Friday, June 1, 2007

What I wanted to say at the WisCon panel on "What if you don't want to have kids"

By Nancy Jane Moore

"Is not wanting kids is the last feminist taboo?" That's what the program description read. Since I'm happily childless,* I found the topic compelling, even though the panel was at 10 PM, when any sensible person would be partying.

I wasn't exactly looking for role models -- when it comes to being single and childless, I probably am a role model -- but I was looking for a discussion of what women's lives might look like when motherhood is taken out of the equation, with perhaps a comment or two on overpopulation.

Instead I got a panel of women who had -- for the most part** -- decided very early in life that they would never have children, were enormously proud of this fact, and wanted to complain about their parents, in-laws, relatives, and friends who didn't support their decision. I even caught a whiff of an opinion that people who weren't sure whether they wanted children or not were simply not living the self-examined life.

Perhaps, as a person who sometimes thinks she overdoes the self-examined life bit, I took that too personally, since I never had a strong desire to have children, but also never had a strong desire not to have children. I thought that children were something that might come along if I got married.

Of course, I haven't gotten around to getting married yet, and I'm not taking any active steps to do so, but there's always the possibility that true love will knock on my door before I shuffle off this mortal coil, so it could still happen.

Kids, though, are out of the picture for my life. And I know just when I decided once and for all that I didn't want to have kids. I was 50.

A single friend of mine was adopting a daughter from China. And despite the fact that I had spent many years content in my childless state, I was afraid that when she came home with the baby, I was going to take one look and say, "I want one, too." After all, babies are, for the most part, very cute. And I've always been a sucker for kittens.

I picked my friend and her daughter up at the airport on their return from China. The baby was as cute as I expected, and not even particularly fussy, an amazing fact given she'd just spent 24 hours on airplanes.

But immediately on seeing her, I thought, "No, I don't want a child." I haven't considered adopting since. I've enjoyed watching my friend's daughter grow up, but I'm very happy to be an honorary aunt, not a mother.

And since I've crossed the physical Rubicon of menopause, I'm not in danger of having a kid on my own. There may be some modern magical medical procedure that could conceivably allow me to conceive, but I know I'm not going to do that.

Here's the gist of all this musing: I may have waited until I was past the usual child-rearing age to make my final decision on having children, but I did come to one conclusion early on: I didn't see having children as a particular goal of my life.

I wanted to do things with my life -- to have a career, to study interesting things, to write. Raising children always struck me as a secondary thing, something one might do in addition to following one's own path in life. I never saw having children as a purpose in and of itself.

And I don't think it should be, even for those people who know they want children. After all, most of us live many more years than the 20 or so it takes to raise a child to adulthood. Even those determined to construct their lives so their children get absolutely everything don't have to devote an entire lifetime to the kids. (Let's not even get into a discussion of people who live vicariously through their children -- I suspect that drives as many people into therapy as neglect does.)

What we all need to do -- regardless of whether we plan to be parents or not -- is to make decisions about what we're going to do with our lives: what kind of work we're going to do, what kind of path we're going to take. We all have dreams and ambitions -- destinies of one kind or another. And children aren't destinies.

After all, we don't just live to reproduce ourselves. That may be a biological explanation for life, but humans have moved far enough up the evolutionary scale to create other purposes for ourselves.

Still, baby boomers like me are in the first generation in which being single and/or childless can be seen as a positive choice, not a tragedy. Succeeding generations are probably finding it a little easier than we did. But it's still considered kind of odd.

So I'd still like to talk about what women's lives might look like if parenthood is excluded from the equation. Maybe we can try again at next year's WisCon.

*The panelists seemed to prefer the term "child free" to childless, I think because it implies a choice. But I can't seem to use it without thinking of "fat free" or "sugar free" or other modern consumer alternatives.

