Question for you. Today what is the most controversial thing a female candidate can say?
A) I had an extramarital affair.
B) I am gay.
C) I do not want to have children.
Or forget a female candidate. What about the female spouse of a candidate, or a female vying for a major appointment, such as to the Supreme Court? Fifty years after the pill was created to empower women to take their reproductive choice into their own hands, I would argue that the answer is still C.
Before you ask, no I am not basing this theory on any groundbreaking new study on the subject. This is based strictly on anecdotal evidence, including my recent conversations with a variety of women. Not to mention some not so anecdotal evidence, namely the number of children who continue to be born into unloving, unstable and unsupportive homes. But it's also based on the fact that within minutes of Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court being confirmed, a blog post titled, "Elena Kagan sends us on the Way to a Motherless Supreme Court" popped up online, as if her parental status has a single thing to do with her qualifications for the High Court.
For some reason the idea that not all people, including plenty of women, have the desire to become parents, and more specifically, the idea that not all people who can have children, should, remain two of the most taboo things any person, particularly any woman, can say out loud. While endless media coverage has been devoted to the so-called "mommy wars" between working moms and stay at home moms and those who are pro-choice and those who are not, the real gulf, is one so controversial that the media hardly covers it at all: the gulf between those who do not wish to become parents and everyone else who thinks that by shear of virtue of being on this planet and not being a serial killer, you should.
I began thinking about this idea more and more after I mentioned to a well-known editor that I was unsure about whether or not I want to become a mother. I then said, "Although I sometimes get the feeling that even today you're not supposed to tell people that. It's somehow viewed as unladylike." I casually laughed at the silliness of it all. She then replied sympathetically, "Honestly, Keli, you probably should be careful who you say that in front of. There are plenty of people who still react suspiciously to the idea of a woman not being interested in motherhood. It makes them uncomfortable--including many of the so-called open-minded, progressive types in the world of media." (I should add for the record, that she is a fabulous mother herself, and fabulously open-minded about those who may make a different choice.)
But the more I thought of what she said, the more I realized that the few times I have shared this sentiment with others in a social setting (only when asked), the reply has always been some variation of the following, "Oh you'll change your mind. You'd make a terrific mother." I always find this reaction so strange, that people feel compelled by instinct to tell someone whom they don't know all that well--whose temperament they don't know intimately and whose financial situation they don't know at all--that they would make a good parent and should therefore make the decision to become one, in part, based on an acquaintance's input.
When I relayed the conversation with the editor to my own mother (who is another fabulous mom) she shared the story of being in her Home Economics class in high school a few decades ago, during a time when much of the education of young women focused on how to train them to be effective wives and mothers. She told me that when she informed her teacher that she was unsure as to whether or not she would ever become a mom her teacher reacted harshly. "You selfish little thing! How could you not want to open your home to a baby? That's why we're here."
It's easy for those of us raised in the age of Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Sandra Day O'Connor, and yes Roe v. Wade, to think, "Thank goodness times have changed."
But have they really? Because if they have, then why has every major profile of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the fact that they do not have children, as if it represents some boat they missed on the world tour known as life? Not to mention the veiled (and not so veiled) references about their sexuality that permeate cyberspace. As though no children = gay by default.
But more importantly if times really have changed then why do so many women still feel compelled to have children they are not financially or emotionally ready to care for? Or, dare I say it, in some instances that they simply do not want?
Now before some of you write this post off as an "anti-life" diatribe, please believe me it's not. In fact I think part of the problem with the entire debate in this country over reproductive choice is that it has gotten bogged down in divisive spats over issues like abortion and abstinence-only education, when the real debate goes much deeper than that.
If we started telling little girls early on that it's okay if they don't want to play house, or hold a baby during playtime and that while some will grow up to be mommies, some will grow up to do other things, then the entire conversation around reproductive choice would change--for the better. A girl has to be taught early on that she has real options in her life as a woman, thereby giving her an incentive to make responsible choices when she's younger. If she believes that fundamentally, no matter what, she is destined to become a single mother, and to struggle financially the remainder of her life, because that's what everyone around her does and expects of her, then the conversation about reproductive choice has essentially ended with her before it's ever had a chance to really begin; long before she hears the words sexual education or abstinence.
Even with the invention that was supposed to change everything--the pill--the media narrative focusing on women has followed a pretty predictable trajectory the last couple of decades: young women use the pill so they can be sexually promiscuous while holding down their dream job in their twenties, until they find the man of their dreams in their thirties, and then ditch the pill for parenthood--that is if they haven't already missed the biological boat, so to speak, in which case their bodies may let them down, forcing them to turn to fertility treatments and when it's all said and done, then they will have to decide whether to work or stay home with their children--and how many to have, and thus cement their legacy as a good mommy or bad mommy. There's only one thing missing from that narrative: Those of us who choose to write our own.
The female characters that stray from the traditional narrative by going on record as saying, "I don't want to be a mother"--not "I can't get pregnant" or "I never met the right guy but "I simply don't wish to be one"--are caricatured in a way that's usually not very pretty. Case in point: "Sex and the City's" promiscuous, aging, emotionally distant and alone, Samantha Jones.
But there are plenty of women out there who are not emotionally vacant, or promiscuous, and have little in common with Ms. Jones, other than the shared desire not to become a mother. Some of them, may be called selfish by family members or friends, just like my mom was all those years ago, but they simply recognize that the most selfish thing a person can do is bring another life into this world that you are not capable of caring for in the way that life deserves. The latest figures denote that it costs more than $200,000, minimum to raise a child in America, without including the emotional investment that child also deserves. And yet I am sure we all know plenty of people who ridicule welfare moms or Octomom, but who frankly, aren't all that much more qualified to raise children themselves. (Financially speaking, I certainly put myself in that category.)
So to all of the wonderful moms out there, including my own, (who as you have obviously figured out by now did, in the end make the choice to become a mother--and a GREAT one) I salute you and wish you a happy belated Mother's Day.
But to all the women out there who think there is something wrong with them, because they don't feel the yearning to become a mother, that they have been told since they were little girls that they should feel, I say this: do what's right for you.
Not what's right for your boyfriend, fiancé, or husband.
Not what's right for your mother.
Not what's right for your friends who have already become mothers.
Do what's right for you, and of course what's best for any child you may or may not decide to welcome into your home.
Remember it's your choice.