My new favorite technique. Let’s see if it lasts.
So tonight I was told that for a few years I was “crazy about the feminism” so much so that it “annoyed” my father. He was explaining my brother’s bizarre response to me and placing the blame on my ardent feminism. Of course. My refusal to acquiesce to my brother’s patriarchal ideology did indeed annoy him. It was often the precursor to him lashing out at me. However, my feminism did not cause his attacks. His patriarchy, which my feminism threatens, caused them.
And the bigger difference between my supposedly in your face feminism and his patriarchal values is very important. If I talk about feminism until I am blue in the face; if I annoy every male (and possibly female) member of my family; if I alienate all of the male members of my work team, I have done exactly that. I have annoyed and alienated. I have made them uncomfortable in their easy privilege. If my brother’s espouses his women should obey, women should stay silent, women should let men have their way, and porn is amazing worldview; women continue to die. They, possibly me, continue to be raped and beaten and stabbed and shot if they do not tow those lines. See the difference. I put his ego at risk; he puts my safety at risk. This is the bargain we have been asked to swallow again and again. Melissa McEwan, despite her blind spots, writes eloquently about this topic in a post titled “The Terrible Bargain.”
I held back – barely- from launching into a tirade to my my father about the shit my brother has said to me. I did admit to him that I don’t tell them what he says to me because I don’t want them to have to deal with it. That was too much already, but he won’t remember anyway and my mother did not hear it. They should hear it; they should know that my brother has tried to bully me, that he says aggressive and inane things to me when I do not adhere to his code. But they are old and I want their final years to be soft and free of strife. But that’s the thing – they can stay ignorant and pretend that my “side” of the sibling rivalry is just as bad as my brother’s. They can maintain their patriarchal worldview and write me off as strident. And women keep getting raped, and they keep getting beaten and they keep getting killed. Perhaps telling my parents the truth about their son and the difference between his worldview and mine would have no effect on those statistics. But allowing them to keep that easy ignorance, to think that my feminism is THE PROBLEM, surely does nothing to change the world that injures women every day.
I’ll keep silent with my old parents and keep working in other venues. It feels phony, but that is the terrible bargain McEwan knows so well. And so do the rest of us.
All of the hullabaloo about the NYT piece popularizing Dr. Sarah B Hyrdy’s work on female indirect aggression makes me think. Jess Eagle already skewers the too easy leaps of logic made by the Times writer, but something about this topic, forces me to dig deeper. The idea that sexual competition, or attempts to attract and keep mates, comprises the predominant form of competition between adult women seems laughable to me. My immediate work environment, with equal numbers of female and male faculty, and the larger pool of the entire University, with not-so-good numbers of female faculty, engenders competition between women and other women, but not so much between women and men. Current initiatives to train female faculty in leadership skills and mentor them into leadership roles appears to only exacerbate this skewed competition. Mind you, I do not blame the people conducting those important efforts or women themselves. We are hearing other somewhat conflicting messages that drown out or twist the leadership training. For example, in the past five years, a number of associate thises and associate thats (mostly associate deans) have been created and most of those positions have been filled – pointedly – with women. Yet the number of female deans (one) has remained exactly the same, despite turnover in two or three colleges. The President and Provost positions have turned over as well, and subsequently filled -surprise- with white men. Thus, women on our campus have been trained that they may dutifully compete with each other for these secondary roles, but the big prizes are still reserved for the be-penised.
This example points toward a different explanation of female competition to me. Girls and women are indeed taught to compete for boys/men/mates, which places lesbian women in a particularly confusing and unhelpful context, but this training serves to channel all female competition, at school, at work, in sport (compounded by the strict separation of boys and girls teams) toward other girls and women. Men are, both metaphorically and systemically, on a completely different playing field. Women compete with each other because we have been disallowed from competing with boys as children. In college when young people are developing career skills and perhaps modes of competition, women’s and men’s sports teams are still separated. We compete with each other because we have been trained to compete with each other and then repeatedly reminded that we do -in articles like those that popularize Hyrdy’s work. Women do not see much possibility of being invited onto the boys team and their field / stadium nor are we offered any reason to make an attempt to compete with people viewed mainly as mates or oppressors. And what well trained hetero woman would turn around and compete with her mate after she has been told to compete for him? Rewriting the rules so that competition between men and women is both possible and fun, the way true competition can be, should be our aim.
For some reason, my week’s activities move outward from Sunday, from the long run. It might be only six miles, or it could be 18, depending on what I am training toward. Today it was an easy seven-miler at a speed that made me happy. Not blissfully happy, because that would require real speed and probably a new set of lungs, but reasonably happy. Like every week, I approached it with trepidation, fearing I would “fall out,” during the run, or after it. It appears that a gin and tonic coupled with a late night and friends is good for my training because there was no band around my chest during the run, nor faintness afterward. Seems backwards when last week’s good night of sleep and water only produced a painful, frustrating, almost forsaken nine-mile event.
