Saturday, August 10, 2013

Learning to Mind Our Own Business, or, Getting Out of the Mommy Wars For Good

Recently Time magazine unleashed another wave of mommy war teeth gnashing with its article on childless living: The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children" by Lauren Sandler. Since I haven’t been reading Time lately -  I did not renew my subscription to Time after being so irritated by the bizarre article on Dr. Sears and Attachment Parenting they ran last year - I first saw mention of it via a friend’s Facebook post. I was particularly interested in the way the article linked in the post phrased is was something along the lines of, “Even women like us who don’t even have kids yet have now been pulled into the mommy wars! Women can't make anyone happy whatever they do!” Later I happened to catch a radio show with the article's author and was struck by the personal angle she was coming from - she had felt judged as a mother with only one child, and saw her childless friends also feeling harassed, so concluded that an article exploring the benefits of not having children would be a great thing.

But really what the article and the radio show came down to me is that women in general feel a tremendous pressure to conform to a cultural ideal of two children. Women who have no children or only one child feel that their motives are openly scrutinized and naturally become defensive about why they want to live “childfree,” all for reasons that most parents can agree that yes, are easier without children (more time for oneself, more money, more time for career, etc). What I desperately wanted to point out reading this was that actually women on the other “wrong” side of the cultural idea also get tremendous loads of scrutiny put on them for their larger families. Any women whose family portraits veer much to either side of this two kid norm experience uncomfortable - and inexplicable - pressure to conform. While it might be appropriate from a sociological standpoint to ask why our nation’s birth rate is falling, and what steps might need to be taken as a nation to support childbearing in general, these are not the tone of questions being asked. Most voices in the media seem perfectly gleeful to stir up debate over what decision is superior for various reasons, but the question I want to ask is,

“Why is any of this anyone’s business in the first place?”

Why something as intimate, nuanced, and personal as childbearing considered to be open season for public critique? Why do we feel  comfortable venturing questions of family size or timing with anyone but very close relations? And if a question is asked and answered, how can any of us really feel comfortable telling that woman what she should do? Of course we hope its that we want the best for her, but in reality, we won’t be the one juggling career and baby, or wondering guiltily if we are missing out by staying home with them, or any of the myriad considerations that having children involves. We are the village around that woman and possible children, certainly, but what kind of village are we? Instead of warm and supportive, we have become shrill and combative. Its no wonder that the “Mommy Wars” have become such an apt description of the tension women today feel over their family decisions. When someone is judged and berated, they usually respond with defensiveness and will naturally feel threatened by others who are not in their camp. Its become such a vicious cycle that some women feel completely alienated from friends and family who make different choices than them, and this is truly ridiculous.

Fair disclosure: I am a mother of four children, who while not being perfectly timed, I am thrilled nonetheless to have had just when they happened to be born. I know the bone tiredness, the emotional stress, the overwhelmed days, the financial juggling - I know them very well. My husband and I agreed on the decision that I would postpone my career to take care of our kids at home while they are young, and now we even homeschool them, pushing back my reentry into the paid economy even further. Both of these decisions I wholeheartedly believe are correct for us, but I also consider them deeply personal and not at all transferrable to the general public. The fact that this is what we have chosen to do does not mean that we think everyone else should do it. Its simply not our business. We will happily share our hopes for this lifestyle with others who ask (and I have been asked a lot - rolling in scientific and academic circles we are not at all the norm), but we try to do so without pretension that ours is universally superior, but only that after careful thought, it is preferable to us.

Unfortunately today it seems that just the act of making decisions for your family has become synonymous with choosing a side in hyped-up war. I have learned from being at the awkward answering end of casual  questions about “will we have more?” to being told by a stranger that I have too many kids and need to "get a new hobby," that a woman’s reproductive activity has been snatched out of from under the protection of culturally assumed privacy and thrust into the realm of vocal public scrutiny. After fielding these kinds of questions for years (a youngish mom with a gaggle of children in the grocery store always seems to draw attention, even when everyone is behaving themselves), I’ve become convinced that any leading questions to a woman about kids - when she’s having them, how many she wants to have - anything - are usually unwelcome and not really appropriate. We need to kindle a sense of deep respect for the privacy that the process of family planning - whether that family decides that they want no kids or fifteen - deserves.

The real problem - and the root of the mommy wars - is that  we as a culture have suddenly been presented with more options than ever before for what a woman’s life can look like and we just cannot accept that one woman’s ideal can be - will be -  different that another’s. But we are not automatons, and one size, one life, does not fit all. And this is not only okay, its wonderful.

I want to challenge every woman especially to  refuse  to buy into the tension and drama that swirls around us. We need to let go of the judgmental attitudes we've bristled under and nasty comments we have heard in response to our decisions and make a commitment  to support and encourage other women in our lives - especially those women that have made different decisions than we have about family or career. Give insight when asked, but no judgement. No snippy comments or veiled insults. Let’s be comfortable enough with our own decisions that we don’t feel the need to convince anyone else to make the same ones. Once we do this, the mommy wars will have no fuel to burn on, and all women - those with and without children - will be better off for it.

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