Love Is Not a Social Problem

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.

15 thoughts on “Love Is Not a Social Problem

  1. Maha,
    There is an annoying pop up on that blog that obscured the opening of that article so I am sure I missed something. I had the impression that the author was a woman but could not read the author’s profile because said pop up obscured that too (I get annoyed by user unfriendly blogs). In any event, I am childless and beyond my peak fertility years but I do believe in the maternal instinct which is not just the instinct to reproduce but also to nurture and protect children from harm, to ensure their survival. The bond between the human mother and her off spring is so strong that most mothers will sacrifice themselves and do whatever is necessary to save her children from harm. This bond (instinctual maternal love) is the very basis for our evolutionary success as a species. However, the social cost of motherhood to women remains very high and is partially responsible for so many women’s decision to forgo motherhood. I agree with Germain Greer that we need all the mothers we can get. But we have to realize that it takes more than a village; it takes the commitment of the nation to make motherhood less costly to women (women have to give up a lot when having children even under the best of circumstances). The feminist movement has given motherhood a bum rap. The next wave of feminism should work to counteract this and restore motherhood to its rightful position- the driving force of our species’ survival.

  2. However, the social cost of motherhood to women remains very high and is partially responsible for so many women’s decision to forgo motherhood. I agree with Germain Greer that we need all the mothers we can get. But we have to realize that it takes more than a village; it takes the commitment of the nation to make motherhood less costly to women (women have to give up a lot when having children even under the best of circumstances).

    This is exactly what I think. One of the reasons parenthood — I started to say motherhood, but I think fathers are also challenged — is stressful in America is that we as a culture don’t support it. We pay lip service to how wonderful it is, but compared to most other industrialized nations we make no allowances for the needs of parents with children.

    I also remember listening to a lecture by Betty Friedan, ca. 1971, in which she said that she never wrote marriage and children were not important things in a woman’s life, just that they weren’t the only things in a woman’s life. In the 1960s, that was a daring and revolutionary thing to say. I think that saying no woman should marry or have children, because marriage and childbearing are innately oppressive, is not women’s liberation, but just the flip side of the oppression coin.

  3. As I read it, it’s just a weak spoof of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but being the pro-feminist spouse and co-parent of two wonderful children with a wife whose degree is in women’s studies, I fully understand you reaction. Nowhere is the gap between theory and praxis more gaping than in the treatment of family.

    There is no doubt that the concept of family we have is pregnant with the patriarchal structures of the past. “Nuclear family” is a well-coined term because it is a social construction that only comes to the fore after WWII when the technologized economy, birth of the suburbs, and interstate highway system begins to dissolve the extended family situation in this country.

    But, at the same time, there are biological facts that are not cultural constructs here, for example, concerning the effects of hormones which tend to fluctuate in well understood ways during and after pregnancy and have certain effects on new mothers. Some of the femiminist sociologizing does ignore the biology and there has been a longstanding trend in feminist studies, especially in the 70s and 80s, of mistrusting anything that smells at all of essentialism, that is, of saying that there are objective statements about the sexes grounded in science. There is, of course, good reason for this skepticism as we have a long tradition of trying to use “science” to justify all sorts of horrors and injustices, but the rejection of all biological claims is a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater — in this case quite literally. This is not to say that there are not very sophisticated feminist works that concern themselves with complex interplay of these factors, of course there are, but I’ve known more than a few professional academics in the field who have an allergy to anything that remotely seems like an objective claim about gender and amongst whom simply branding a claim “essentialist” is tantamount to dismissing it as meaningful.

    It is always a fascinating thing to watch smart feminists rework their views on parenting and the family once they have kids — not that they cease to be feminists in any way, shape, or form, quite the contrary, they become much more interesting feminists because suddenly things become much more complicated in an intellectually wonderful way. There are real changes that feminist mothers grapple with that they had no way of taking seriously before; the use of feminist theory enriches the experience and the experience enriches the theory.