**One panelist did not fit this description. She got quieter as the panel went on. The next day she and I were on a panel about overpopulation, to which she contributed some interesting statistics and a lot of thoughtful observations. I rather wish someone had let her get a word in edgewise on the no kids panel.


sdn said...

i suspect this panel will happen next year, too. maybe you can be on it! (i won't be.)

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I fear my post was a little snarky -- I could not resist being a bit sarcastic. In a world in which the current push of post-feminism is to start "mommy wars" between mothers who work and mothers who don't -- while completely ignoring those of use who have no children -- it was great to have people come out and speak on the value of having no kids.
The trouble is, I set a high standard for WisCon panels, because the best of them give me new things to think about and new ways to do the thinking. And this one only scratched the surface for me. Of course, at any other con it would have approached the revolutionary just to have the subject discussed.
I was annoyed by a similar problem in a panel on what makes a work non-feminist or anti-feminist these days. I came in late, so I missed the points the panelists made, but when I came in the audience was busy bringing up sexist moments from daily life -- for example, when the waiter always hands the check to the man in the group. While I also find such things annoying, they don't have much to do with non- or anti-feminist examples from literature, which I really did want to know about.
I suspect that people often use WisCon as a place where they can vent about daily sexism in a supportive environment. I understand the urge to do that, but I really, really wish they'd dig a little deeper. Actually, what I really want is for them to push me to dig a little deeper. When I looked at my piece on overpopulation (which is in The WisCon Chronicles as part of my essay called "We're Not Civilized Yet," I concluded I was only scratching the surface of the population issue myself. To really address the issue, I need to do a lot more reading and thinking. Sigh. More things to do.

sdn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sdn said...

i hear you. i think some of the problem was that the panel was delayed and superlate anyway, and we were all tired ...

i told isabel that she should moderate this next year -- she had handouts! she was more prepared than i was.

Kelley said...

I didn't find your post snarky, I found it thoughtful. I'm childless by choice although I can certainly imagine having chosen to have children if my life had taken me to different places.

I think that considering children as "not a goal" is a lovely way to put it. I think children, like most everything else, are a relationship (I tend to see the entire world, systems as well as people, in terms of relationship). Which is why it's distressing when I find my relationship with "feminism" questioned because my choices don't always sync up with the feminists around me or because I can't always explain them articulately, or because sometimes I'm just not sure how I feel. This is what I got from your post -- a sense of essentialism about the conversation that shuts down the possibility of nuance. Please correct me if I've misread.

Norms can be so obvious, and so subtle. Isn't it funny (okay, not really) that in our culture it's generally okay to ask a woman, "Why did you decide not to have children?" but asking "Why did you decide to have children?" will raise everyone's eyebrows?

And isn't it interesting that saying, "I don't know why I didn't have kids" is still a little less palatable than saying "I don't know why I had kids"? The latter is seen as either the natural expression of the stress that all parents experience sometimes, or as simple inexperience ("well, you'll understand when you hold that grandchild for the first time," or whatever). But the former is seen as unexamined.

I won't speak for men's experience on this. I suspect it's different, and I also suspect that many men experience the pressure of this norm in ways that I haven't imagined. It would be interesting to hear that perspective, if anyone's inclined to comment.

Feh. I long for the day when the normal thing is to be human and make human choices; and even if we don't support the choices of others, we won't assume there is something "off-center" about them.

Kelley Eskridge

Anonymous said...

Hmm... I agree that you were a tad snarky, but I think I understand where you were coming from with your comment post. Rach and I would have loved to attend a panel that went very deep exploring the sometimes uncomfortable interaction between feminism, parents, those that never have children, those that actively choose not to have children, etc... But I think everyone there would have. The problem is getting parents to actually attend and be on such a panel. There was just one guy in the audience who had children; I wish there'd been more, so there could have been a conversation.

But failing that, it's no surprise that everyone fell into talking about the issues they face having chosen not to have children. I know it's always interesting for Rachel and I to hear about other people's experiences as we deal with our own families and friends.

