Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Family formation - a woman's prerogative?

I just finished reading the Ex-expat's blog post at the hand mirror on the SST’s article "Kiwis with empty nests"and find myself in complete accord about how annoying it is that the article focuses on the fact that WOMEN are choosing not to have kids. It brushes over the context in which decisions about having a family are made and foists responsibility for the reproduction of the body politic exclusively on women. These are ideas that should have rotted with the Arc.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I started a Masters looking at why educated women in their twenties are choosing not to have kids. The women I spoke to wanted to finish uni, be in a career, and married with their own homes before they became pregnant. And they wanted to delay getting into stable "marriage-like" relationships until they'd graduated and established themselves in a career. Ethically and morally, they believed they would be better mothers if they waited and became more stable in themselves. They mostly shared the idea that successful women don't have kids too early. Bad for them, bad for the baby. This idea did not happen in a vacuum – it’s too pervasive for that. This is a shared concept - this is about what's happening in New Zealand right now. And rather than being prompted by any idea of preferring life without children as implied by the SST article, it was motivated by wanting to have them under the best circumstances.

Waiting can be a dicey proposition of course, but this isn’t something you think about in your twenties. I can attest to the fact that it’s remarkably easy to somehow get to your mid-30s and have none of the accepted prerequisites for optimal child-bearing in place. My doctor keeps telling me I should think about it since my ovaries are not in the best shape. But since I’m not that keen and I’d prefer not to bring a child into the world when I have neither the personal nor financial resources to do it alone, it really becomes a no-brainer. Trawling the bars of Ponsonby looking for a likely casual shag who might be persuaded into a bare-back fuck or forking out for donor sperm are just not options I want to pursue, and whatever one's politics, at this point in history, a male of the species is still required for progenation. Something the SST seems to have forgotten. Where are the MEN in all this?? Why do demographers (or journalists) never ask a man why he isn't married and/or doesn’t have kids? It’s exactly as statistically likely that a man will become a father each time he has sex as it is that a woman will become a mother.

To be fair, there is a pragmatic answer to that question - it's the underlying assumptions that get to me. The biological reality of childbearing means any woman will know if she’s a mother, and so will most of the rest of the world. Parturition and nurturance are difficult to hide. And, if all children are assigned to a mother but not a father, then they don’t get counted twice. Which is handy for demographers who deal in stats. But alongside and even within the demographic information shared in the SST article is an underlying set of assumptions about motherhood, femininity, masculinity, desire and identity that are unaddressed. The article indirectly implies that women are supposed to want motherhood – it’s normative, and if we don’t, even if it’s for perfectly conventional social reasons (like “ I don’t have a husband”), somehow we’re deviant, will die alone and are also responsible for New Zealand’s failure to replace its body politic (or citizens).

Frankly, these ideas are direct from the Old Testament. It’s more than a little disturbing to find them in a broadsheet article in the cold light of a 21st Century day.


l_k said...

Producing babies in general is normally considered the domain of the female though, we men are generally considered the providers of sperm in my opinion. Lament the sexist assumptions, but also notice this has benefits. Abortion for example, as far as I know, can be legally decided without the agreement of the father, this probably has a lot to do with a general expectation that the mother would be the primary parent, but I think it also is to do with the idea that it is her body, and until the baby is born, it is still part of her body. Her body, her decision. So family formation, yes I guess it is primarily in the female domain. This can have sexist throwbacks but also gives you quite a bit of say.

Lyn said...

Ah, l_k, we always mostly but not quite agree on nearly everything :)

I don't know that the assumptions in the SST article (you're selfish, you'll die alone, you're not a proper woman) necessarily relate to the idea that "it's my body, my choice", which is what you're implying. Both sets of assumptions are tied to the idea that the woman's body produces children. But the first implies that she should do this because it's normal (and has correlative benefits for society) while the second implies she should be free to determine what she wants to do with her body. The assumptions I was querying in my post (well - hating on, actually) want to take choice away by making women who really want to exercise free choice about their reproductive abilities by avoiding pregnancy (eg by having an abortion or through contraception) into deviants, however subtly this is expressed. The freedom to get an abortion is the opposite of this.

Anonymous said...

What do I think? Men are terrified.

The worry is that the lovely dream of you, your partner and child, rapidly turns into ha-ha sperm donor, I've got another bloke, and you are obliged, willingly, most likely, to front up and care for this child, knowing your erstwhile partner now loves someone else. We've seen it.

Men have no physical stake in the commitment, but it's hard to make a mental one when you have a lot to lose.

Stas have it that "up to" 30% of children have misattributed paternity - for women, sure this isn't a big deal, but for men, as you don't know, where women do, it's a big deal. Do you want to be the "father" of a child where your fatherhood is premised on your economic contribution, rather than the ...er... guts of it?

Women run the show yes, and fair enough, but that still doesn't leave a man with much when he decides to buy into it.

Perhaps that's all a bit economic.

What I mean is, the notion of a man as a "family man" where there was a loyal wife and children and he could go out work, come back home and provide for them, or not,is now an anachronism - so what now for men?

Dumb Question, maybe, but really, are men facilitators of pregnancy, you-bet-forever life partners, sperm donors, disposable, suckers, blessed, or what? YOu don't need a roel to get it right, but you need a degree of certainty, given a child is pretty much for ever.

Remember men of "this" generation have seen a fair amount of family breakdown.

