Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Nurture Assumption


Last night I was having dinner with my boyfriend's family who were in town visiting from Pennsylvania. My boyfriend and I have been dating for over four years, and although the possibility of marriage has been discussed recently, it’s still something that lingers far into the distant future, if it happens at all. This is something that bothers his family greatly. They would have liked to see us married already, and his mother never ceases to articulate how I am "so far behind the rest of the family." In a family where all the women had their first baby by the time they could drive, one would think that being "behind" would be viewed as a blessing, however, I have come to find that his family views the fact that we are not planning the table settings for our "future" wedding, let alone where our child will attend preschool, with discontent. Last night at dinner, I finally stopped biting my tongue and articulated my uncertainty over whether or not I see having children at all, there was silence for a moment, followed by the inevitable exclamation:

“Why?!?!”

This reaction encompasses the very thing that I despise about his family, about my colleagues at work (all of whom have children), and about a society that views women who choose not to have children as somehow defiant.

There is no particular explanation for why I don’t want to have children. Suffice it to say that I am perfectly content with working with other people’s children and returning them to their parents at the end of the day. I want to go back to school, I want to live in France for a period of time, I want to take spur of the moment weekend vacations to the mountains, which I admit sounds selfish, and yet I don’t see anything wrong with being selfish in this sense. Why is it that my boyfriend's family views my not wanting children as somehow abnormal? Why is it assumed that women who have nothing medically preventing them from having children automatically want them?

A piece of an article by Jennifer Kahn on this "Nurture Assumption" (read the whole thing here)... an oldie but a goodie:


For whatever reason (perhaps because I've never been a major consumer of popular culture), I never felt particularly pressured by these seemingly ubiquitous forces. Instead, in my late 20s, as the question of children became the sticking point in an otherwise happy three-year relationship, I did what any self-respecting academic would: I went to the university library and searched the card catalog for books that addressed the question of non-motherhood. It was a disappointing survey. In the end, I found only three that even sounded promising: "Motherhood: A Feminist Perspective" by Jane Price Knowles and Ellen Cole, "The Retreat from Motherhood" by Samuel Blumenfeld and "Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity" by Mardy Ireland.

Lying on my bed that night, I chose "The Retreat from Motherhood" to look at first. Written in the mid '70s, it turned out to be one man's diatribe against the anti-natalist forces that were supposedly brainwashing women away from their natural inclination to make babies. Clearly alarmed, Blumenfeld went so far as to assert that "the 44,340,000 potential mothers in our country have become the target of an immense amount of propaganda urging them not to have children," and added that mothers were beginning to be regarded as "villains" and "contributors to 'people pollution' [rather] than givers of the gift of life." Would that it were so! The idea that pro-natalist propaganda has been both ubiquitous and at a giant ideological advantage by virtue of its long-standing cultural preeminence is one that eludes Mr. Blumenfeld -- whose view is, after all, rather reductionist. (The 44,340,000 women in our country are all potential mothers? Why not potential astrophysicists or poets?)

Nor was the anthology "Motherhood: A Feminist Perspective" much better, despite being compiled almost 20 years later by a pair of feminist scholars. The sole chapter devoted to childlessness, written by one Anita Landa, begins: "Since I am a developmental psychologist rather than a therapist, I do not feel competent to advise clinicians on the treatment of voluntarily childless women ..." and goes on to characterize voluntarily childless woman as "androgynous" and "atypical, but not abnormal."

There are, of course, many reasons why these atypical women have ended up childless. The "difficult childhood" is Landa's favored hypothesis, and she specifically cites the "death or disabling of sibling, the institutionalization of parents, divorce, the disruption of war, the insecurity of economic setbacks and the upheaval of major geographic moves" as likely causes of voluntary childlessness. It is a strange list. Taken together, the first two causes point to very deep psychological trauma indeed, while the latter four are so general as to be meaningless. Surely not all women whose families were "disrupted" by World War II went on to be child-free. And one likewise doubts that women whose families suffered "the insecurity of economic setbacks" eschewed motherhood purely out of financial fear.

Strangely, after perpetuating any number of stereotypes herself (that childless women are somehow mentally ill and require treatment; that they are more masculine than "normal" women and related more to their father than to their mother), Landa goes on to say that "nowhere in the literature is there evidence to support the stereotypes" about childless women. "While manhood is not defined in terms of fatherhood, the female archetypes remain bound to reproductive functions," she notes, rather obviously, and adds, "Childless women feel defensive about the confounding of womanhood with motherhood, but they are in continual danger of internalizing the prejudicial stereotypes."

Alas, that this is so true. As Mardy Ireland observes in "Reconceiving Women," "It is nearly impossible to think about the adult woman who is not a mother without the spectre of 'absence.' Why?"

Why indeed? A friend once asked me whether I would feel differently about having children if I were a man. I agreed that I would, at least in terms of my willingness to go along with the wishes of a procreatively inclined partner. Why this is, is unclear. Certainly it goes beyond the onus of bearing children; nor does it arise purely out of what Ireland coyly calls "the limited role of the traditional father in childcare." Even assuming that I would have a husband who puts in more than his 50 percent, I can't shake a certain conviction: that if a man walks away from his role as a parent, it's considered irresponsible; if a woman does, it's unforgivable.

If acculturation is but one component of the woman-as-mother solipsism, however, it is still a broad and subtle one. That afternoon, with my own charge sleeping peacefully in the stroller, I watched a woman who looked to be in her 30s walk quickly past the scattered groups of mothers and children that had aggregated on the park's green lawn. Head down (as I imagine mine would also have been -- the guilty, eye-averting posture that one adopts when passing panhandlers, religious zealots and other groups that make one feel both embarrassed and a little fearful), she hurried along the path. To my surprise, I found myself thinking that this woman -- this woman with whom I instinctively identified -- looked lonely as she hurried by, strollerless and babyless. For the briefest of moments I even felt sorry for her: for the fact that she would never experience the powerful open-heartedness of parenting; the great, weightless relief of dedicating so much of one's time and effort to the welfare of another being.

It was an illuminating moment, and a perplexing one. The great stereotype about non-procreators is that they are selfish -- an odd claim given that few people, if any, have children out of altruism. Aside from the most dogmatically religious (who see it as a duty to God) and the most dogmatically nationalist (who see it as a duty to their race), people have children because they want them, because having children has its perks: the chance to create and shape another being, to see one's genetic material continue into the indefinite future, to give one's life a larger sense of purpose. And yet, I understood. Understood how for parents this dedicating of oneself to the greater purpose of one's children can be an almost religious conviction. And how this can lead the "saved" to regard the "unsaved" with both horror and pity -- much the way I look at people who watch a lot of TV.