From here, at the finish line of my weekly long run, I can approach the week, knowing I have done that one difficult thing, the one pure thing, already. And I’m not sure what the word “pure” even means here. Running is not necessarily clean, not especially natural, when one conducts it on a machine, in a basement; it’s not even quiet, since my awesome partner, running next to me on another machine, usually creates a playlist of music for each long run. That idea of purity must reflect the superfluity of my long runs. They bring me no external benefit – I do not win races or post good times. If anything, my race times create more tension and bad feelings. The ongoing inability to become faster or perform on race day strains my relationship to the sport. Perhaps more pointedly, the time spent on the treadmill or the trail could be used to further my career if I did research and writing instead. I wish I were one of those people who composed journal articles or even lectures while running. Then I could justify my habit with extrinsic tangible rewards. But I rarely find any kind of academic inspiration during my long run. Yet, each week inevitably runs towards this event and builds away from it.
Perhaps my perversity allows me to perceive the long run as the touch-point, the beginning of and the summation of a week. It is almost constant in a life that I purposefully keep in flux. Few routines, limited schedules… and passports kept at the ready. Not an efficient life. But it does usually involve a long run, once a week.
In this space, I have written about the assumption that parents and especially mothers are morally superior to child-free people. In those stances about the assumed moral superiority of parents, the idea that parents sacrifice time, energy, financial resources and more for their offspring takes central attention. Of course, people make sacrifices, large and small for any number of reasons. Some sacrifice free time, sleep and other health considerations, as well as mental well-being in the pursuit of a career. Others sacrifice more specifically in those endeavors, such as dancers sacrificing joint health later in life for success in their ballet vocation, or priests sacrificing normalized sexuality to pursue a religious life. Beyond careers, people sacrifice enormously for any number of people in their lives, like the partner who stays with an extremely ill or drug-addicted person, while money, peace of mind, and even safety erode. Still others sacrifice for hobbies or artistic dreams, sometimes to extremes that others find laughable. But why is sacrificing for children inherently moral and sacrificing for a hobby laughable?
The idea that sacrifice in the pursuit of begetting and raising children is a moral endeavor, stems partly from the assumption that children are mostly a public, rather than a private good. In other words, our current conceptualization of children includes an unspoken belief that everyone eventually benefits from other people’s children. This belief stems from some truisms, that many children grow up to be workers and citizens, contributing to society both through their economic production and their civic engagement. Capitalist ideology relies on the growth model, which requires new workers, and more importantly new markets (ie consumers). However, even putting aside environmental concerns, this model ignores quite a bit about who actually benefits from additional humans and who loses. As the editorial team from the Economist points out “for one thing, some people produce neither an economic nor fiscal benefit to society. Some children will end up as free-riders, consuming more than they create.” Additionally, how do working and middle class people benefit from more workers? In fact, more workers only benefits the capitalists, who can pay less the more people there are vying for a job. The rest of us, in turn, have less ability to find a job or to negotiate for a higher wage if there are more people lining up for the same jobs. It also ignores the new reality that human workers are needed less and less in a robotic production paradigm.
Beyond the questionable assumption that children are a public good, I question the idea that they are not a private good. Rather, our nuclear family fetishization creates a world where children can only be a primarily private good. They benefit their parents and siblings more than the society at large. Some of these benefits are easily recognizable, even clichéd. When couples are urged to reproduce, a standard argument asks “who will take care of you when you grow old?” and indeed grown children bear much of the burden of elder care. The child-free must negotiate other avenues for assistance in their deteriorating years. Subsidizing benefits for parents – reifying the nuclear family – adds to a system that can undercut the social network for citizens in old age.
Other private benefits stem from the very assumptions we are attempting to undercut. For example, at some point in the middle adult years of most westerners, questions about career aspirations, life goals, and self-actualization writ large become inevitable. Children become a culturally sanctioned way to stave off disappointment. Even if you have not become a millionaire or saved the ocean reefs, you still can point to your children as your accomplishment, an accomplishment for which you sacrificed in other arenas to succeed. In some contexts, children also net other benefits. They are a not-to-be-questioned excuse to beg off of weekend events, both professional and social. I have mention the joys of sweet baby skin and could add the fun of passing along wisdom or skills to adoring little people, and I know others could provide numerous examples of the private benefits of children. Of course, most parents do put in much time in order to enjoy those benefits, but they pretend their time benefits everyone else. My argument here is simply that it really does not, and that child-free people need not feel guilty for not reproducing the means of production.
