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Posts Tagged ‘childfree’

Between “Are You Mom Enough?” (aka the extremely controversial Time Magazine breastfeeding cover) and Elisabeth Badinter’s extremely controversial book The Conflict, which cast a critical eye on the current trend (among some sets) toward attachment parenting, and the Daily Mail’s latest offense, about the “ambitious career women” who don’t want kids and “enforce childlessness” upon their partners, sometimes you have to wonder whose finger is on the trigger when it comes to the war on women.

While the media and the talking heads sling headlines and talking points, we’re all just left to slug it out. Or, more likely, to reserve the slugs and instead talk behind each other’s backs, feel guilty, worry that we’re doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong. That what we’re doing is wrong.

Which is bad enough. But what kills me is this: When was the last time you saw a magazine cover asking “Are You Dad Enough?” or a piece worrying for the women married to “career-driven” men who deprive them of parenthood? (Then again, men rarely “enforce childlessness” because they generally don’t have to choose between career and parenthood… because mom–whether she’s career-oriented or not–will be there to do the lion’s share. Not to mention the gestating, the birthing, and the breastfeeding. As a friend once observed, for men, parenthood is an addition to everything else in their lives; for women, it’s a choice. The trade-offs are more stark.) Would a man’s choice to embrace his traditional breadwinning role with gusto be marked as an end to progress, or to opt out of parenthood as a harbinger of the downfall of society as we know it?

Men’s roles haven’t changed much. Yes, the dads of today are likely more involved in their children’s lives than their own dads were in theirs. Yes, they probably do more of the chores than their dads did, but these are incremental moves we’re talking about. And precious few worry that a dad picking up the dry cleaning or making dinner somehow constitutes an attack on “family values”—or that a man who doesn’t want to have kids is somehow defective or unnatural. A man’s minor deviations beyond the confines of his traditional gender role are rarely seen as cause for alarm.

Women are the ones who have changed – and who have fought, every step of the way, for those changes… changes that have, in turn (and slowly) affected the incremental changes in men and (slower still) in the structures of society. Perhaps it’s because our rights remain under attack, because our position still feels tenuous, because we still have such a ways to go, that our reflexive response to trend stories about opting out or real-life trends toward attachment parenting or aprons as fashion statement is that it will undermine feminism. We’re still on shaky ground.

And because it’s shaky, we cling to our positions ferociously. With our newfound freedom to do things any which way, it’s harder to feel that what we’re doing is right. Or even just good enough. And because women today have been raised on the message that we can do anything, we do whatever it is we do with a certain amount of ferocity. The same ambition some might turn on in the boardroom, some will focus onto their children.

And because it’s shaky, there will be those who will insist that the old way was the right way.

The thing is, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The parameters of women’s lives have changed. We have our reproductive rights—and will fight for them no matter what right-winged extremist boogieman appears claiming God and the Founding Fathers wanted women beholden to our uteri. We have access and opportunity and can do all kinds of things with our lives. We can parent—or not parent—as we see fit. And that is a good thing.

The “enough” I worry about is this: when will there be enough change–enough change to the structures, attitudes, finger-pointing, and self-doubt–that “choices,” in all their forms, will be available, realistic, safe, and workable for all women?

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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On a recent trip to D. C., I was out to dinner with some long-lost family friends and their very accomplished, 20-something daughter who’d just moved to the city after earning her Masters of Public Administration and subsequently landing a seriously fat job working for the government, something she’s always wanted to do. She’d come directly to dinner from the office — never mind that it was, in fact, a Saturday. She was tired, but lit up whenever she got to talking about what was going on at work. But the second she left the table, her parents expressed more than a little bit of worry: How will she ever meet anyone when she’s working so hard? A standard parental concern, of course, but she seemed pretty happy with her new gig. A gig which, it bears repeating, is seriously impressive — and one she’d worked really hard to score.

I have another friend, a single 30-something living a life in New York City that Carrie Bradshaw would have envied. I’ve known her and her family for years, and her mom always says, Oh, but I think deep down she really just wants to be a stay-at-home mom.

