Childfree 101: The "Women Are Designed to Love" Narrative

[Content Note: Reproductive coercion; misogyny.]

I really dig this piece for Harpers by Rebecca Solnit, "The Mother of All Questions," about the way childfree women's reproductive choices are publicly audited and policed. (Thanks to @LMegaparsec for passing it along.) One of the things I appreciate about it is that Solnit addresses the pervasive narrative that women who choose not to parent are selfishly denying themselves "the best way to fulfill your capacity to love."
People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfill your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous, ice-hearted mothers is extensive. But there are so many things to love besides one's own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.

While many people question the motives of the childless, who are taken to be selfish for refusing the sacrifices that come with parenthood, they often neglect to note that those who love their children intensely may have less love left for the rest of the world. Christina Lupton, a writer who is also a mother, recently described some of the things she relinquished when motherhood's consuming tasks had her in their grasp, including
all the ways of tending to the world that are less easily validated than parenting, but which are just as fundamentally necessary for children to flourish. I mean here the writing and inventing and the politics and the activism; the reading and the public speaking and the protesting and the teaching and the filmmaking. ... Most of the things I value most, and from which I trust any improvements in the human condition will come, are violently incompatible with the actual and imaginative work of childcare.
I value this passage because it addresses an idea important to me, about which I've written before: This notion that we are meant to believe it is possible to "have it all," and that the only thing preventing us from "having it all" are social policies that make birthing and parenting (particularly for women) incompatible with career ambition and success.

It is a real and true thing that are social policies around birthing and parenting are garbage, especially for working class women. But we rarely speak of the reality that, for most women, it is not truly possible to "have it all," if part of the "all" one wants includes parenting, even with the best possible social policy, because of our own finite capacity as human beings. The care of another human being is demanding work. It is time-consuming and it has an emotional and psychological cost. Something has to give somewhere to make room for those expenditures.

We rarely have honest public discussions about this reality. And I understand why: Because I cannot say things like "I would not have the time and energy to dedicate to [this other part of my life] if I were a parent" without immediate and aggressive pushback, as though implicit in my factual statement is a condemnation of parenthood. Or inherent criticism of the quality of paid work done by mothers.

But I am speaking only for and of myself. I know what my own capacity and limits are. Another woman's may look very different from mine, but we do no woman any favors by pretending that women have unlimited resources.

We certainly aren't creating meaningful choices around parenthood for women when we don't, or aren't allowed, to forthrightly discuss that many professional childfree women would simply not have been able, because of both social policy and personal capacity, to achieve what they had if they had chosen to parent.

There is enormous pressure, to the contrary, on women to believe that they are capable of everything. Of having it all and doing it all. With little regard for the taxation on the nurture and care of themselves.

Which brings me to the other reason I value the above quoted passage: Because it challenges the narrative of womanhood in which we are defined as creatures designed to love and care for other people.

In this definition of womanhood, our value is determined largely or exclusively by what we give—primarily to children and spouses. If leniency is granted so that what we give to our work may be included, it is not the actual work product we generate that has attached value, but what we give to our employers, to our coworkers, to our clients or patients.

When women are viewed as designed to love and care, childfree women are hardly women at all. Only if our work can define us as an ersatz mother, e.g. Mother Theresa, might we be given reprieve from the harshest of judgments.

Women are held to a standard in which we have value only if we demonstrate a constant outpouring of love and care for other people, which is harmful in a number of ways, not least of which is that, if it is true (as I believe) that empathy and concern for other people is part of the human condition, it is only one part, not the whole.

And sometimes the way we find to express empathy and concern for other people is incompatible with parenting. Because we only have so much. Because women are not, in fact, built to be naught but endless fonts of care.

As Solnit observes: "There are so many things to love besides one's own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world." Like, as Lupton says, "all the ways of tending to the world that are less easily validated than parenting, but which are just as fundamentally necessary for children to flourish."

There are women who make, as part of their decision-making around whether to parent, a calculation that what they want to do in other parts of their lives is incompatible with parenting.

That is a valid choice, and it is one we must talk about, to subvert the garbage rhetoric around women being able to "have it all," setting up women for feelings of failure when they find there simply isn't enough of themselves to go around.

Women are not uniquely designed to love, but as much as any human being has a capacity and desire to love and care for other people and things, to leave the world a little bit better than zie found it, any love (or variation thereof) offered is valuable.

And as definitional to oneself as parenting is expected to be, even when one chooses not to parent.

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