    What I find interesting, though, is that (and here I fully allow that I am arguing from anecdote and discounting the work of very smart lesbian writers) many of the people who do some of the most radical theory work also tend to have quite traditional family lives, often life-long happy, healthy heterosexual marriages with two children who go to really good colleges. In fact, some of what I think the radical right would point to as models of what they imagine the Platonic form of the family to be is embodied in acquaintances of mine who hold the most radical political and theoretical positions. Sure, there is a relation between this and financial and educational status — those may be the true operative factors here, although pro-feminist families also tend to have more fulfilling lives as well once traditional gender roles and the nonsense that come with them are jettisoned. The irony is only furthered when we see the opposite of the healthy well-adjusted functional unit that is the Palins, the current spokesperson for the conservative view.

  4. Don’t sweat it Maha, I had the impression that the OP over there was a guy with limited emotional range who got frightened by how much work babies and children are and is simply trying to rationalize it with reference to world historical imperatives. You simply can’t explain how great love, sex, babies and children are to someone who sees them as oppressive forms of connection interfereing with a hypothetical even distribution of goods and services. The OP, as some of the commenters have posted over there, doesn’t know the first thing about the history of the family as a social ins titution or the special case of romantic pairing we now favor.


  5. As I read it, it’s just a weak spoof of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,”

    I’ve been fooled before, but I honestly believe the guy was serious.

  6. Not only that, Maha, but freethinkr is 21 years of age and genderless, as far as I could tell. It’s easy to rail against family and reproduction at that age, you just escaped your first family and you are a rebel. Heck, even I didn’t want kids at that age. Twenty one and knows everything. Well, I’m glad someone has figured out the world so I don’t have to…

  7. As some one who never married and never had children, I have been treated very badly by the family people. I have actually even been told that I am taking up valuable space and air while not contributing to society because I had no spouse and/or children. Also, there was always an unspoken theme that I was not a whole person because I was unmarried and had no children. Yet, I believe I have always been respectful and happy for all women who chose to have children and/or get married. And, the point of the women’s movement when I was participating on the front lines in the 60s and 70s was so women could make choices and not be made an outcast because of the choices made. Unfortunately, almost all my women friends, who got married and had children, eventually stopped communicating with me because their lives changed so much. I used to call and call and work to stay in touch; but, there is only so much rejection a person can take. Thus, many of my friends from the past I only communicate with these days during the holday season. I have a circle of friends who are primarily other unmarried women or a few who are married and had no children or the children are all grown. I cannot tell you how many times other people at work or in other places in life have said to me in reference to my singleness, “What is wrong with you!” or my favorite, “Are you a dyke?” (People really have said that to me at least 10 times in the past 20 years.) I stopped going to church because that was where being unmarried became quite a stigma; and, someone was always trying to set me up with a nice “Christian”–who usually turned out to be not so nice and not so Christian. I have two brothers and a twin sister (who drives me crazy) and a few other relatives who still speak to me; but, I am the one who works at keeping the relationships alive. Still, I have had to work hard (particularly in the mental health area) to counteract all the negative treatment I have received because I am single at 63.

    Oh, and, the myth I hate most is the one where someone says “there’s someone out there for every one.” BS

  8. The post is by freethinkr who describes herself (I think) : “Raised a Muslim in Lahore, I’m a freethinker against organized religion and social hierarchies, a radical feminist, a social anarchist, an antiestablishmentarian – revolutionary to the core….

    IMO, a reactionary. One famous reactionary was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia. All her writings (IMO) are flaming repudiations of communism, anything red, or anything tinted red from pink to purple. The author is Ayn Rand.

    Here’s a reactionary group that will raise hackles. Satinists. Their entire creed is based on reversing all things Christian. They are not FOR any set of values; they are defined entirely by what they are AGAINST!

    There are branches of Islam that are very hostile to women. (File that as my entry for understatement of the year.) So I can understand how someone bent on a rejection of the unhealthy aspects of an oppressive theology, in a country that is also a theocracy would bring you to a total rejection of every institution in view. I can not be angry at the author, nor can I take the viewpoint seriously.

