Posted by: emjb | July 7, 2006

The unshakeable urge

Still digesting Hrdy’s book; I’ll have to re-read it in a little while, I can already tell, and maybe follow her bibliography to find other books on these topics. I love that feeling, when as a reader, you’ve stumbled on a whole new territory of ideas and knowledge that you can explore.

As this is a particularly childbirth-obsessed blog, it’s no wonder that I’ve been thinking about what led me to want a child in the first place. Of course there are the normal, acceptable, responses you can give when people ask you why you want a child. “We have so much love to share,” “We want to experience wonder again by introducing a new person to the world,” even “Our parents were driving us crazy for grandchildren.” And these things are all truthful, as far as they go, but I don’t think they really scratch the surface of the deep, driving need a lot of women, myself included, felt to reproduce. It was a bit like puberty, in that sometimes it was hard to think of anything else.

The 30-something gal being tortured by her biological clock is an old joke, and an annoying stereotype; but like all stereotypes, it has a grain of truth.

That’s why I feel a bit crabby with people, women or men, who say to us, if we really wanted equality, well damn, we’d just stop reproducing! We have birth control now, yes? Why not go for the gusto and forget the gestating? Leave that to the poor schlubby women who lack ambition. Sort of the Faye Dunaway in Network model of female aspiration.

I guess the closest analogy I can draw to the wrongness of this is to say, what if you told a gay person, Stay in the closet to get ahead? Don’t find a partner? Even get married to a person of the opposite sex, if that’s what it takes? If you really cared about success, you could deny everything you are for it.

Both of these arguments are fatalistic and ultimately, cruel. It is in my nature–and many or most women’s natures–to want to have children; it’s a need and a desire that goes down to the bone. This is not a flaw in my character, this is a valid part of being a species that needs to reproduce. This is part of who I am.

How I deal with that need, just as how a gay person chooses to express who they are, is up to me. And that is where considerations of money, environmental impact, career, relationships, and physical willingness all come in.

But I’m tired of having that need trivialized. It is not a trivial thing, to parent another human being. It is not a trivial thing to give of your body and your resources to create the future in the most direct way. It is not a silly or a foolish thing to want to use this power that women are given to create life. Nor is it silly, or foolish, or wrong to demand that society give us the space and resources we need to bring up children who are healthy, educated, productive, and cared for. The women I know do not have children to have an excuse to stop working. They have children because they need to have them as much as they need to work. Given the chance, they will thrive at both. Forced to choose, most of them will do whatever it takes to care for their child, as they should. If being the child-bearing gender is what has kept women from equality, then it is specious to ask them to become equal by becoming sterile. What women do when they bear children (and what both parents do when they raise them) is necessary and good work. It is work without pay that, done well, benefits everyone in the society by creating a productive, useful, educated, creative citizen.

More importantly, it is work that society needs done. Someone must have the children, must raise them and care for them. New doctors and scientists and engineers and artists have to come from somewhere.

Perhaps if all of us educated Western women took the Faye Dunaway approach, as Linda Hirshman advocates, letting the poorer or less ambitious women of the world do the world’s procreating, it would result in a market correction. We’d climb the corporate ladders free of the hindrances of procreation, as free as a man can be. I’m a feminist, and I understand the appeal of this scenario; sacrificing your reproductive desires for La Revolution. Beating the men at their own game. Seizing the power we’ve been denied so long.

But I’m having trouble putting my heart into a revolution that requires me to stop being who I am. It’s not that I’m complacent about the costs of having children, about the choices that are taken away, about being put in a weaker position. But I am not as interested in beating the patriarchy at its own game as I am in changing the rules of the game altogether. If I become like a man, why would the system ever change to let women be women again? It’s not that I want less, it’s that I want more. I want change, at a fundamental level. And some part of me feels that achieving that change will not come from denying myself, but in demanding acceptance of myself, and of women, as women, not as honorary men.

Hirshman thinks that’s too utopian. She may be right. But the marriages she describes are not like the one I have, and she is a generation ahead of me, among men who thought equality was fine so long as it didn’t require them to change anything. And my husband, and other men I know, aren’t like that. I don’t know if there are enough of us out there to be able to go for the higher goal, but I haven’t given up hope yet.


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