I posted two links in News the other day about the irksomeness of compulsory child-bearing. Is it any wonder that a teasing name gays like to give straights is ‘breeders’?! Anyone would think we were all living in Augustan Rome, where the dear Emperor passed laws that penalized naughty people who refused to get married, much to the disgust of women and men who preferred not to. Is child-bearing likely to die out soon? Is all this social pressure necessary for some dire reason that has escaped my attention? Yes I know Italy has a very low birth rate and that there are worries about pensions and so on, but still, if you look at the planet as a whole, it’s hard to claim that new humans are in short supply.
Rose Shepherd tells a quite surprising story of someone at a dinner party actually upbraiding her and calling her names, not to mention asking the most extraordinary questions, because she had the gall to say that motherhood was not for her.
The funny thing was that this woman was so right-on. I fancy that, if I had announced that I was into cross-dressing, or paganism, or group sex with women, she would have humoured me with polite enquiry. I would not have been subject to the personal, intrusive interrogation, or the criticisms that followed my admission that motherhood was simply not for me. Why had I not had children?…Was there a physical problem?…Was my own childhood so miserable?…Was my relationship too rocky, or too tenuous?…To be a parent, said the woman, was a social obligation. Whereas, to omit to try to have a child is not only against nature, but is ‘spoilt’, when there are women who cannot have a longed-for baby. Did I not want a stake in the future? Immortality through the bloodline? Someone to care for me in old age?
Someone to take a machete to outrageous people at dinner parties? I don’t know, maybe I don’t get out enough, but I find the behavior described quite astonishing. But then the dear old Bishop of Rochester isn’t much better, although even he perhaps draws the line at saying such things to individuals across dinner tables – one can hope, at least.
Three years ago, the Bishop of Rochester voiced society’s prejudice when he dubbed as ‘self-indulgent’ those who chose not to have children. Couples have a duty to have a family, he argued.
Self-indulgent, spoilt – in contrast to all those devoted, self-sacrificing people who have no desire at all to have children but do it anyway out of a sense of duty. Yeah right.
And Zoe Williams makes the important point that this sort of thing is very anti-feminist, though, oddly, few people seem to notice the fact.
There is no room here for analysis or imagination – for women, at least, experience is all. If we are to accept this as truth, then non-mothers exist in a kind of cognitive half-light, and we are inchoate and immature. Since the average age for childbirth is now around 30, this thinking effectively infantilises women below that age and completely rejects the opinions of the permanently childless. So much of the motherhood discourse is dressed up as feminism when, in fact, this does nothing but denigrate women by reducing them to their biological function and excising from all debate those who fail to fulfil it.
Just so. It’s all so backwards. The feminism I know and love is the kind that pointed out, rather loudly and boisterously, some three decades ago that women are allowed to choose whether or not to have children and that not all of them want to and there is nothing wrong with that. But here we are having to re-invent the wheel all over again.
By an interesting coincidence, when I saw those stories, I had just been reading a collection of reviews by Colin McGinn which included one from the New Republic (October 3, 1994) of two books on ‘feminist’ morality. He gets some good mileage out of talking about Hume, Moore and Bernard Williams ‘because they constitute something of an embarrassment for the historical and psychological theory put forward by some feminist philosophers’ since they make similar points despite being, not to put too fine a point on it, men. And then he makes an even better point, which I marked with not one tick but two, meaning not just important but very important.
Actually, it strikes me as somewhat reactionary, from a feminist point of view, to give mothering the central role. If mothering is where real goodness lies, then we are all under an obligation to be mothers, since we should strive to be as good as possible; but since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ only women fall under this edict, and so all – and only – women are obliged to be mothers…But this assigns to women the patriarchal obligation of having children and bringing them up, with this obligation morally trumping any other projects that they might entertain.
Exactly so. And how this came to be called or thought of as feminism is an interesting question. Difference feminism has a lot to answer for.