Time Magazine: Childless Women Oppressed

August 9, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The latest whoop-di-doo about women choosing to remain childless was all started by a Time Magazine cover story entitled “The ChildFree Life: When having it all means not having children.” Predictably, feminists and conservatives have chimed in, each in their own nutty ways, informed more by political ideology than by the facts of the matter or by common sense or decency. Feminists naturally wail about a society that “punishes” women for choosing to not procreate. Conservatives like Tucker Carlson call such women “selfish, decadent and stupid.”

Me? I think if a woman wants to have a child, she should have one. That said, I don’t think the decision to have a child alone is a responsible one. Far too many children suffer far too much from that “lifestyle choice” for me to support it. But if she’s got a husband or reliable partner who wants the child too, I think they should go for it. If she doesn’t want a child, I think she shouldn’t have one. There are way too many children in the world as it is.

That’s my simplistic view of the matter and, as much as I’ve read on the topic, I still don’t see that it lacks much. Oh, I’m well aware that there’s more to it than just the private decisions of a couple of people who do or don’t want to be parents. But try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that those people are talking to hear themselves talk.

For example, the Time piece quotes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat saying that the “retreat from childrearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion,” revealing “a spirit that privileges the present over the future.”

It’s a fair comment. American society today shows every sign of being at the end of an era, i.e. that of U.S. predominance on the world stage. Our politics are corrupt, and more and more responsive to narrower and narrower moneyed interests. People’s trust in political, social and cultural institutions is at an all-time low. We have an astonishing rate of unmarried childbearing and single-parent childrearing. We daily tell men and boys that they have nothing to offer anyone or anything. Elite interests have savaged our industrial base resulting in ever-poorer jobs, particularly for men. And if anyone has an idea about how to lead us out of the mess we’ve created, I sure haven’t heard it.

So I basically agree with Douthat’s observation, but feel I must tell him that his complaints, whether legitimate or not, won’t be addressed by women having more babies. The gradual slide in the birthrate may be a symptom of a cultural malaise, but treating the symptom, even if you can do it (which you can’t in this case), won’t cure the disease.

The Time article is by Lauren Sandler, and it’s an odd one. Sandler plainly approves of women deciding not to have children, which makes it strange that she begins her piece by overinflating the drop in the birthrate. After all, one of the chief arguments against having fewer children is that smaller younger generations can’t take care of more populous older ones. So you’d think Sandler would downplay the slide in the birthrate, but she does the opposite, going so far as to get her figures vastly wrong.

From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there’s data, the fertility rate declined 9%.

Now, anyone with even a fairly good nose can sense that claim doesn’t pass the smell test. It doesn’t pass the data test either. As this dataset derived from Census Bureau figures shows, the birthrate per 1,000 people in 2007 was 14.16 and in 2011 it was 13.83. That’s a decline of 2.3%, not 9%.

Not content to be wrong about her figures, Sandler’s misleading as well. She chose the year 2007, but what if she’d chosen 2002 instead? The birthrate that year was 14.1 per 1,000 people, resulting in a 1.9% decline over the 10 years from 2002 through 2011, or, .19% per year on average.

It’s clear that Sandler’s goal is to convince readers there’s a crisis in low fertility, but it’s hard to see why. Virtually all the rest of her six-page piece is devoted to the notion that there’s a “cultural imperative” to have children and women who elect not to are “oppressed” thereby. Sandler tells us that women who don’t have kids are “sidelined from the discussion,” presumably about motherhood and childrearing. She says they’re “scolded” by this commentator and that.

“There’s more pressure on women to be mothers, to fulfill that obligation, than I’ve ever seen,” says Amy Richards, author of Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself.

[Sociologist Kathleen]Gerson says women are living in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” social context…

“I resent that the entire culture of this country is obsessed with kids,” Rachel Agee told me the day after her 40th birthday. “And social media is only an outlet to post picture of your children.”

Demographer Stephanie Bohon finds motherhood a “social imperative.” Sandler says that “the cultural noise about motherhood has become such a constant din that many of us don’t even notice it. But ask any woman in her 30s or 40s who hasn’t given birth and she’ll likely tell you the ambient roar is oppressive.” She goes on to cite the usual ads for mom-friendly products we all know about, calling them part of a “viral tide.”

The article goes on and on in the same vein. “The entire country is obsessed with kids?” You can do nothing on Facebook but post photos of children? “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”

Noticeably absent from Sandler’s piece is any notion whatsoever of countervailing social messages. Not a soul is interviewed who points out the many ads, movies, sit coms, TV dramas, novels, short stories and the like that give exactly the opposite viewpoint – that the childless life is free and joyful. Yes, in the middle of the article float photos of prominent women who don’t have children, but what Oprah, Dolly Parton, Katherine Hepburn, Janet Jackson and Condoleeza Rice and others are doing there is anyone’s guess. After all, if Oprah Winfrey, possibly the best known woman in the world, is childless, by definition, there are messages abroad in the land that it’s OK to forego having children. But according to Sandler and everyone in her article who comments on the subject, there is but one cultural message to women about kids – Have ’em!

Here’s another concept that Sandler fails to consider and, as far as I know, one no feminist has ever even acknowledged – it’s OK to ignore cultural messages and social pressure. One thing that’s always fascinated me about feminist discourse is its unquestioning acceptance of the idea that, if the various communications media consistently convey a particular message, we’re all (or at least women) automatically slaves of that message. Stated another way, “messages we don’t like are oppressive.”

Now, it’s always a good idea to monitor cultural messages. For one thing, they tell us a lot about our culture and how it’s changing. And of course they do tend to shape perceptions. Popular culture in particular helps shape the various narratives people use to help them understand the world around them. All that is true.

But the notion that, just because we see those messages every day means that we have to obey them or that we’re oppressed by them is absurd. The fact is that we’re inundated by messages of every sort and the vast majority of people simply ignore almost all of them. Men are faced every day, many times a day, with images of men who are younger, better looking and in better physical shape than they are. But that doesn’t mean men are oppressed by those images, rush out to the nearest fitness center and sign up, or make an appointment with a cosmetic surgeon. Men and women simply ignore about 99.9% of all the messages they receive every day about what products to use, what cars to drive, what type of house to live in, etc.

Of course whether to have a child is a much more important decision than what toilet bowl cleaner to use, but what neither Sandler nor her numerous complainers notice is that women seem to be doing just that – ignoring the messages – about having children. After all, how is it possible that “there’s more pressure on women to be mothers than I’ve ever seen” and a decline in the birthrate, if women aren’t successfully resisting those messages?

Finally, it’s unclear exactly what all those women in Sandler’s article crying ‘oppression’ want. They call the many messages we all see every day about the wonders of motherhood “oppressive,” but what do they think we should do about it? Surely they’d admit that a great many women – the large majority in fact – want to have at least one child. And a large percentage of those women will tell you that doing so is the best, most rewarding thing they’ve ever done. So given that, shouldn’t we expect the culture to offer them a voice? To do otherwise would be to profoundly distort the realities of the culture we live in. But doing what we do – listening to the real and legitimate things those women have to say – frankly constitutes an accurate representation of that culture.

And what’s wrong with that?

Again, if one woman has a reliable partner and wants to have a child, I think she should. If her next door neighbor doesn’t, I think her decision is just fine. Both will deal with the joys and regrets of their own choices and both will mostly ignore all the messages in the ether suggesting they were wrong.

Truly, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

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