In the past few weeks, two very different versions of my style have emerged. A colleague complimented me for speaking out on certain topics, and called me “fearless.” In that moment, my usual shame about the pseudo-working class rhetorical style I carry left me for a moment. Normally, I shift between two very different registers in my speech patterns. During formal research presentations and related moments, my style is overly formal, using the jargon of my field and elevated, even archaic language at times. This choice does not differ from most people in this kind of work environment, nor does the toggling I do from that register to a less formal one. The real difference is the level of informality represented in my other mode.
In less formal meetings and everyday conversations with colleagues, I find it impossible to sustain formal speech patterns, and sadly my lower register ranges from verbal tics of the very young – overusing “like” – to liberal use of blue language and harsh imagery. Often my use of profanity responds to troubling information about sexist happenings at my institution or to disappointing political news. Yet, my middle class, mid-western co-workers sometimes become put-off by vehemence or cursing. They accept me anyway, but their acceptance and collegiality seems to come despite my style. In other words, they look past it or show mild amusement at it, or less often, dismiss the vehemence. They do not see it as a strength, and usually, neither do I. I cringe when people who have never heard a family member curse, clearly feel uncomfortable with my language or my emphasis. For decades, I have worked to eliminate both certain patterns and individual words from my lexicon, and I can do so in the short term. I’ve also worked to dampen any obvious display of my anger and frustration, so that I don’t frighten the people around me. They are hardly shy about voicing their opinions and can interrupt or talk over others when necessary, but they do it with a smile, which seems to make most things acceptable in this part of the world. But I’m still the person who heard raised voices and profanity almost daily but Tennyson only on the weekends, and my informal speech patterns reflect that legacy.
So when this co-worker named me “fearless” I was surprised. Pleased but quite surprised. Perhaps there are moments when my verbal style provides some clarity or allows others permission to be angry at truly unjust situations. It reminds me of a recent blog post about the usefulness of anger for feminists. The writer explains to readers that anger has been denied women, silencing them and others, who do not fit the norm. It also reminds me that my style can be an asset. While I have spent most of my professional life working to erase the class markers evident in my rhetoric, especially the easy move to righteous anger that makes the middle class so nervous, I may stop trying so hard.
This weekend I attended events where I saw a common sight: young women in skinny jeans. Not running in much of a hipster crowd, most of the young men wore less revealing attire, diminishing attention to their body shape. As a woman who benefits somewhat from thin privilege, form revealing clothing strikes at one of my feminist difficulties. I am able to survive in the patriarchy without wearing make-up, and my tendencies toward comfort and (some) modesty mean that my clothes are rarely form-fitting, especially in winter. So my thinness, which could earn me cookies from the patriarchy, goes somewhat unnoticed. Obviously, people can see that I have a patriarchy-approved body type (up to a point), but they have no idea just how thin I am unless they see me in a swimsuit or one of my more –but still not very — form-fitting articles of clothing, which usually sit unworn in the closet.
Here is where my mind bifurcates, and I call out my inner anti-feminist. Why should I want people to give me approval for my body type? Why should I be jealous about said patriarchy cookies when they are doled out to women who wear what I would never feel comfortable sporting, namely skintight jeans and shirts just as form fitting? In an ideal world, approval and compliments would be based on people’s kindness or their ability to help others, or at the very least on their skills or erudition, rather than on appearance. By my very attention to the approval they garner, I play into the patriarchy’s game, and make myself crazy. Additionally, neither I, nor the skinny jeaned ones, have earned their shapes. While I am a runner, and I like working out and eating (mostly) healthy foods, realistically genetics have caused my shape. I would likely remain thin if I stopped running tomorrow and started regularly chowing on french fries. In other words, the attribute which I want people to notice, comes to me through the vagaries of chance, much like white skin. My desire for approbation, then, rings doubly false.
In Kristoff’s column today “She’s (rarely) the Boss” he gets a few things right. He quotes Sheryl Sandberg who suggests that “We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.” In fact, women are trained to demur, to assent, and to please.
But he gets something wrong by leaving out how women are punished when they do learn to be assertive. As Judge, Livingston, and Hurst explain women get less of a boost and may even lose by being assertive. They state that “exhortations for women not to be nice (Pfeffer, 2010) might be overblown. Nice girls might not get rich, but “mean” girls do not do much better. Even controlling for human capital, marital status, and occupation, highly disagreeable women do not earn as much as highly agreeable men” (39). Kristoff and Sandberg are correct that women are socialized to be nicer, but their advice for women to assert more may not work as well as their predictions. Women must walk a very fine line between pleasing an assertive, lest they get labeled troublemakers or worse. Those labels make it nearly impossible to leverage assertiveness in the workplace.
