A few weeks ago an article by Clem Bastow, writer and feminist, was published in two major newspapers here in Australia, and subsequently responded to in op eds and countless blogs. In her piece Why having a baby is not the pinnacle of a woman’s life, Bastow wrote frankly of her lack of maternal desire and the ways in which she is judged for her choice to be childless.
As my 20s have run themselves out, the line of questioning from extended family members has shifted from “Are you seeing anyone?” to “And what about kids?” I’m 29 today and I expect the urgency with which the question is delivered to only increase once next year’s birthday rolls around.
Her piece struck a chord. Immediately I noticed a flurry of tweets praising what was perceived to be her bravery in speaking out about the pressures on women to conform to the maternity track. Given that it’s only a year since Chally wrote here about our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commenting on the responsibility of women to set aside time for childbearing, it’s pretty clear that the judgements Bastow wrote about are real. It’s no surprise that many young feminists felt her piece spoke for them. In a mainstream media filled with schmaltzy references to maternity and the message that the path to fulfillment is heterosexual breeding bliss, voices like hers need to be heard.
But there was another kind of flurry in my tweet stream. A lot of the people I follow who blog primarily about parenting were perturbed, not so much by Bastow’s piece itself (I didn’t see anyone asserting that the choice not to have children is not valid) but by the strength of the FUCK YES! response it was getting. There was an implication in the surrounding discourse that the pressure to have children was coming from, or at least upheld by, women who were mothers. And there was also a clear implication that pursuing career and creativity is still requisite on remaining child free, at least for a good long period. It had a whiff of old conflicts about it, and I’m not surprised that there was uneasiness.
Unfortunately, (though unsurprisingly, given the way news sites generally go) some of the comments on the article were hateful, amounting to either (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘this is why feminism is responsible for everything that is wrong with the world’ or ‘what would you know about life choices, you selfish, barren, immature slut?’ As the writer pointed out on Twitter, it was striking that much of the negativity appeared to come from mothers, when she had explicitly not criticised anyone’s choice to have children.
I suspect Bastow didn’t fully anticipate the effect of raising any issue which carries a ‘mummy war’ vibe. I know from my interest in breastfeeding advocacy that when it comes to any sensitive question about which parents are impassioned, defensiveness and anger are easily stirred. It’s common to blame teh over-emotional wimmenz for this state of affairs but clearly, when a group of people are operating in an environment where societal judgement is harsh, swift and has serious consequences, as modern parents are, it is too simplistic to condemn all such over-reactions. Because whilst Bastow is absolutely right that childbearing is a socially sanctioned choice (for straight, partnered, cis women), what wasn’t within the scope of her piece to address was the ways in which that choice remains unsupported in real terms.
It’s one thing to be handed a cookie for breeding. It’s entirely another thing to be handed actual, concrete assistance, understanding, and genuine respect for one’s mothering and sadly the latter is too rarely in evidence at a societal level. Importantly, there are many parents who get no cookies because they do not meet the criteria of ‘good parent’; that is, they dare to have children whilst being poor, or disabled, or non-white, or queer, or trans, or too young, or too old, or too fat.
I certainly agree with Bastow’s assertion that in the mainstream media the voices of women who are childless by choice are frequently distorted or silenced. But her piece did not speak to me. I feel that, in the spaces in which I move online — in feminist spaces — there is no bravery required to ‘admit’ that one doesn’t want to have children. Rather, there is often a privileging of the voices of non-mothers. There is a continued emphasis on feminism’s relationship to a kind of personal freedom that apparently comes with career, economic success and time that is one’s own: all things that theoretically can be achieved with a baby at your breast and a toddler on your hip but which, portrayals imply, rarely are. In discourse about reproductive rights there is an emphasis on abortion and contraception which far overshadows discussion of fertility treatments, birth choices and breastfeeding rights even though these are also intimately tied up with the core concern of bodily autonomy. In considering the role of blogging in social justice, there is often a devaluing or erasure of those who write about babies and children. The term ‘mummy blogger’ is infantilising, dismissive, and all-too ubiquitous.
I want to remind everyone that there are many fantastic writers who are blogging about the intersection of feminism and parenting. As the series on feminist motherhood hosted by fellow Australian and fellow milk, blue milk, attests, parenting is a rich seam to mine for feminist gold. But it is mostly other parents who comment on (and presumably read) parenting-focused blogs. Obviously, the blogs you read do not ultimately define you but if you’re into feminist blogs and never choosing those which focus on parenting, at all, ever? I think that needs to be challenged.
The intersections of social justice, parenting, child rights and family are — or should be — central feminist concerns. I don’t think it’s okay to leave birth and breastfeeding rights as a fringe issue, one usually only discussed by uterus-having people who’ve already given birth. I don’t think it’s okay to perpetuate negative stereotypes about motherhood or particular parenting ‘trends’ in feminist spaces, although this is a thing which still happens. And I really don’t think it’s okay to leave the task of raising and looking out for the interests of children almost solely up to to parents when we’re talking about the next generation here. The incoming wave of feminists.
Here is just a very small sample of posts of parenting interest from great bloggers. If these blogs aren’t already on your reading list, please check them out.
Why attachment parenting needs feminism by blue milk
Feminist readers, have you leveled up? at Underbellie
And please share other links in the comments, too.