I think it might be a different experience to look back on your life and realize you haven't had children, probably won't, and are okay with that than it is to decide at a young age that you don't want children, and even take medical steps to make sure you never do. People tend to dismiss your decisions, deny you sterilization treatments because of course you'll change your mind, etc.

Then again, maybe it's not. The pressure to marry and have children seems pretty universal, at least from parents. Perhaps you get less grief from strangers and friends, though? I guess I imagine that saying "I just haven't met the right person yet" is much more acceptable than "I don't want kids ever" to most people.

Kelly--I wanted to bring this up at the panel, but didn't have a chance. Men do experience pressure to have kids, even among other guys. I've known a decent amount of men who deep down image themselves playing football with their son or whatever, and anyone older than me regardless of gender is likely to dismiss my claims that I have no interest in having children. Parents make no discrimination in pressing for kids.

From what I've heard, the medical community doesn't annoy equally. Men tend to have a much easier time than women in getting sterilized. The idea seems to be that in the end the woman could always leave the man when she realizes that childbearing is her natural role in the universe or something.

Also (again directed at Kelly), your comments on how people react to you when you aren't sure of things, can't express things eloquently, etc. were incredibly interesting. Thank you.

-Michail Velichansky (the one with the very loud laugh :)

Diane Silver said...

Nancy, I thought your post was fine, and I'm going to link to it over at our political blog, In This Moment.

Kelley, I liked what you said here:
>"I long for the day when the normal thing is to be human and make human choices; and even if we don't support the choices of others, we won't assume there is something "off-center" about them."<

When I was a baby feminist I do remember snarking at a woman who was a stay-home mom. I wish I could take that back now, but it's far too late. At the time, I was married (to a man) and frightened about being squished into the box I thought she was in.

The point I'm clumsily trying to make is that the stay-at-home mom had a right to her choice, Nancy and you have a right to your choices about children, and I have a right to my choice.

My choice, by the way, ended up being decidedly odd and political, although I didn't mean it to be that way. I fell in love with a woman who was pregnant and planning to raise the child alone. I loved her, and she came with child, so I finally decided to accept the child,then I fell head over heels in love with the child and we became a, well, neo-nuclear family. (Boom! two lesbian moms, one son, very weird to most folks) When my partner died, I continued raising our son alone. It was the hardest and best thing I ever did. (Well, best if I did it right, but the jury will probably be out on that for a long time.)

My point -- and I do have one -- is that all our choices are right as long as they are made with integrity and as long as no one is forced into a box they don't want to inhabit.

To be child free, childless or, ah, unchilded is as valid as my choice to take up the very unexpected role of mother.

The real problem occurs, I think, when folks forget that the world is much more complicated than many believe. There is no one right way. There are honest choices, though.

Anonymous said...

Michail -- I'm one parent who was actually quite interested in this panel, but by 10:00 PM I was back in my hotel room getting my kids to sleep *g*.

I think that the question of having children is one of those issues where women with any amount of feminist sensibility end up feeling damned if you do, damned if you don't. A sizeable majority of my female friends are happily child-free, to the point where I sometimes feel like I must be some retro freak who's been subverted by the patriarchy.

Obviously even in an ideal society, the choice about whether to have kids or not would probably engage some pretty deep emotions, but I would love to participate in some discussion of the ways that our societal structures make this decision much more fraught with conflict than it needs to be.
-- Erika P.

Isabel said...

I agree that the panel could have covered more ground and delved into the feminist implications of choosing not to have children. As one of the panelists (especially one who arrived late), I take partial responsibility for that.
I say partial because I believe this is the first time (at least since I've been attending-8 years) that this topic has been presented, and I think that for many, it was the first opportunity to discuss an intimately person and profoundly (societally) problematic decision within an open, and even supportive, environment, and we all needed some safe space to vent and find like-minded folks who don't think we're "too young," "confused," "will change our minds" or just plain "evil."
The fact that some folks stayed until almost 1am, and then even continued the conversation at the parties, indicates that there was a need for this discussion.
I would like to propose the panel again next year, and I think that now that the topic has been broached, we can move on to relating our decision to how it plays out in our professional lives, and even, whether/how it is represented in science fiction, among other things.
I would also like to see women of different ages represented, as well as from more diverse backgrounds/cultures.
And yes, I will bring handouts again. ;-)

Kelley said...

