Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Why the Logic of Burden?

Watch out! A post spun from navel gazing ahead!

As a very pregnant feminista, spending more and more time at home preparing for the baby and my life to change, I can't help but muse on the way that many, well-meaning, liberal, smart friends of mine talk about having children. I am barraged lately with rather depressing, if not a tad threatening, comments about how my sanity, my peace of mind, my relationship, my freedom are all about to be gone.

Where does this come from? Perhaps this is the stern rhetoric that is shoved down our throats as a kind of "family planning" measure. Surely we are a society that has come to represent having and raising children as an absolute drain on our autonomy, self-reliance, and liberty. Sadly, the conservative "family values" pack has better rhetoric on children than the left does. We all bemoan how much we lose and then, almost as an afterthought, smile wide and say "but I never knew how much I could love . . ." The trade off always seems a bit off: my life for the child's. This frame of reference seems wholly toxic for parents to be.

When I got sick a few months ago, a nurse in the emergency room said: "when you finally have your child, you will see how selfish you really are." Not long after that, a former student, who works at a magazine aimed a parents told me that she reads mounds of letters from stressed out, depressed, and ravaged mothers begging for a "spa day." These sort of sentiments in the air are truly toxic and yet we seem to pick them up, utter them, roll our eyes in a knowing way and carry on the meme.

One of the ways in which the Dems seem like losers to young, idealistic people (like many of my students) is because they are essentially uninspiring in their rhetoric. They point out what needs to be fixed, how poorly certain policies are working, how endemic and intractable our energy and economic struggles are. Don't get me wrong; I am glad they are a party of truth-tellers and that they do their homework. I just wish they could inject some happy, joyous and plain old optimistic rhetoric into their projections about the future.

Couldn't we find better ways of representing and speaking about parenthood? Are we forced to choose either the liberal or communitarian models for making sense of family? Do we have to always frame this as a huge burden, drag, and obstacle to personal liberty (with good trade offs)?

Za pointed out to me that many of the negative ways of speaking about the challenges and difficulties of raising children come from the fact that having a child is like putting a large mirror to yourself. If you don't like what you see, you may be more likely to indulge in the groaning, waxing-nostalgic-for-the-good-ole-days, rhetoric. His theory has some plausibility indeed. But I think it is compounded by convention: we just pick up this language of burden when it comes to children. I think we can do better.