Sunday, June 7, 2009

Babies or brains?

I was on standby last week to speak on Radio National's Life Matters in response to a couple of articles that appeared in the Guardian earlier this year: Rachel Cooke's Dummy Mummies (which was reproduced in the Australian Magazine--you may have noticed it) and Polly Vernon's Why I Don't Want Children.

Unfortunately the producer couldn't get the "key talent" (always nice to know where you stand!) to come to the party, which is a shame, because I had prepared myself for what could have been a really meaty discussion on the children versus no children debate--if such a thing exists, which for these women it clearly does. Both these articles raise loads of questions about what they see as society's current obsession with babies.

I understand that women who do not want to have kids feel that society treats them as abnormal. This word "selfish" gets bandied about--which to me seems as absurd as describing the decision to have babies as a "selfless" one. Of course it's true that once you have kids, your own needs and desires are forced to take a backseat a lot, in fact most, of the time. But to say the urge to have children is a selfless one just seems a ridiculous over-simplification of what is usually more a complex primal and physical urge than a lofty, well thought-out decision to step off centre stage or to give back to society or some such thing.

Similarly, it would be a misguided person who has a baby to make them happy. We all know there are plenty of good reasons not to have kids; all the stats tell us as much. But happiness can have a pretty limited definition, and I suppose a lot of the meaningful things in our lives offer both great joy and big risks and the potential for great despair.

On an issue as big and loaded as having babies, surely we can all respect each others' decisions and be a bit kind to one other? Can't we?

I have to admit, for all the sympathy I have for her frustration, I recoil at the vitriol that Polly, in particular, reserves for modern mothers, as she sees them. In her article, she writes:

I really don't like what parenthood does to grown-ups. This latest generation of parents - oh, it's odd, isn't it? I like the ones I know. Mostly. They're OK, because they're my friends - I chose them, they are by definition better than those parents I don't know. (Even if they aren't - I know for a fact that they were better, once, back before they had children, and I reckon they'll resume something approaching normal service once the buggers have gone to school. Won't they?) But modern parents en masse? That pampering cult of Bugaboo-wielding, Mumsnet-bothering dullness?

Spare me. Spare me the one-track conversations. Spare me the self-righteousness, the sense of entitlement (you, with the toddler-on-wheels: astonishing news just in! You don't have pavement priority over the rest of the world!). Spare me the pretensions of martyrdom and selflessness. (It's my experience that parenthood doesn't make anyone less selfish. Humans simply extend the sphere of their selfishness when they have kids, so that it embraces the kids and dishes out a fierce battering to the rest of the world. Also - no one has a baby out of selflessness. You really want to be selfless? Adopt, lover.)

"...something approaching normal service..." Jeez, I know she's being witty and all, but what a way to think about friendship!

Surely just as bad as thinking that all women who don't have children are selfish, over-ambitious monsters is the assumption that all mothers had a lobotomy in the birthing suite.

Also, isn't it the case--and this is more in response to Cooke's piece--that people who talk of nothing but their kids, and have no way of gauging the interest (or otherwise) of the person they're talking to, is no different to the person who can talk of nothing but their job, with no sensitivity to their audience? In short, boring and insensitive people are boring and insensitive people, aren't they?--no matter what they bang on about; and interesting people are interesting people. Even after they have children! That is my experience, anyway.

I think the issue of childhood and raising children is a fascinating and very significant one, for all of us. We all have to live in this society with other people after all, and all people were once children raised by adults, thinking or otherwise.

Basically, I think it's fucked that a woman can't, in this day and age, choose not to have children without feeling a target for some kind of judgemental attack. But why the need, then, to turn around and pass similarly simplistic, scathing and defensive judgements on those of us who do have kids? I'm all for healthy debate, but I have to admit it also saddens me that women seem to have this infinite capacity for turning on each other.


little red hen said...