  9. Pingback: The Politics of Children

  10. Dear Bonnie,
    I was divorced for 8 years and single until 6 months ago when I met someone I am now dating. I know what you mean about the discomfort many people have with the very concept of a woman who is not attached to a man. This is unfortunate since many women are living very full and satisfying lives on their own. I am fortunate to have a small but solid network of friends – several of them happily single women in their seventies and beyond.I see them as often now as I did before I met my current boyfriend. A mistake women too often make is to give up their female (and sometimes male) friends when they become involved with a man.Your friends who married and had children should have made more effort to keep you in their lives. Not doing so was their mistake. When their children leave home and should their husbands leave them or die they will find themselves very much alone. A good circle of friends is essential as far as I am concerned. Society will need to adjust to the concept of single women since more and more women are forgoing marriage (this is true in many developed countries- in Japan it is a national crisis) despite the media images of desperate single women seeking mates in all the wrong places. Women eschew marriage for good reasons. However, as more women are earning decent money (certainly not enough) they will be in the position to have children outside of marriage and provide for them. You are not a wierdo; you are simply ahead of the times.

  11. I have to laugh at the accusation that it is married women with children who give up on their unmarried friends. Hello? How many times have you read/heard unmarried women bitching about how their married with children friends are so boring, want to talk only about the children, and etc…. Society offers very little scope or freedom to married people (male and female) to socialize outside of their work and school lives because there are only 24 hours in a day. It isn’t the fault of women and men who are holding down two to three jobs–in the work force and out of it–that they don’t have the same lack of time constraints as single men and women.

    Plus, I love the poster up above who angrily rejects the judgment of society on her for her singlness (been there, done that) and then says bitterly that its a “lie that there is someone for everyone.” Both are correct observations but the second one seems a bit sour grapesy to me. It *is* a lie that there is someone for everyone when someone wants that significant other. ITs a lie that people get what they want at all in this world–a friend of mine was about to get married when her fiancee was blown up in the african embassy bombing. Go figure!

    People were born into families and they (on the whole) need families and closeness with other human beings to be happy. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you have to fight for it or make it a priority, sometimes you are an outlier and you don’t want that closeness. But for g-d’s sake if you like your freedom from social constraint and from family life celebrate it and stop bitching about how other people screwed you over.


  12. Actually the poster, Bonnie, said that it is a myth (very different than a lie- different implication as lie implies intentionality and malice whereas myth results from being mal informed). It is a myth that there is someone for everyone. There are probably many potential mates for everyone, but the odds of crossing paths with them are not necessarily so great. Odds can be enhanced in a variety of ways if one strongly wants to be in a relationship. The social stigma attached to singleness will diminish (and is diminishing) as more and more people are single. Social attitudes are slow to change but generally do change as social reality changes. It is true that single women often do complain that their married friends have become boring- what is boring about watching children develop is beyond me. It is also true that married people with children have less free time to socialize (and the time crunch is worse for single mothers -a group growing in numbers with every passing year).
    Again, I feel that government should take more responsibility in providing childcare so that women who want to have children can have them without necessarily sacrificing their careers, friends, time to themselves etc. Children are a social resource whose rearing is a collective responsibility and not simply the responsibility of those who bare them.

  13. Again, I feel that government should take more responsibility in providing childcare so that women who want to have children can have them without necessarily sacrificing their careers, friends, time to themselves etc.
    I won’t argue with this, but note that many (most?) Americans pay substantial school taxes (either indirectly or directly) whether or not they have school-age children. 5-10 percent of gross income in school taxes is not unusual in the northeast, and it can be higher. (It will be about 8 percent for me this year.) There are other programs for children funded by other taxes as well; a not-unreasonably-low percentage of the federal/state/local tax take goes to children, precisely because they are a social resource.

  14. Based on the post itself, the poster’s comments in the thread, and the followup post, it is not satirical.

    I share your take, Maha – I don’t have any problem with anyone choosing not to have children, and can’t imagine why I would. But it’s just silly to try to raise that to some universal principle or to assert moral superiority because of that. Likewise, I get tired of assumptions and social pressures that everyone simple has to be coupled off, married, and (at least if heterosexual) have kids. Worse still is the subset who really don’t care as much about the quality of a match – they just get anxious if someone they know isn’t coupled or otherwise isn’t playing the role they want them to play. Again, it comes to down to a general respect for other folks’ choices and different experiences.

    Also, “maternal extinct”…! Funny typo.

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