Then: lunch last week, with yet another friend. Young, super educated and very successful. Not that into kids, but considering freezing her eggs. (To the tune of somewhere around $12,000.)

And finally: just today I got an email from another friend — a journalist whose job has taken her around the world. In fact, she and her husband just returned from a year in Africa, an adventure they’d deemed too amazing to pass up. And they were right. Now that they’re back, though, they’re thinking baby thoughts. As in, at 36 years old, it’s now or… well, maybe never — which means not just baby thoughts, but thoughts about boarding the infertility express. (To the tune around $12,000… a round.)

All of which has me wondering: These are all women — happy women — who have experienced some seriously amazing accomplishments, women who are living lives they are pretty happy to be living. And yet, the perception is that there’s no way they could be really happy unless they have a man on their arm and a baby on their hip. Not to say there’s anything wrong with a man or a baby — on the contrary! — but these women are happy today. So why the constant focus on what’s “missing”?

The conspiracy theorist in me sees a touch of The Beauty Myth-variety dynamics at play. Here’s a bit of what Naomi Wolf wrote in the 1991 book:

The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.

Consider: Recent years have seen major changes in women’s position in society (we’re now the majority of the workforce, earning more degrees, and an increasing number of wives are the main breadwinner in a marriage) and in our behavior around marriage and motherhood (age of first marriage and first child are rising, and numbers of women who’ve chosen to be child-free are steadily on the uptick, as well).

And… backlash!

Recent years also have seen an explosion in what might be described as a fetishization of these traditional female roles. Bump watches abound, and weddings have gone off the reservation. (After yesterday’s announcement that they’re getting divorced, Kim Kardashian’s $10 million dollar wedding on Aug. 20 to NBA star Kris Humphries breaks down to $138,888 a day. That must have been one hell of a cake.) Professional “glamour” maternity photos are becoming as ubiquitous as the professional engagement portrait.

I’m not saying that we don’t — or shouldn’t — want love and marriage and a baby carriage. But if we don’t, the cultural forces at work sure do their best to change our minds.

We have more choices than ever before, and we’ve been told we can have it all. But, instead of fully enjoying what we do have, how often are we worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t? And — worse! — when we’re not worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t have yet, how much time are we forced to spend explaining that, no, we really are quite happy… time that could be spent, you know, actually being happy?

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A bunch of stuff in my inbox had me pondering a rather big question over my morning cuppa Josephine today, dear reader: What does it mean to be a woman? Can a woman who opts out of marriage or motherhood, or into math, still be considered feminine? And how do such not-quite-totally-conscious hang-ups play into our choices? (Had I known this was to be the territory my mind would be traversing, I might have opted for something stronger than coffee.)

First, check the rundown: Item #1: Danielle Friedman’s Daily Beast piece “Childless and Loving It,” in which Friedman wonders what’s behind the growing number of women (today, one in five of us; that’s up from one in ten in the 70s) opting out of babymaking. Here’s a bit of it:

Many scientists believe the seemingly biological drive some women feel isn’t triggered by biology so much as culture–combined with a fertility deadline. Not only is having children more socially acceptable, says evolutionary biologist David Barash… but for many, as a life goal, it represents a source of happiness and belonging in the same way that attending college or pursuing a career might. Evolution has bestowed upon women a desire for sex and the equipment to have a baby; from here, free will steps in.

…Despite their growing visibility, such women still report feeling stigmatized…

To offer support and like-minded companionship, a thriving subculture of websites, forums, and meet-up groups has emerged. On TheChildfreeLife.com, discussion topics include childfree issues at work and “non-children” (i.e., pets) among others. The social group No Kidding boasts dozens of chapters in the U.S. and abroad. While most espouse a “live and let live” mentality, some groups take a more in-your-face approach to living childfree–a message perhaps best illustrated on this T-shirt, emblazoned with “Why would I want kids? I’m ENJOYING my life.”

