Except for my occasional posts on reproductive rights, I try to stay out of current trends in feminist thought. I do this because I appreciate that young women today are living in a very different social and cultural context from the one I grew up in back in the 1950s and 1960s. Often their ideas about sexuality and childbearing in particular don’t square with my experiences. But I think part of emotional maturity is appreciating that other people are having a very different experience of life from the one you’re having, and their experiences are just as valid as yours.
That said, today I was so disturbed by this post at feministing that I’m going to break my own rule and write about it. Go read it and then come back here for commentary and discussion.
One of the wonderful things about our species is that there are a lot of us, and we don’t all have to be living the same life. It’s a fine thing to know one’s own mind and live accordingly, even in the face of cultural pressure to live some other way. When a man or woman makes a personal decision not to marry or have children, for example, that decision should be respected.
But that goes both ways. Whenever anyone wants to coerce others to conform to one life experience, I say that’s a problem.
I understand that marriage can be awful (believe me), but I have also known couples who still take delight in each other after many, many years of marriage. There are and always will be people who fall crazy in love with each other and want to stay together forever. Just because this doesn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to other people.
But why is there marriage? Why not just live together if you want to and split up if you want to? For one thing, I think some kind of legal mechanism that protects the most economically vulnerable partner in a dissolving pair-bond is necessary, particularly if there are children. It’s also useful to have a neutral authority, such as government, to see to it that battling, separating couples are making rational decisions about the upbringing of their children as well as the disposal of their assets. And there are other reasons. It may be that our society should make more room for serial monogamy as opposed to death-do-us-part exclusivity. But if you want to know why there ought to be marriage, talk to gay couples who have lived many years together without the legal status of marriage.
The author of the feministing piece writes, in his last paragraph,
Thus as I realized how the cultural imperative on starting a family was unfair to women and the poor, I felt an instinctive aversion to it. That is the emotionally conditioned response that could override our responses to needs and instincts that make us want to reproduce. And if we rule out the biological ‘instinct’, which is strictly only to have sex and not to reproduce, my case for saying no to reproduction becomes much stronger.
I think he’s saying that he has an instinctual aversion to starting a family, and because he has this instinctual aversion everyone else ought to have it also, and that this instinctual aversion ought to override the instinct to reproduce, which doesn’t exist anyway. And now that he has decided that everyone’s life should conform to his life experiences, he proposes imposing his own aversions on everyone else. If there’s another interpretation of that paragraph I’d like to hear it.
I also suggest that our likes and dislikes come from many places, and there is a difference between, for example, instinct and neurosis that the author ought to sort out.
I was still childless during the glory days of second-wave feminism, and I believed fervently that maternal extinct was a stupid myth. And then I had babies and learned otherwise.
We are animals, after all, albeit over-specialized in the brain department. My definition of an instinct is body-knowledge; something your body knows how to do even if your head doesn’t. Because we are over-specialized in the brain, humans tend to dismiss things outside of the limited scope of cognition and conceptualization, but this is a narrow way to understand yourself. Do not assume you have no instincts because you are not cognitively aware of them; it is because you are not cognitively aware of them that they are instincts.
For example, nursing mothers having warm, fuzzy feelings about their babies often find themselves leaking milk like Niagara Falls, even if baby is somewhere else. That’s instinct. It’s something your body does without involving intellectual brain functions.
For some of us — not necessarily all of us, of course — pregnancy and motherhood give us our first conscious experience of instinct beyond sexuality. In my first pregnancy and experience of motherhood I was often caught off guard by sensations, emotions, and body actions I did not expect. It was my first clue that my almighty intellect was not the captain of my fate that I thought it was. Perhaps it’s something one has to experience to appreciate. However, I urge people who have not had this experience not to dismiss parental instinct so cavalierly.
Likewise, some people really, really want to have children, and others do not. The urge to have children is partly a matter of cultural conditioning, although I don’t think that’s the whole story. But wherever a deeply felt need comes from, it pains me when that need is not respected by others. If someone else’s urge is different from yours, you don’t have to relate to it or understand it, but I strongly suggest that you respect it.
Pay attention: Dismissing someone else’s needs as trivial because you don’t share that need is a form of oppression. It’s also damn arrogant.
Regarding family — it also was after I had babies that I came to appreciate family. Human mothers with newborns are incredibly vulnerable in many ways and need support, emotional and material, from somebody. It’s a survival thing.
Robert Frost said that “Home is the place, where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” My definition of family is that they are the people who keep that home for you. You may or may not share genes or even like each other very much. But people within a family do tend to bond and become, well, family. It’s human. Some families like to live in each other’s pockets, and some like to maintain a cool distance. Some families care for each other deeply, and others don’t. But I say the need for some kind of home or family is an innate quality of our species not easily denied.
Likewise, single mothers can raise children successfully — I have some personal experience with that — but raising children is so much easier if one has a supportive partner in the enterprise. For that reason, it is no bad thing if a society encourages parental couples to remain together to raise children. However, society should recognize that some couples are better off separated, and children don’t always benefit from a couple staying together “for the sake of the children.”
Yes, raising children can be very stressful. But, as the Buddha said, life is stressful. If avoiding things that look stressful is the star you steer your life by, I feel sorry for you.
For many humans, romantic relationships and the bearing of children are their most significant, and intense, life experiences. It is bad, and it is good; it is stressful, it is wonderful; it makes you crazy and keeps you strong. It’s the stuff life is made of. If it doesn’t interest you that’s fine, but don’t think for a minute that you are in any position to pass judgment on what other people are experiencing.