Where do they stand in the child creating proces? They have little control over it, but a great interest in it.

I know men who would be happy to be fathers but they don't know who or what to trust. Go google on the women who want to "trick" someone into making them pregnant. I'm unsure how to comment on it, except that it makes me uneasy, and I'm a man.

Thoroughly deserved, as I've said, but what exactly are men supposed to do?

My answer, is guess is a fairly brutal one, and not one I'd necessarily act on myself.
Where are the men in all this, you asked.

Men have a lot to lose in fatherhood, and much to gain, but the loss is outside their control, and the gain is predicated on a possibly precarious relationship.

So, the men, they wait. THey count there chips, and if they sense that they might be father to an unwanted child, or a child that they may be exluded from, or in the middle of a messy divorce, and they figure, well, I'm still fertile-ish, but a chidl is forever, and a child in bad circumstances is forever, and I have nothing to lose by waiting for better ones.

Lyn said...

Anonymous - you raise a number of interesting issues. My main concern in writing the original post was to query the assumption that women must want children and that they should have them or be considered a bit deviant or selfish. It seems you responded most strongly to the sentence tag "where are the men in all of this" and have brought up a whole lot of other discourses about masculinity and identity, and relationship. And they seem pretty personal. Which I too consider them to be. Just for the record - I wasn't blaming "men" for not being around to have kids - I was just querying the fact that no one ever seems to wonder why a man doesn't want kids. You've pointed out a lot of reasons why a man might feel ambivalent about fatherhood, and that's something that most people wouldn't think was strange. A woman who doesn't want to be a mother - well that's just weird. Aren't we supposed to be the ones who're looking for unofficial sperm donors and turning into bunny-boilers?

I do share your lament that relationships are so damn difficult sometimes, and that people seem disposed to behave so badly towards each other. Trust is a really important thing, especially surrounding something so deeply personal and involving another human life. But there's no certainty - paternity may not be guaranteed, but neither is the continuing presence of a father in a child's life. I'm not going to dish out any abandonment stories here, but they're common enough. Most single mums are divorcees in their thirties.

Anonymous said...

I can understand your reponse that I've taken a fairly small part of your post and made rather a meal of it - but I don't really think that's inappropriate. A blog is at least in some respect an invitation to comment, and I'm not trying to provide a nuanced response to the whole of what you write - I'm trying to pick up on points that pique my interest and say something about them.

To address the main point of your article, I can think of number of remarks people have made to me about why women (and men) are expected to want children.

1. The "carrying on the gene pool" reason.

2. Religious reasons.

3. That women are supposed to have a sort of hormonal maternal instinct that makes them want children. I've had comments like- "you won't feel like that later", as though there is a biological inevitabilty that will sooner or later overcome rational thought.

4 That having children "completes" people and makes them mature. Childlessness instead is seen as feckless an irresponsible - the product of an immature mind.

5. Some people take it as impuning their own choice to have children.

6. The "sacredness" that pregnant women have- the baby showers, the gushing interest of friends,-the "specialness" of it is a powerful reinforcer. Why woulnd't you want it?

There are enormous pressures on women to want children - there are various articles on the 'net about, for instance, "how to deal with childless couples in your church".

Depite childlessness being present in all communities, whether by choice or otherwise, it's seen as abnormal. Purely biological reasons might be acceptable, but lamentable, but financial reasons, situation reasons, or simple choice are seen to be obstacles to be overcome, or things one can be persuaded out of.

I think it's beyond ridiculous that such pressures exist.

l_k / l_d said...

>I don't know that the assumptions in the SST article (you're selfish, you'll die alone, you're not a proper woman) necessarily relate to the idea that "it's my body, my choice", which is what you're implying.

I guess I was trying to point out that although there are sexist assumptions you have to contend with ("you're selfish, you'll die alone, you're not a proper woman"), compared to the lack of those assumptions for men, that the placement of making babies in the female domain has its rewards. Perhaps recognising the benefits these assumptions bring to you personally, which I believe come from the same underlying sexist beliefs, might make you see it in a different light. Often with crap there is a flipside. That's all I was saying. And this flipside, this assumption Lyn, also gives you rights and power, legally and socially.

On a not entirely related note, because I'm a geek, I thought this was amusing which I found this morning.

Lyn said...

Anonymous - it wasn't the meal you made from one section of the post I was reacting to...more the idea that you had mistaken what I meant. I just wanted to make it clear I wasn't accusing men of anything...And l_k/l_d - the fact that there are upsides to the ability to have children doesn't, IMHO, change the fact that expectations about women's fertility are annoying, oxymoronic and just plain sexist. I'm not crying about it - I just don't think that a positive cancels a negative out. They might both exist but I'd rather one of them didn't. On the other hand - I REALLY love your link.

l_l said...

Positives don't cancel out negatives, I agree. I wasn't meaning that though. The finer point was that oftentimes a good thing will come coupled with downsides. These are almost like the responsibilities we have as someone who is willing to accept the positives of a situation.

l_l said...

Sorry, not meaning to spam, just wanted to be more specific in case that still sound like a simple 1 bad + 1 good = nothing to complain about. It's up to the individual as an intelligent adult to determine what is a fair downside and what isn't. But I personally would be willing to take the downside of cultural assumptions that the main responsibility for family is mine if there existed the same legal assumptions as well.