Monday, December 21, 2009

Childfree: The Choice Not to Parent

Parenthood was the theme of the feminist theory class I finished this past semester at OU.

For our paper, we had to pick one aspect of parenthood to analyze from four theoretical feminist perspectives. Since I don't have children, I chose to write about the choice to remain childfree. Don't get me wrong - I do not hate children, but I do believe that parenthood is not for everybody and everybody should not be a parent.

Is "childfree" a viable option for today's world? Have a read and decide:

Childfree: A Choice Not to Parent
(Parenthetical references are from "Feminist Thought" by Rosemarie Tong, Third Edition, and "The Price of Motherhood" by Ann Crittenden)

I met a woman at a writer’s workshop some years ago. As we became acquainted, the conversation led to family. I am married, without children.

"Oh, you’re childless, like me,” she said.

No,” I replied, “I’m childfree.”

To say I am childless would be inaccurate. It would imply that, for a biological reason, I am unable to bear children even though I want them. The term childfree conveys a conscious choice not to have children.

For me and my husband, the decision not to raise children was a lifestyle choice. We decided that our life was full as it was. We had purpose, we had fun, and we had goals that we wanted to further.

We believe parenthood is not for everyone, and that some people should not be parents. In fact, I have my doubts as to whether my own parents should have been parents and perhaps this had something to do with my choice.

Why all the emphasis on childbearing anyway? Because, even in the 21st century, parenthood is the norm. Those who choose to marry are expected to produce children. Childfree couples are seen as selfish because they choose not to fulfill traditional gender roles and are often judged harshly by the patriarchal society we live in. Those who choose to remain single are viewed as odd because they do not want to participate in the institutions of marriage and parenthood.
Actually, there is nothing selfish or odd about remaining childfree – with or without a partner – it has nothing to do with selfishness; it is simply another lifestyle choice.

Yet, how is the decision to remain childfree viewed from a feminist’s perspective? It depends on what kind of theoretical lens we use.

A liberal feminist might say something like, “If you have children, that’s fine; if you don’t, that’s fine too. Either way, your children – or procreation – shouldn’t be the focus of your life.”
The old-school liberal feminists, like Betty Friedan, felt a longing, like their lives were incomplete somehow even though they married and raised families. Friedan called it, “the problem that has no name.” “Women should want to do more and make an impact on society,” these early feminists said. Friedan encouraged this through outside employment. In other words, “Get out of the house and get a job, ladies!” Could a childfree existence lend itself to greater freedom and more consideration in the job market?

Certainly a story from my own experience implies that the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

I once interviewed for an administrative position at a property management company in Birmingham, Mich. During the interview, the owner proceeded to tell me his history. He was once a practicing attorney before he opened the property management firm. He made several comments that raised questions in my mind as to if I would want to work there at all. Then there was this:

“Do you have anything that would keep you from getting to work in the morning?” he asked.

"Such as?” I queried back.

To which his answer was, “Crying babies?”

I looked him in the face and said, “I think I know why you are not a practicing lawyer anymore, you probably weren’t a very good one.”

Friedan argued that the error of the “feminine mystique” was that it overvalued the institutions of marriage and parenthood as they are defined by our patriarchal society. A woman should not simply abandon her family responsibilities, but should be able to perform them while at the same time develop her human potential by seeing the institutions of marriage and parenthood as only a part of her life.

Radical libertarian feminists and radical cultural feminists offer the most polarized perspectives on parenthood by drawing a distinction between biological and social parenting. This opens up another option for the childfree. That is, we as women do not necessarily have to give birth in order to have children in our lives or impart our feminist ideologies to them.

The radical libertarian feminist takes biological reproduction out of the picture entirely. She believes that women can achieve liberation through the use artificial means of reproduction and gestation. There can be no economic liberation for women without a biological revolution, she says. (Tong, 75)

Further, biological motherhood does not necessarily result in good parenting. Yet, patriarchal society thinks that the woman who bears the child is the best suited to raise him or her. Sometimes birth parents are not in a position to give the child the emotional support or the encouragement he/she needs to develop full human potential. The birth parents’ modes of thinking might be outdated. They might overemphasize one religion or political view to the exclusion of other spiritualities and beliefs. A child might not be encouraged to explore other spiritualities or lifestyles, and as a consequence, never find his/her authentic self.

I sometimes joke that we have psychotherapists to help us undo what our parents did to us – but there is some truth in it. That’s where social parenting can play an important role. If parents can get past their possessiveness of their children and open up to a community of social parenting, children would receive a more diverse upbringing and be better able to accept difference. They might even learn to see past traditional gender roles.

From the radical libertarian feminist perspective, the decision to remain childfree might be perfectly fine, even liberating, and perhaps beneficial.

The radical libertarian feminist faults the patriarchal system as being woman’s greatest enemy. (Tong, 72) Patriarchal society uses the media and approved forms of social conditioning and psychological theories to perpetuate the “myth of the joy of giving birth” (Tong, 75) and persuade women to believe they need to mother in order to be fulfilled. Not wanting to be accused of selfishness or abnormality, women who might be happier without children submit to motherhood reluctantly and then become subject to society’s disfavor when they express any dissatisfaction with the mothering role. (Tong, 84)

Perhaps some women simply don’t have the need to mother and can serve society better and find happiness without motherhood. Motherhood does not guarantee happiness and is not always in the best interest of the mother and the child.

