I seem to have become somewhat easily baffled. I was going to do a simple list-style post about “conversations I don’t know how to have anymore”, filled with references to people from whom I expect more missing the basic points of feminism/anti-oppression/acceptance, but the list just keeps getting longer in my head.
I’ve often written about the idea that not having children is a selfish act, about the equation of motherhood with selflessness, and about my own decision to likely remain childless for my lifetime. Despite never having had children, I do try – hard – to sympathize with the position that it changes your perspective on a lot of things, and to allow for kinds of emotions, opinions and attitudes I just can’t understand. I really struggle, however, with the fact that I think that on the whole, having children in our culture tends to make people more selfish. Certainly, parents in general – and often, mothers in particular – are required/called upon to make certain kinds of sacrifices in their personal lives in order to meet their children’s needs. Incredible amounts of time, money, and energy go into ensuring that other people are clothed, housed, fed, and I know that a lot of what I do with my life would instantly become impossible if I were to have children.
When I say we encourage an increase in selfishness with parenthood, it’s largely because of way so many parents are inclined to fight for their own children at the expense of anything else. I’ve written before about how the self-sacrificing mother myth can be destructive because it creates a conflation of the mother with her children, making their actions inherently “all about her” because she has no other self left. This is somewhat similar, in that the children, or the family unit, become an extension of the self, and the “other” expands a little further into the “out there”.
A lot of this current thought is connected to some of those conversations I just don’t know how to have anymore, which are pretty good examples of what I’m talking about. There’s a woman I love very much, who I consider in many ways to be an extremely generous spirit, and who works extremely hard to take care of her family. When her children have health problems, if she isn’t able to get an appointment with an appropriate doctor, or even able to get answers to their test results, in a timely manner – say, within a couple of weeks – she gets extremely upset. More than once, I’ve heard her ask in frustration “Are we suddenly living in a third world country?”. The most upsetting of conversations with her, for me, revolve around a young girl who was sort of becoming friends with her older daughter (age 11) last year. The other little girl (also 11) has developed already, tends to wear revealing clothes, and, I think, will talk in sexual language. My friend doesn’t really want her daughter hanging out with this other young girl, and I can respect that. What I can’t respect is the way the other girl is talked about – the word ‘slut’ is studiously avoided in the presence of the local feminist, but the meaning is clear, and it goes without saying that she is ‘bad news’, a ‘bad influence’, ‘inappropriate’ etc. There’s not even any consideration of what the other girl may be thinking or feeling, she is not only marked as immoral, that immorality is automatically assumed to start and end with her.
I kind of go silent in these conversations – which, from me, fortunately, is in itself a statement, since I’m so rarely quiet. But how do I say, in response to the former comment, that really? You really refuse to recognize the privilege you’re working with, even compared to a lot of people in this country? The last time she said it, it was shortly after I had been listening to Stephen Lewis talk about the impact of the “brain drain” on HIV/AIDS in Africa, referencing the fact that in Namibia (I believe), a country of several million people, the exodus of locally born and educated doctors and health care professionals in search of better employment elsewhere has left the entire country served by only 93 doctors, including only 2 pediatricians.
If I do say something, not just with this one individual but with most parents, the response is generally that yes, it’s exaggerated, but the expectation is that I should understand how that desire to protect one’s children emerges. And on some level, I do, but I can’t help but notice how open-mindedness and tolerance, or a general belief in equal access to such human rights as health care in principle is much easier to throw out the window when children enter the equation than when only adults (one’s self and perhaps a partner) are at stake. Being a big skeptic about biological determinism and a quase-cultural anthropologist type, I don’t honestly know how much of this behaviour is “natural” and how much reflects the cultural prioritization of one’s own children as extensions of the self.
As usual, I want to be clear that I’m talking about what I perceive to be tendecies or pressures. I’m not universalizing this behaviour, I’m not criticizing all parents and I’m certainly not dismissing parenthood. My main suggestion is that there is a cultural push toward increased “selfishness” that is attached to parenting, one that is actually supported by the idea of “sacrifice” that creates a superficial mask of selflessness.
Because apparently I feel like being controversial in the morning.