Yes I agree, it is amazing that still we have these debates over what really is a personal decision (or accident of fate when you either find yourself pregnant or on the other hand unable to concieve!) There is no need to 'populate or peril' as early governments would have us fear. I am amazed that we still define people in such steriotypical ways- I was astounded when an 11 year old boy in my class expressed steriotypical views of a generation that I viewed as old fashioned!
And you are also right to question why women turn on and judge each other. Sometimes when people have such strong reactions they are reacting to something else, possibly their own doubts in their choices???
PS. yes I questioned the spelling of awe-summm to just one of those things where someone thought it was clever I guess.

Damon said...

Yes, it's very frustrating.

But I wonder: is this just about children and parenthood, or are narrow, inflexible, bitchy opinions a broader problem?

"Men are X," just like "the French are X," and what about those Labor politicians? "They're X, too. All of them."

It's a common failure to understand the subtlety and variety of the human condition; to overcome easy, simple caricatures, which console or justify our selfishness.

It's the disease that books like The Divided Heart can help to cure - if we read them patiently, open-mindedly, sympathetically. Experience helps, too - but we can't always share this. Good friendships can help, but we have to allow them to be different, educative, illuminating (and Vernon hasn't done this).

In short: perhaps generosity of spirit is a rare achievement. What might encourage and inspire it? Just exemplifying it ourselves?

katiecrackernuts said...

Damon and your post are onto something. Aren't we just talking about people who need to have a whine? Let 'em go.

Anonymous said...

It boggles my mind that people (male and female) continue to talk about having children, or not having children, as if it's some sort of communal policy decision we should be making. As if there's something to be gained by every single one of us making the same decision. The same people seem to be unable to deal with the idea of living in a society, so every pram in the street is an inconvenience to them, or every childfree woman is a symbol of the freedom and career opportunities they've lost now that they're mothers.

BitchPhD has written some really good stuff about children and society, especially on why keeping children out of the public sphere isn't a feminist solution to anything.

D said...

My initial response to Polly's quote (I've not read about it beyond your blog post): "Polly,put the kettle on and while you're at it, shut the fuck up.

My second, more readable, response to your post is: Amen Rachel. The world doesn't need less parents, it needs less woman who turn on women not because it's irksome and wrong (wrong is ok) but because it's a harmful thing that can prevent any woman from meeting her full potential, no matter what lifestyle she chooses. Being free and full is an aim that many struggle to grasp.

I don't like Polly's position, it's oppositional.

The kettle just boiled. I'm off for a cuppa.


Susan @ Reading Upside Down said...

Thank you for such a well-expressed commentary on the issues raised in these two articles.

Polly's comments brought to mind a Grumpy Old Women (or something similar) show on the ABC. A "working mother" accused SAHMs of baking cakes for a school fair to deliberately highlight the failings of the mothers too busy "with real jobs" to be able to bake themselves. Attitudes such as this, and Polly's, seem unbelivably self-focused to me.

In general, women seem to waste an inordinate amount of energy deliberately trying to make other women feel worthless and inferior. I've observed more breast vs bottle, working mum vs SAHM, cloth diaper vs disposable etc etc discussions to last me a lifetime. Why must we be so critical and unforgiving?

As Damon said, perhaps generosity of spirit is a rare achievement. For myself, I would prefer to aim to achieve this ideal and perhaps some measure of happiness than to tie myself up in knots of angry resentment and superiority like Polly.

I think I'll join you for that cup of tea, D

Alison said...

Radical feminism was once about giving women the right to work; now it can feel like like it's about claiming that women who don't work aren't fully adult! As one who has been harshly criticized for staying home with children (such a waste!), I vote we reclaim feminism as being about choice, not just replacing one paradigm (home with kids) for another (working). And respecting others' choices whichever way they go. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say what Damon said, only less eloqently. Basically I think (some) people are always going to be mean and bitchy about people who are different to them, for various reasons.

Books like yours, anything that helps us understand other people, can help. But people will still be judgemental.

Also, Alison, yes! Feminism should be about choice and diversity, not sameness.

(of narrating kayoz - same person, new blog)