Michail, Diane and Erika, your comments have made me think more about norms and the pressure to have children.

Clearly, the norm is that we're all supposed to want kids: that's why the linguistic connotations of "Why don't you have children" are fraught and even slightly hostile (and it's considered a rude question to ask a stranger), while on some level the question "Why do you want children" is simply nonsensical -- many adults in this culture can't understand how it can be a "real" question.

So if the norm is to want kids, then the transgression is not to want them. It's "okay" if people are trying as hard as they can without success; it's less okay if people say, "Nope, just don't want to have kids." In fact, if one says that, many people who hear it will wait expectantly for the explanation, the circumstances that will make the listener able to feel comfortable with the statement.

But why isn't it okay? It's okay to say "I don't want a corporate job" or "I don't want to own a house" or even "I don't want to get married" -- all of which are markers of "real adults" in mainstream culture.

So here's what I think, tell me if I'm wacky (grin): I think that it goes right back to the assumption humans make, on such a deep level that it's one of the "givens" for most of us, that children are an unquestionable value in and of themselves. We simply don't question as a culture that children are fundamental. Not "important to some of us," but IMPORTANT, on the same level as sunlight and oxygen and food.

It's true that without children, the human race dies out. And the core assumption is that's unthinkable. Not just bad or tragic, but wrong to think.

And so one of the most transgressive things a human can do is say, "Why must I value children?" Because on some level (at least in some folks' perception), what one is really saying is, "Why must the human race continue?"

Just to be clear, I'd rather the human race went on. I really would. I have a pretty strong survival instinct, and I think being human on the planet can be a fascinating, intoxicating, enormously varied experience. I just don't necessarily think it's an unquestionable principle.

Except try questioning it sometime in a crowd (she said with a grin). Just make sure you have something to hide behind. In many situations it is one of the great unspeakable questions.

And here comes the great conflict: our culture's emphasis on the individual versus the emphasis on children. Having children means radical changes to one's life, many doors closing as the cost of the richness that children bring to some people. I imagine that nearly every parent sometimes wonders about those doors, the way that I wonder about the beauty and magic that I am missing by not having this particular relationship.

We all know that people who don't want children are punished by being labeled "selfish" and "unnatural". But our culture values individual freedom above almost everything else, and I imagine that parents get "punished" on many subtle levels for giving up some of this freedom. I think although our culture puts a premium on children, we don't always support people actually having and raising them (ask a poor woman about the cost of childcare that makes it impossible for her to take a job...) But we assume that parents are happy to suck it up and take the subtle hits, because after all, it's for the children.

So no wonder it's hard to talk about. So much cultural privilege for the notion of making and caring for children, and so much cultural disregard for the everyday realities. So much cultural disdain for the willfully childless, so much cultural "sympathy" (and assumption of inferiority) for those not able to have kids, and yet so many opportunities given to those of us without kids who have more options about how to "be ourselves" in this culture that values this kind of success and freedom.

Does this make sense? I don't want to speak for parents, but I hope that someone else will share their experience and help me figure out what I really mean here.

Diane, your story made me think of something that happened to me 15 years ago in Atlanta. I was working with a fundamentalist Christian woman. We enjoyed working together and liked each other's company; and when she discovered my partner was a woman, she went home and wrestled with her appreciation of me as a person versus the fact that I was a monster in the eyes of her church. She finally told me that she liked and accepted me, but that she was so very sorry I could never have children.

I told her very gently that in fact that part of my body worked just fine, and I could probably have children any time I wanted. And she was so surprised. She literally didn't understand what I meant at first. I had to explain it...