Finally, Kristoff while advocating for changes in organization structure, which are clearly needed given the above, flounders about what might need changing. Perhaps training males already in power to recognize differing leadership styles or teaching them how not to punish women for moments when they are assertive and negotiate, might be a good starting place. But instead Kristoff slides into child-centric language here, somehow connecting lack of assertion in women to “the need for structural changes to accommodate women and families.” What do families, by which Kristoff means children, have to do with the unwillingness to ask for raises? Nothing, except perhaps that women are not assertive enough at home to create equitable child care structures. What is more troubling though, remains Kristoff’s assumption that women will reproduce and that structural changes needs always respond to that reproductive choice, rather than the larger problems of gender expectations in the workplace. Of course, organizations should not judge workers for leaving at 5:30 for any reason, not just to spend time with children. If work-life balance was untethered from child raising, the concept could become gender neutral and benefit everyone.
In truth, the structural changes that would end the gender wage gap must begin long before women enter the workforce, in homes and schools, where parents do not expect girls to do housework and do not allow boys to be boys. Where educators train girls and boys to assert in appropriate ways, neither making excuses for overaggressive boys, nor punishing girls for unladylike demands for equality. All children and all adults should see adults of every gender modeling appropriate assertiveness ,and everyone should be trained and offered the chance to lead.
This post comes in response to commenter Rizarosette, who has been likened to a “monster,” when admitting zie does not love children. In the United States parents are reviled subtly -it’s true- for not “controlling” their children in public, for example, or for having too many children if you are a women, especially a non-white women, and the opposing side of that revulsion and accusation is the beatification of parents. Thus, if you have children, you are a moral person, a selfless person who “gives” for their children, regardless of the ways those children benefit the parents or the arguably selfish reasons for reproducing in the first place. For those of us like Rizarosette and me, that means we are by definition behind in the moral game. Either openly, like the “you monster” comment, or internally, people around us wonder what is wrong with child-free people, why they are so selfish, or simply deny them the sainted status that parents, especially mothers, or very involved fathers (that is its own problem) are awarded.
And for truly bad people, especially bad women, having a child is the perfect way to hide your evil. Remember Kate on Lost. She was able to beat a murder charge because she brought back a baby from the island, and played the mother card. Yes, I just called it that. I have close friends who do not believe anyone who has produced a child is capable of really bad behavior.
Conversely, anyone who has not reproduced is morally suspect and must re-prove their ethical bearing on a weekly, if not daily, basis. We are not lauded for our selfless choice to avoid using the planet’s resources and adding to its pollution through more humans. We are not credited in the same ways for other behaviors that benefit the community. It grows tiring. Of course, raising children is also a tiring business. Maybe we could all just give each other credit for being fairly moral humans, neither perfect nor monstrous, regardless of our reproductive status.
The first two posts in this series address dealing with the expectations of repro-normative society. Perhaps belatedly, this post helps child-free adults cope with the repro-normative parts of their own psyche, imbedded by cultural programming. How do we imagine a life in a society that limits our image of success to a narrow image of a house, spouse, car, and kids? Such an image foregrounds material gain, in the house and car, provides for companionship in the limited focus on spouses, and squishes three important human desires into the notion of reproducing children. After a conversation about this post, I adopt the other dactyl’s framing of these strands in human desire as growth, continuance, and doing good. Growth points toward our need to learn and change, continuance represents the longing to leave something lasting to the world, and doing good reflects a moral aspiration in most adult humans. Churches have long provided an answer to these three desires with chances for spiritual or intellectual growth, often the promise of an afterlife, and a moral dimension either through avoiding certain activities or participating in others. Raising children has been framed in these ways as well, especially as continuance. Yet, many other activities, practices, and ways of living provide fulfillment for those very human inclinations.
To begin imagining your child-free life, first, think about what you do now. Most of us have full lives with maintaining career or job, hobbies, a home, friends, partners when applicable, and other responsibilities. I include apartments and other living spaces as homes – you still must clean, plan meals, and do laundry regardless of the size, number of inhabitants, or arrangement of your home. In western culture, career itself can define a life because of our emphasis on material gain, and because some careers satisfy the three desires outright. Yet, I reject the suggestion that career aspirations should push out other concerns for child-free people. Instead, many types of physical training, spiritual practice, creative endeavors, and community service feed the metaphysical side and satisfy the need to give back and to produce something that endures. As career concerns ebb and flow, more energy may go toward such creative or community work.
For some, who focus on growth concerns, travel becomes the perfect way to cultivate positive movement, instead of settling into too-familiar routines. Of course, travel may not be an option for everyone, but it need not be as expensive or difficult as we believe, and, at least for me, seeing different landscapes, meeting new people, and adapting to unfamiliar cultural norms, provides infinite opportunity for growth, renewal, and engagement. Certain travels involve philanthropic or volunteer prospects as well, pointing toward both continuance and doing good.
While we are provided with a ready script of college, job, marriage, children – this script does not fit all of us. Some people – single, coupled, otherwise partnered – believe they can offer more to the world by remaining child-free and continuing the work they already do and building upon that work as their skill-levels, maturity, available resources, and wisdom burgeon.