As Shulamith Firestone said, “If adults, especially women did not feel they had a duty to have children, they might discover an authentic desire to live with children.” (Tong, 85) Biological parenthood is not needed.

Radical cultural feminists, on the other hand, might say that choosing not to biologically reproduce compromises women’s ultimate source of power. Therefore, the decision to remain childfree could have societal impacts that go beyond the issue of personal choice. They argue that women’s oppression will not end if women give up the only source of men’s dependence on them – reproduction. In contrast to radical libertarian feminists, the radical cultural feminist insists that artificial reproductive technology will not liberate women. In fact, it would liberate men because they could have children without women. (Tong, 77)

The institution of biological motherhood created under patriarchy operates with the goal of keeping women under male control. If biological motherhood is viewed this way, then it is definitely something women should be liberated from. However, the radical cultural feminist would argue that it is not the biological mother-child relationship, which can set the standard for more caring relationships among people in general, that should be rejected. On the contrary, it should be perpetuated.

The fault lies once again in the ugly institution created by patriarchy with the goal of controlling women. Here, a radical cultural feminist might add, is what dissuades women from having children, at a loss to humankind. Thus, the decision to remain childfree, the radical cultural feminist might argue, should be carefully considered in view of its larger societal impact on women’s oppression.

Care-focused feminists acknowledge the importance of motherhood as a contribution to the world. It is important from the standpoint of, “who will raise the next generation?” “Who will carry on the work when we are gone?” They point to the mother/child relationship as a paradigm for an ethics of care to perpetuate a school of “maternal thinking” that can be practiced by men as well as women.

A care-focused feminist would say, “We should care about children, whether they are ours or not, because an ethics of care would mandate that we do.” She might say that it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to procreate children of your own, you can still adopt the mindset of maternal thinking. In other words, you don’t have to be a mother to practice maternal thinking. Caring is a practice we can all pursue, whether we are men or women.

Once again, what must be considered is the difference between the practice of mothering and the institution of motherhood as defined by patriarchy. Under the latter, patriarchy sets the standards which are not necessarily associated with the practice of motherhood. Examples would be that a mother has to be female, heterosexual, and totally self-sacrificing. She must live for and through her children. By contrast, if motherhood is viewed as a practice, it permits self growth and self realization beyond – or without – biological children. (Tong, 183)

In her book, “The Price of Motherhood,” Ann Crittenden points out that women are choosing not to have children for the wrong reasons. Perhaps radical cultural feminists and care-focused feminists would both agree that this is a serious public issue. Crittenden cites author Nancy Folbre who responds this way to the argument that having a child is purely personal choice, like having a pet: “I just remind people that when their Lab grows up, it’s not going to pay their social security.” (Crittenden, 81-82)

Here is evidence that we should care about children, whether or not they belong to us, and, as a society, put our money where our mouth is by assuming more costs associated with raising children, such as subsidized daycare.

Care-focused feminists contend that the lack of maternal thinking is the reason for many of society’s ills, including war. But perhaps the term maternal thinking needs to be altered because of the connotations associated with it imposed by patriarchal society. It’s possible that the word “maternal” feminizes the care aspect so that it is viewed as weak and less credible in the public mind. Maybe we should call it something else? How about “care-centered thought,” or “philosophy of the caring state?”

Because psychoanalytic feminists believe that the roots of women’s oppression are buried deep in the psyche, and psychoanalysis is necessary to resolve them, perhaps they would say that it’s perfectly fine to choose a childfree lifestyle, or at least postpone having children, until the internal oppression-related issues are resolved. In fact, at the end of analysis, it might be concluded that the choice to remain childfree is the individual’s best option.

Some people might never be psychologically ready for parenthood. The psychoanalytic feminist could argue that it would be better for such individuals to remain childfree and work on becoming a complete, mentally healthy individual who is better equipped to function in society.

Of these theoretical perspectives, radical cultural feminism and care-focused feminism use a “wide-angle” theoretical lens to consider the social implications of choosing to remain childfree. Under these theoretical perspectives, in order for women to maintain personal power, in order for society to continue, the decisions must be made with an eye towards a broader societal perspective that precedes personal choice.

Psychoanalytical feminism and liberal feminism use a theoretical “zoom lens” to focus in on the personal aspects of choosing to remain childfree. Psychoanalytic feminism encourages the individual to use psychotherapy to look deep within herself to resolve oppression issues. The focus of liberal feminism is the realization of an individual’s human potential through participation in the public realm and legal equality with men. In the end, it’s all about what’s best for the individual, and society will benefit residually.

Radical libertarian feminism seems to offer the greatest, support for a childfree lifestyle by advocating social parenthood as an alternative to traditional parenting within patriarchal norms by taking biological reproduction out of the equation. It is simply unnecessary.

However, no one theoretical perspective can tell a woman whether or not it is in her best interest to remain childfree; nor should she rely on a single perspective to provide answers. The bottom line from all the perspectives is that she has agency to decide for herself within her personal, social, economic and cultural circumstances.

1 comment:

  1. It seems to me, that many child-free couples still become fuzzy it cats or dogs.