Okay, instead of ambling I think I am now rambling, and so will stop.

Kelley Eskridge

Anonymous said...

Kelley--I think as a society we do even weirder things to parents, esp. mothers. You're right that we put it on a pedestal in general, and then undervalue it in practice... but we also don't give mothers the right to be anything but awesome super-moms, all the time.

Basically, it's not cool to say "You know, I don't like my kid very much sometimes." Even though I think most parents have moments where they might still love their kid, but damned if they just don't like them. We also expect mothers to sacrifice even more of themselves for their kids (at least in middle class suburbia)--the stereotypical soccer mom seems to spend more time driving her child around than doing anything for herself. And she has an awesome career as well, and juggles them all without ever just getting sick of her kid and wishing for a while that she'd maybe done something else.

At least that's what it looks like to me, from what I've read by some honest parents. It's an impossible standard, esp. when you're not supposed to feel honestly towards it.

This isn't the case for fathers, unfortunately. Fathers are supposed to work and play catch or something, and are given far too much leisure to shrug off the physical and emotional weight of childcaring. (Though there are more fathers now that do take it seriously, stay at home, etc. I think it's super cute, and I mean that in the most respective way possible ^_^)

What to do about this I have no idea. How to be a parent is both intensely personal and a target for well-meant advice and cajoling and pressure from spouses (who if all's equal should get an equal say, yet may say the complete opposite thing), family, friends, and society. Which means it's pretty screwed up all around.

--Michail Velichansky

Isabel said...

I think your story is a perfect example of what I meant by "unexamined." It never even occured to this woman that you could still have children because the "normal" hence, only, way to have children is for a man and a woman to be in a relationship. If she had stopped for one moment to think about it, she would have known that of course you could still have children!
It's that aha! moment that I was referring to when I mentioned "unexamined." Our culture gives us the standard life's path as school, job, relationship (with someone of the opposite gender), marriage, children, retirement, death. Since there are no alternatives presented, most people don't question the path and assume that it will be their path. Once they have that aha! moment, they can than choose whether or not to go down that path, or at least be cognizant that they are not sure which way to go.
Up until then, wanting may not even be an issue. No one questions whether a teenager wants children, it's considered irrelevant, because the assumption is that when she is older, she will, because again, that is just what you do on the path.
I like to live dangerously, and I am "out" about being childfree*, but even I have never brought up the questioning of the path with a group of strangers, even the ones who question my choice. I don't know if that's because I know that I would have to find something to hide behind or because I'm just so darn tired of having to listen to them enlighten me and why I am so clearly misguided.
And I completely agree with you about society claiming to support motherhood and yet not putting their money where there rhetoric is. My mother was a single mom with 3 kids and all the typical nightmare issues of working/not being able to because of childcare, having to support us and not being able to, etc.
*childfree vs. childless-I use the term childfree because I want to be clear that for me it is a choice, as opposed to someone who would like children and cannot have them. I can only imagine the pain that would cause, and I would not presume to put myself in the same category with someone who has suffered (and continues to suffer) a loss. Also, I believe that childfree places the emphasis on what I am, what I can do because of my freedom (free), as opposed to seeing me as without something, missing something (less).

Anonymous said...

Kelley: "So no wonder it's hard to talk about. So much cultural privilege for the notion of making and caring for children, and so much cultural disregard for the everyday realities. So much cultural disdain for the willfully childless, so much cultural "sympathy" (and assumption of inferiority) for those not able to have kids, and yet so many opportunities given to those of us without kids who have more options about how to "be ourselves" in this culture that values this kind of success and freedom."

