In response to this.
(I didn’t mean to be so snarky. Seriously, not having kids is totally cool. Just don’t be so friggin’ clueless, ya know?!)
I am about to tell you something that may shock you. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Okay.
I have always wanted children.
Now let me be clear, it’s not that I wanted my life to fit into a white picket fence ideal. It’s not that I wanted to find a suitable babydaddy, marry him, buy a house, and then have a string of babies.
I have always known that I wanted children and also to do other cool stuff.
If I’m being totally honest, that’s largely because I adore children. I’m good with them. I have spent my whole life being part of a family that enjoys children, and I have always delighted in those deep and strong kinship networks. When my twin four year old cousins lived with us briefly while I was fourteen, I would race home from school to take them to the park. Yet, I could be the poster girl for a childless career lifestyle: academically successful, the daughter of a no-nonsense feminist mother, keen to make it in a male-dominated area, etc. And as such, I have also always known that having children would clash with career aspirations. When I hold a baby (and yes please I want to cuddle yours, thanks for offering), I feel so at peace. And so, I’ve always been extremely clear that motherhood was something I wanted in my life. I’ve never understood why some people think that makes me less interested in politics, or travel, or philosophical debate, or life in general. Maybe they don’t have a ton of experience with children. Maybe they have no idea that children are fascinating. And so, I’m extremely awkward when I read a diatribe about why it is radical to not want children, because it seems to me that not wanting children is entirely congruent with contemporary social values. Our society at large has no idea how to interact with children younger than 12. Children are a mystery to many people.
My feminist family has also made me equal parts argumentative and nurturing. This is, admittedly, not a great combination if you want to fit in with a patriarchal social structure, but it’s a fantastic combination if you want to challenge this structure while also constantly caring for another, smaller human being who can’t fend for itself yet. And I have no desire to change these things about myself. It’s who I am, and I like who I am. I like the life I have and the life I envision for myself in the future: I am also daunted by how difficult it will be to work to make the world a better place while also seeking to give the little dude a secure place within it.
Now, none of this is meant to be a knock against folks who want to live life without children. If that’s what you want to do, then you should do it. Childlessness gives you a lot more options for independence and spontaneity and a reckless devil-may-care lifestyle and career success that make so many feel fulfilled and happy. And that’s great, but it’s not for everyone.
We live in a society — in a world, really — where it is assumed that the default desire of women is to have children, and yet child-rearing is not valued in any meaningful way. Producing offspring is supposedly so hardwired into not only who a woman is, but also who she is supposed to be, that it is its own reward and supposedly all a woman can desire. If she wants to have children and also to do other things, she must be somehow lacking as a mother. She has deviated from the societal norm regarding what is expected of her, and therefore she’s defective. She’s arguably less accepted than women who do not have children, for they can be seen as honorary men; she is also arguably less accepted than women whose only focus is their children (provided those women aren’t single parents on a benefit). Not that any of these groups are as accepted or socially valued as much as cis men, who can have any level of desire for children and involvement with children and it’s all fine and no one thinks less of them for it. Women, all women, are assumed to be not fully capable of making their own decisions. Perhaps she is simply wrong about what she wants. She clearly does not know her own mind, and if given enough time (and, perhaps, enough patronizing lectures about how women should be thankful that at least we can vote now) she will learn to just shut up and not tell people what she wants and give non-committal answers, because it’s just easier than always trying to justify her own experiences and thoughts. And if you think I am being hyperbolic about any of this, you have clearly never been a woman who has expressed an opinion out loud. Believe me, I have encountered all of this rhetoric at one time or another.
There are, rather obviously, a number of things wrong with these stereotypical notions of who women should be and what they should want (thanks, patriarchy). I am convinced that there are few things more frustrating in this world than expressing how you feel, and then being told you actually have no right to speak. The response I’ve been given the most often when I tell someone that the world is really not well set up for children and their caregivers is an indifferent shrug. The response I’ve been given the most often when say I want more kids but also to do postgraduate study at some stage and also to continue to progress in my career is “But why bother, your husband has a good job.” Full disclosure: that’s not why I married him. And yes, my child is still very young, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m incapable of coming to a mature, well-reasoned conclusion about who I am and what I want for my life both as a mother and as a person who was already a person before she became a mother, you know what I’m saying? The casual dismissal of mothers as interesting people with their own aspirations is infuriating at best, and dehumanizing at worst. Let us also acknowledge not only the vast amount of sexism contained within these ideas, but also the insensitivity to the different challenges people experience in life as well. Not all people who want children end up having children, some women are mothers to children they did not bear and birth, some women give up their children to be raised by other people, some women raise children alone in a society that uses “sole mother” as a code word for “useless”. Some women, including trans women, yearn for children but their bodies are unable to fulfill this desire. Gender stereotypes end up being all the more harmful because they do not accommodate a world where we don’t have complete control over our circumstances. Cultural norms thus end up being exclusionary to the many folks whose lives are for one reason or another, a bit at variance with the norm.
Throughout my teenage years and into my early twenties, as I became more and more certain about wanting children with the awesome guy I met and started dating at uni, I consciously sought to resist a lot of these ideas about who I was supposed to be as a woman and a partner, and what I was supposed to be wanting and feeling. There’s all this talk about women who give up their career aspirations for their husbands as they begin to contemplate a family. I wasn’t feeling anything of the sort. I recoiled inside at the thought of not having an interesting career built upon my years of study. I thought the idea of sublimating ones career goals for husband and family went out with the last wave of feminism. I didn’t understand. What was wrong with the world?
Then, about a year ago, when my child was born, I slowly began to come around to a surprising revelation:
There is an abundance of things wrong with normative conceptions of motherhood.
I do not want to spend most of my time with the little dude, and that’s ok. As it turns out, wanting a break makes me a better mother when I’m with him. But I also don’t want to spend most of my time at work, and that’s okay too. As it turns out, not wanting to work long hours does not make me less of an ambitious, driven person with a desire to change the world. I am not defecting from the feminist club when I leave work early. I am not wrong. I know my own mind. I know that I have intrinsic value to my son as his one and only adoring mama, and that value is fundamentally incompatible with spending the majority of my time apart from him. Wanting to be with him sits best with my idea of how I want to be a mother, which is only one idea, and no better or worse than anyone else’s. But it’s not just a choice I’ve made about my own life. It’s a choice I make in very constrained circumstances, because there is no-one else in his family who is able to care for him during working hours, even though they might want to. And that, to me, gets at the real heart of feminism: patriarchal structures and value systems are inextricably tied up with the capitalist economy in a way that is bad for everyone who seeks meaning through social connection rather than consumerism.
Now, if you happen to know any ways to restructure society so that it is better for people of all genders, call me. I’m positively nuts about solidarity.