Chewing on that one, I clicked on another, sent by way of mediabistro.com’s newsletter: “Single Women Rule Sets Blog Crawl.”

In an effort to rebuke the myth that “all single women talk about all day long is how to land a man,” Single Women Rule will present its second annual Blog Crawl for National Unmarried and Single Americans (USA) Week Sept. 19-25.

National Unmarried and Single Americans Week…who knew? But, back to the point, the blog crawl will send readers to a different single-minded (ahem, couldn’t help it) blog for each day of the week, to broaden the conversation about living single while female.

And then came a visit from Winnie Cooper. Or Danica McCellar, The Wonder Years’ Winnie’s real-life counterpart, who now spends her days posing in sexy spreads for lad mags like Maxim–and penning texts on… Math.

Yes, math. Turns out Winnie’s got quite a brain on her, having received her degree in mathematics from UCLA, and co-authored a complex theorem that’s named after her. But hers are not your mother’s (or, likely, your) textbooks. With names like “Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math,” and the hot-off-the-presses, “Hot X: Algebra Exposed!” McCellar’s found a somewhat problematic answer to the long-asked question of how to get girls more interested in math: convince them that doing so with make them sexy, pretty, and popular. Cosmo-style Calculus. Kinda makes you want to cringe–until you remember how smart she is. Which just leaves you a little flummoxed. Progress? Pandering?

A Q and A on Salon addresses the contradiction:

Salon: [McCellar's] books feature cheekily sexy titles and fluffy packaging–the cover of “Hot X” promises “boy-crazy confessionals!” Is she sending mixed messages that compromise her mission–or just making savvy marketing moves?

…the stereotype persists that being a highly intelligent female just isn’t sexy. Many people think it’s just harmful for adolescent girls to be so concerned with their sex appeal. But you tell girls, “Smart is sexy.” Do you worry that you’re seeming to suggest that it’s OK to do well in school as long as it doesn’t get in the way of being sexy?

DM: When you’re a teenager, it’s really hard to figure out who you are. Girls are being inundated with movies and billboards and TV shows and magazines, 24-7, with images of women portrayed as nothing more than sex objects. When they’re getting the message that you have to choose–when they really believe that they have to be the smart nerd girl or they can be fun and sexy but kind of slutty–if that’s what they think their choices are, then that’s a very dangerous message to be giving them. Because what looks like more fun? It looks like more fun to be fun and sexy.

Let’s remove that idea that you have to choose. You can be fun and flirty and really, really smart, because you know you don’t have to dumb yourself down. Dumbing yourself down only has to do with mimicking this one particular form of what the media tells us is attractive. And the stereotype that you have to be dumb to avoid intimidating men is really, really insulting to guys as well. That’s why my books look more like teen magazines than math books. Because I don’t want girls to think, “Oh, well, here are the only images I ever see of women who are good at math–they look like, you know, schoolmarms, or whatever.” Let me show you that you can customize your life any way you want.

Perhaps it’s just me, but taken together, in boom-boom-boom fashion, I got to wondering. About, as I mentioned, what it means to be a woman–and messaging and acceptance and community and validation. Each one has a certain you’re-not-alone component. Which is all good, especially if knowing you’re not alone makes living outside the confines of the traditional female roles more comfortable. And especially given the other thing they all have in common: the perceptions women who are childfree or single or who really, really get off on math are up against. But the flipside of that is an undercurrent that makes me wonder… like, maybe, for whatever reason, we need to know that we’re not alone in order to feel okay about our choices. Which is totally human–and also, frankly, nonsense. Because, like your teacher may have told you back when you decided you really just didn’t get math anymore (which, studies show, most girls do, right around middle school–even if they’re getting As), every one of us is a unique little snowflake. And while it’s nice to have company, we shouldn’t need it to feel free to be who we are, to make the choices that are right for us. And I wonder if the need for company makes our choices harder, not least because seeking it out, following proscribed paths–even off-the-beaten-path paths–means we never spend any time honing the skills we need to make decisions based only on what we want.

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