Yes! I think that's a wonderfully clear statement of the core issues here. I would love to see a panel that interrogated that conflict: who benefits from this status quo? What pressures keep it in place? How do we dismantle it? And we would, I hope, tie that to discussion of SF books that address the issue in some way. (Laurie Marks's Elemental Logic series, for example -- I'm finishing "Water Logic" right now, and every time the subject of child care comes up I whine to myself, "Why can't I live in Shaftal?")
-- Erika P.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

What a conversation! So good to read so many thoughtful posts on the subject. Unfortunately, I'm late for work as usual and can only comment on a few points.
Kelley observed that it's more acceptable to say "I don't want to get married" than it is to say "I don't want to have kids." I'm not sure that's true. As a single woman, I've found a lot of people seem to think there's something wrong with me because I'm not married. ("Why isn't a pretty girl like you married?" is a common pick up line I still hear from men who are older than me.) Conversely, being single gives me a good argument for not having children -- despite the large number of single parents these days, no one seems to argue with the explanation that I think childrearing is too hard without two parents.
BTW, I'm very grateful to have parents who have never once said anything about wanting grandchildren or wishing I'd get married. I think my parents are rare, though.
It occurs to me that in my original post I may have left the impression that I think it's wrong for people to make up their minds early not to have kids. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While I do want to see the human race continue (Kelley addressed that so well), I'd also like to see the overall population not just level off, but shrink back to a more reasonable size. I'm fine with people not having kids and I'd never tell anyone, no matter how young, that they'll change their minds when they get older.
I just wanted to make the point that I don't think having kids, or not having kids, has to be a permanent decision. Life throws us so many interesting curves, and it's good to be flexible when we hit one of them.
I hope we do have this panel again next year, at a sane hour (so hard to hold a serious discussion 10 PM after all the speeches and such), and I'd love it if it included being single as well. We could do a separate panel on that, but the two topics do fit together nicely, at least in my mind.
More later, I promise, but I unfortunately have to earn a living.

Carole McDonnell said...

As someone who has had to take care of two relatives who were childless, I can only advise childless women to make a lot of young caring women friends. And try to stay as healthy as possible. Old age --from what I've seen-- is a bitch. And being seen as the niece or neighbor who is forced to take care of, invite, shop for, and remember to call a childless woman takes the whole idea of caretaker to a whole nother level. -Carole

Diane Silver said...

What a fascinating discussion! Thanks to everyone for your interesting comments.

In thinking about all that has been said a couple of things come to mind.

Remember, I'm coming at this discussion from the POV of a lesbian who never intended to be a mother and yet ended up being one, first with my partner and then as a single mom. (see my post above for details.)

Kelley, I think you've done a good job of describing the reality: A female is required to be a Mom. She is seen as transgressing against society if she doesn't. At the same time, society gives little to no support to mothers. Being childfree does come with privileges of time and money -- as long as you can stand the nasty comments, misunderstandings and, once again, being labeled as an outlaw.

A small digression... I once told my financial planner that I didn't know why I couldn't save any money. I didn't think I had any unusual expenses, I told her. After she got over laughing herself silly, she pointed out to me that I was a single mother, and that kids cost about $300,000 to $400,000 to raise. one more digression... anyone who tells you public school is free is lying.)

end of digression...

After reading your post, Kelley, I realized how much privilege I have gotten from being a mother. OH, I've been drained of money, and sucked of time, but waving the Mom Flag took me out of the outlaw category, even in the eyes of some fundamentalists.

As a Mom, I was "ok" in some way that I wasn't before when I was a renegade, childless dyke.

In one sense, this was normal because me being a mother gave straights who are parents something in common with me. We had something to share, and they could stop feeling uncertain when they were around me.

But I think it also says something about the outlaw nature of anyone who choses to not have children. I wonder if that's one reason why lesbians and gays are seen so often as "unnatural." Not only do we go to bed with the wrong folks, but we also refuse to have kids! (or at least, homophobes think so.)

Until we solve the problem of overpopulation, I have no intention of jumping on anyone for not having children. My brother and sister in law are quite happy and don't have kids. Actually, what's really funny is that, in my family, it's the outlaw dyke who gave my mother her only grandchild.

Society wants to smush us all in boxes. Personally, I think it's time to toss every single, frigging box away.