Do We Really Have to Play the One-up Game?

I wanted to post something positive today. Something cheerful. Something hopeful. Possibly even something spiritual. I’ve been feeling pretty good most of the week, actually, though my blog posts don’t reflect that at all. And on this blog, I feel like I’m “off my game” when I’m just doing what everybody else does–joining in the fray of linkage and commentary and reaction and sarcasm and “wtf-ism”.

But of all things, what I can’t let go of wanting to wtf about is this Feministing post. The main point is essentially good:

…people don’t choose to remain childless for some weird or nefarious reason. Some of us, uh, just don’t want kids, and have decided our lives will be just as happy or happier without them.

Check. I’ve spent plenty of time talking to people about the choice not to have children. Over the past few years since my separation, I’ve become more and more convinced that having children is not something I can see myself doing, ever. As a policy, I always admit that I could be wrong and change my mind about that. I mean, four years ago, when I was recently engaged, I had no intention of joining the ranks of failed marriage statistics (not how I see it now, but at the time, that was my feeling) and meant every word of the marriage vows I made. I’ve changed pretty radically in the meantime, and I remain willing to hold out the possibility that I will again change further, swing a little more towards considering whether children will fit in to my life.

Any conversation I have on the topic inevitably ends when I say that it’s possible that I could change my mind. Basically, at that point, I’ve satisfied my conversation partner that I understand that I’m just a flaky little girl, or that I’m currently bitter over my divorce, or that as I get older and start to hear the tick-tick-ticking of thirty or forty, I will rejoin the ranks of those seeking normal white-picket-fence banality. In other words, it’s not that I’ve convinced them to respect my position or me as an individual mature enough to consider the ramifications of my choices, it’s that they can walk away secure in the knowledge that they’ve won, and eventually I will come to know it, too. Probably as a direct result of meeting my “dream guy” who will sweep me off my feet, but who will (in their hypothetical) obviously want children and not be willing to tolerate a partner who isn’t interested. Never mind that first, if there’s one thing I’ve learned this past year, it’s that I’m more frightened of he who might present himself as a “dream guy” than of any other kind, and second, as soon as the latter part of that conditional becomes true (he wants children so much that it’s a deal-breaker), this isn’t my “dream guy” anymore at all (hey, they’re the ones establishing the existence of such a hypothetical standard of perfection, I’m just using their own flawed framework to point out the logical flaws in their framework).

Sorry. Getting way off topic here.

The other thing about this conversation is that people who have children or want children are making the obvious assumption that having children is better than not. Not just that it’s normal or natural, though they might only use those terms, but fundamentally better. Less selfish, as I’ve already discussed in post after post after post. Richer, fuller, more involved.

Not to mention harder. And we live in a culture that values difficulty and hard work. We resent people who we perceive as having it “easy” or making “easy” choices in their lifestyles. Feminists are criticized constantly for being nothing more than selfish, slutty bitches who just want everything their own way, who aren’t willing to give up their own desires for anyone or anything and who just can’t recognize the value of good, old-fashioned motherly self-sacrifice.

Which brings me, finally, back to my point. That Feministing post ends up referencing a passage from The Simpsons that includes a “childless activist”:

Bart: Mom, I locked your keys in the car.
Marge:
Then wait in the shadows!
Bart:
Also, Maggie puked in your purse again.
Lindsey Naegle:
Poor me… all my purse is full of is disposable income.

See, the thing with The Simpsons is that both sides of that straw man debate are being satirized in that sketch, which is why, at its best, the show is so goddamn brilliant. And maybe I’m not giving Ann, the author of that Feministing post, enough credit here, but I hate seeing people getting smug about their choices, whether they happen to be mine or not. Sure, she qualifies by immediately saying “hey, you should feel free to have kids if that’s what floats your boat”, but there’s still the tone of superiority to her attitude–like she has access to this special knowledge of the inherent truth that childlessness is objectively the better choice.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think a conversation that says “My way is better”/”No, my opposing way is” is going to get anyone anywhere. And while I’d also rather not get involved in any kind of comparative evaluation of difficulties, I’m also mighty sick of those who assume that because I’m single, childless and live alone, my life is easy and carefree. While I recognize that children (and partners) introduce complications and stresses and limitations, many of which I am grateful not to have to consider in my day-to-day decisions, people who have families are often extremely patronizing in projecting onto me those generalizations and condescending when I tell them that I have a pretty high level of stress in my personal life.

I get that there’s a tone of shock to the note that people might just choose to remain childless because that’s what is good for them, but still–I really don’t need other feminists helping to convince people that all that condescension is well-deserved.

