Oh, Kristoff, no no no.

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.

Morality for the Child-free – #4 in Living Child-Free Series

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.

Imagining Your Child-Free Life – #3 in Living Child-Free Series

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.

Accommodation – #2 in Living Child-Free Series

In the first installment, I suggested acknowledging parents’ choices to reproduce and taking choice into account when addressing both parents and child-free adults. The next step in negotiating repro-normativity connects to choice as well. When friends have children, their lives change considerably due to their decision to reproduce. The less familiar truth is that your life will change as well, and child-free friends need to think about how much they want to accommodate their parent-friends with new life paths.  Of course, the easy parts include oohing and aahing over beautiful little smushy people. Well, that part is easy for me because I truly enjoy babies. Oohing abilities may vary.

Once that stage is over, the more difficult adjustments begin. If you want to invite parents to dinner, forget the casual ease of pre-child plans. Be aware that most middle class American children live on a rigid schedule as contemporary parenting encourages routines to make the child feel safe or to help them sleep. That means they eat at the same time, they bathe shortly thereafter, and they are put to bed after that, usually with book reading, snacks, and other complicated arrangements. Your window for enjoying their parents’ company can be very small. Better that you “just go to their house,” too, because the children are thrown off by difference. Once again, initially these shifts are painless. Visiting  their home is easier than dinner at 4:30 and an almost immediate departure to begin nighttime procedures.  Regardless of the way parent-friends address the scheduling issue, it alters the way the child-free people interact socially, despite the fact that they are not the ones who decided to bring children into the friendship. Suggesting a babysitter to create adult flexibility can also be precarious. Sitters cost money, and some contemporary parents feel as if they already spend too much time away from their children for careers. A sitter suggestion may also be construed as unwillingness to spend time with the whole family.

These types of social accommodations seem unproblematic in the short term, but over time they may become frustrating. After all, the child-free people want to continue friendships, and children make that process exponentially more difficult. Most parents appreciate your sacrifices to spend time with them. However, if you constantly accommodate and never ask for what you need, it may wear on your patience. Don’t be afraid to spend time with your partner and / or your other child-free friends on your own terms, and don’t be afraid to sometimes even ask the parent-friends to do adult things or shift their rigid child-centered routines a bit. They may demur, but you must fulfill your own needs. Constantly shifting your expectations to accommodate friends’ parenting choices creates unevenness in the friendship, and it may never be reciprocated or even noticed.  Parents expect to sacrifice for their children. They have decided to do so. Other people also sacrificing for those children may seem completely ordinary and unworthy of comment to them. Yet, to you it can feel like an ongoing never-repaid favor. Instead of allowing this kind of resentment to enter the friendship, remember to balance accommodation with self-preservation and self-respect.