wanting a baby. Lots and lots of very aggressive shit. And I’ve lost a friend because she cannot accept the idea that my not wanting one doesn’t mean that I don’t want her to have one, which my many other friends with children have happily come to understand.

    But what really frustrates me about this topic is that I can never get anyone to see the forest for the trees. Like: Just because I think it’s a symptom of our fucked up culture that women use their babies’ photos as their Facebook identity while men almost never do does not mean that I don’t want you, personally, to do this, or that I am trying to control other people, etc., no matter how often or how clearly I say so. Because people automatically hit the divide-and-conquer switch on this issue. So instead of getting people to talk about how we need a better social support system for parenting, or how the cultural identification of woman=mother contributes heartily to the problem, everyone I know says, “You’re anti-baby, so you should shut the fuck up.”

    Outside of feminist blogs, in the rhetoric throughout the wider culture, no one seems able to see beyond the personal or individual as concerns baby production. Until they can, we have no chance to make life easier for parents or non-parents.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  13. firefly wrote:

    Like, since the beginning of procreation: DUH. Of course it will be stressful and hard, but what idiot decided it wasn’t so? Society SHOULD accept that some people don’t want to have children and some do, but aren’t fulfilled afterwards. And maybe help them? But if you DO have children, and you were informed beforehand about the possible things that would happen, you DO have a responsibility to raise your children well. Because, they are human too.

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 5:09 pm | Permalink
  14. Maria wrote:

    “The thing is, I don’t think that the news that raising children can be stressful IS NEWS. Like 74% of second-wave feminists were talking about how grueling it is to raise children, and/or to have that as your primary responsibility.”

    This is kind of disingenuous. I mean, you rightly mock the people who say to you “hey it doesn’t surprise anyone that pop culture is sexist, so stop pointing it out!” As we’ve been through so many times before, there are few truly original ideas in the world and hey, why not have more people pointing out that having babies is hard rather than snarking at them for it?

    Saturday, July 10, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  15. Happy Norwegian Mom wrote:

    “Solution: Move to Norway?”

    Actually, I’d second that. Norway is a good place to be a woman, parent or not :-)

    Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  16. Robert wrote:

    Jessica,
    interesting perspective. Both of our sons were five when my husband and I adopted them, which meant we missed out on a lot (sleepless nights, toilet training, puking, etc). It is my impression that many prospective adoptive parents (in the US, at least) have a strong preference for healthy, white infants, which is like having a preference for dating supermodels. Someone gets to do it, but probably not you.

    As a contrast, my younger sister and her husband are childfree by choice, and have no regrets on that score. I don’t know how much shit she’s gotten in her adult life for her decision, but it is probably dwarfed by the shit she gave back in defense of her decision.

    Oddly enough, of all my siblings, the ones who went to college did not procreate; the ones who did not, did.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  17. jeni wrote:

    On the topic of studies on happiness & children, This Emotional Life on PBS (http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/) has an interesting take on both.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink
  18. Tatyanna76 wrote:

    This whole issue and its complexities continue to boggle the mind. For most cultures throughout most of history, having a child wasn’t much of a choice for the majority of women. When it was any sort of choice, it wasn’t based upon happiness. I see a difference today within our culture …with studies of happiness as it pertains to MANY things… we now question whether something brings us “happiness,” preferably immediately, and if not, is there ANY reason to do it at all?

    Sunday, July 11, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  19. emjaybee wrote:

    I always kind of put wanting kids/not wanting kids in the same category as gay/straight. I think most people know which they are, early on, and it’s for the best if everyone is allowed to pursue their preference unhindered.

    I always knew I wanted kids, so much so, that I had to assume anyone who told me they didn’t was telling the truth…because if they felt the same as me, they would say so.

    I also think that one of the biggest problems for women is that wanting kids requires a male partner–and for a lot of women, I think just having kids without having to stress about a legally binding lifetime romantic relationship too would actually work better. But the pressure is there, if not just societally than in terms of financial support and medical insurance. Not that men shouldn’t be involved in child raising, just that they shouldn’t be mandatory.

    Monday, July 12, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink
  20. Jenna wrote:

    I don’t know that I think having a child makes my life any more or less meaningful. My son exists, I love him, and I would like for him to continue to exist. I don’t think anyone needs to be oppressed for choosing to or not to have a little one. Maybe I’m a little less stressed because my hetero-male partner is currently the stay-at-homer most of the week. We’ve gone through several work/ education transitions, some where I’m doing the majority of the childcare and vis versa.

    Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  21. Kate wrote:

    I think a lot about this – I have thought a lot about it since before I was an adult. Did I want kids or not? Initially it was a HELL NO because of the terrible relationship I have with my mother. Then it was well, maybe. It seems nice, but I am not sure I’m cut out for it. And now I’m in a commited relationship with a man with two teenage boys, who is done with the kid thing.

    My primary emotion about this is relief. It takes the decision away. And I am almost accross the board happy with this. Because I like the IDEA of having kids, but when it comes down to it, I like sleep-ins and quiet and things staying where they are put more. I like all the things I can do now and in the future that kids would negate. I like kids, and I want to be around them – I am trying NOT to peer pressure all my friends into procreating for my vicarious benefit, because I want to be a part of a big extended family. I just don’t want to grow someone in my uterus.

    I found Victoria’s take interesting because some people (parents and not) have reacted very negatively, and some with genuine interest and support. I feel like that reflects more on themselves and how they feel about their own choices, rather than me. One of my close friends (well, she was before she gave birth… sigh) who is struggling with being a new mother, cannot comprehend why I am not upset about not having kids. Other close friends are happy to talk to me and help me work out what I’m thinking, and I appreicate it so much.

    I did have a moment yesterday where I saw a photo of an adorable girl in an adorable dress with a peter pan collar and I just felt a PANG. And then I thought ‘it’s lies. All the things I want in this moment, they are lies.’ I don’t mean that children are not wonderful and beautiful and bring joy. It’s just that they are not magic, and they are not intrinsically any better than any of the other many, many things in my life that bring me joy. Things that don’t have sticky fingers and loud yells. And I know myself, and how bad I feel when I’m tired and there is loud noise, and how badly I react. I don’t want to be that person. I admire people who sail through that with equanimity, or who grit their teeth and do what is a really fucking hard job. I don’t choose to. On the other hand, I’m signing myself up to be many people’s emergency babysitter, for when they just. cannot. stand it for one more second. I think that’ll balance out nicely.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 1:48 am | Permalink
  22. Melissa wrote:

    It’s a triple-whammy, KMTBerry, because if you take the other option and decide NOT to have kids, people (including employers) think you must be somehow mentally and emotionally defective and therefor not to be trusted with anything important. I’m not a mother, so I must not be a real grownup.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  23. Christen wrote:

    Melissa, yes. One of the expressions I most despise is “starting a family” and its variants (“he has a family,” etc.). I don’t have children, buuuut I have had to take time off work to deal with illness in my family, in close succession with a coworker’s maternity leave. It could just be perception — and my coworker had more seniority than I did anyway — but I really didn’t feel I was cut nearly the scheduling and deadlining slack that she was.

    Other side of the coin is that the majority of my friends (male and female) are adamantly in the Don’t Want Kids camp and as someone who wants them (though I lean toward adopting, /partly/ because that option buys me more time to get career, financial and relationship-al traction, which, at 29, I do not have), I can report having had similar experiences on the opposite side of the Want Kids fence. I’ve distanced myself from certain friends, partly because of the vitriol with which they speak about children, parents and people who want children. I get that a lot of them have chips on their shoulders because their families, etc. are putting pressure on them? But. Gah.

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

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