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4 thoughts on “Do We Really Have to Play the One-up Game?

  1. Jay says:

    1.) IAWYC that playing the “I’m right, you’re wrong, so nyaah” game is incredibly pointless.

    2.) While I wouldn’t say that people with kids always have more stress than people without kids (because that ignores the numerous more important factors in their lives), I will say that for any given person, their stress is probably higher with kids than without them…having kids removes no stressors from your life, and adds a multitude of new ones.
    That said, let me re-emphasize…this has nothing to do with comparative stress between 2 different people, one with kids and one without. The stress of midnight feedings and baby puke are kind of minor next to the stress of things like abusive spouses, terminally ill parents, serious health issues, or the various stressors that can afflict the childless just as much as the parent.

    3.) Totally understand on the mind-changing thing, and just food for thought: I never wanted kids until I met Casey. Even then, I was pretty low on enthusiasm for kids pretty much right up until Wyatt was born (he was an accident, and my response to Casey’s telling me she was pregnant was to pretty much freak out…I feel bad about it now, but hey, truth). It took his physical presence in my life to really convert me to the “yeah, I like being a parent” thing.
    That said, I can totally understand not wanting to be a parent, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend “hey, have a kid, you might find out you like it”. That’s like sampling cyanide just to see if you just might have built up an immunity to it.

    4.) Anyone who thinks your admitting that you could change your mind is some kind of “victory” for them, is an imbecile. Admitting that one can change one’s mind is the mark of an enlightened and reasonable human being.

  2. purtek says:

    I will say that for any given person, their stress is probably higher with kids than without them…having kids removes no stressors from your life, and adds a multitude of new ones.

    This is well put, and appreciated. I’ve always been of the assumption that there are two factors going on when people get up in my face about not having children–one, essentially feeling the need to justify their own experience by universalizing it, and two, an inability to quite remember their life before kids without the sheen of rose-coloured glasses. Your wording clarifies and spins that latter part a lot better, so thanks.

    re: 3) I, personally, feel like it would be unfair for me to enter into a long-term partnership with a guy who is dead set on having children. I’m glad that in your case, it turned out that you actually were immune to the cyanide, but even with the caveat that I might change my mind, and with the awareness that I don’t think anyone can ever remain totally “sure” about such a decision, it just feels far too big to be less than totally enthusiastic about.

    re: 4) I am coming to realize that I speak to rather a large number of imbeciles. But this dynamic is part of why I feel like half the reason for the argument is so that people can feel more secure in their own choices by universalizing them, though there’s a tone of regret and self-justification in it. It’s kind of the same thing I feel when people tell me I’ll get more conservative as I grow older, because they did–former hard-core activist hippie types always have that “doth protest too much” feeling underlying it, where you can kinda tell they feel a little guilty about it.

    Enlightened and reasonable, I’m still working on. 🙂

  3. BetaCandy says:

    Jay, I think your #2 is the basis of the flawed assumption that childfree people have less stress than people with children. Because they’re comparing their OWN lives with and without children, and utterly failing to account for the fact that you might have responsibilities they can’t imagine let alone hack, you might have elderly relatives you’re caring for (single women get this duty dumped on them by brothers and married sisters A LOT), etc.

    Which is, if you think about it, stupid. It’s as rational as the assumption that being a housewife/mom is easy, or that being a girl is where all the power is because you can always use your vagina as a carrot to get boys to do what you want. It’s a petulant, petty projection – it’s what people want to believe in order to feel good about themselves.

    That’s crap. I don’t think the fact I didn’t have kids makes me better than anyone. I do think the fact that I *thought* about it and made what I really believe is the right choice for me makes me smarter than people who just do stuff because everybody else is doing it. But a lot of parents have good solid reasons of their own for having kids.

  4. purtek says:

    If I may step in with my interpretation, I think that actually is almost exactly what Jay was saying, though I think you (Betacandy) are adding another layer here, again.

    Jay’s point was that people think this because they can think of their own lives with kids vs. their own lives without, and inevitably, they come out thinking the “before” version was less stressful. And then they make the leap to universalizing the idea that people without kids are necessarily less stressed than they themselves are. That would be coming from the heads of the people that are frustrating us, not his own.

    The layer that you add, though, is important, which is that certain *other* kinds of stress are disproportionately dumped on single people–particularly single women–or people without children. This is done by the people making exactly the assumption above, and then they use that assumption to downplay the kind of stress that they just dumped onto their relative.

    And that’s kind of what the one up game is about–petulant, petty projection. Also pity-seeking. Because alliteration makes everything more true.

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