From Childless Women to Opt-Back-In Moms - Our Obsession with Women and Their Choices

It seems every time I opened my facebook or turned on the radio last week, I was hearing something about women who choose not to have kids. First it was the Time cover story and then it was the UK 'research' that purports to show that women who choose to remain childless are smarter than women who have kids. It was everywhere. I couldn't get away from it. Besides the fact that I object to childless women like me being talked about as if we are some sort of newly discovered species that need to put under a microscope and studied, there's something else that really bugs me about these articles. Not one of them looks at this 'phenomenon' as anything other than a personal choice and not one of them steps outside of the lens of western middle class (predominantly white) privilege. They all talk about this as if it's a global trend and we should be concerned about declining birth rates. It's not and we shouldn't. The reason why it's not a global trend is because the women who are making the choice not to have children are women who are able to make a choice. Logic might seem to dictate that it would be women who have money, family support, supportive spouses, and lots of resources who would make the choice to have children. It's actually often the opposite. Many women don't actively make a choice to have or not have children. The choice is never in their hands in the first place. Women who are in relationships in which they have very little control or in which they are being abused; women who are from cultures in which women are expected to have children and to be the primary caretakers of those children, women who are poor and dependent on a partner and that partner's desires and/or have no access to birth control. These are women who may not have the luxury of making the choice to have or not to have children. The choice not to have children is actually often a choice that comes out of privilege and opportunity. I don't believe that women who choose not to have children are smarter, I think they have more choices available to them in general.

On the other side of the equation, these articles don't look at why the ones who choose to be childless might be making that choice. It's framed only as a personal lifestyle choice. In spite of the cult of motherhood we've created in middle class western society, mothers are still given nowhere near the amount of support they actually need to raise their children. Affordable child care is the biggest issue. Moms who want or need to work face a huge problem in finding child care that they trust that they can afford. We've lost community in our culture so much that many women don't have a solid support network of family and friends to provide some babysitting help when things just need to get done or when they are really stressed and need a break. Many also don't have that network of women who help them learn how to be mothers - they are expected somehow to just manage on their own. On top of that, that very same cult of motherhood places a huge expectation on parents to do everything right for their kids. Everywhere you look, there is something telling you what you must do in order to raise your children right. Given all of this, is it any wonder that lots of women who can make a choice not to have children do just that? From where I sit, it doesn't look terribly appealing.

In the midst of all of this 'smart women aren't having babies' craze, I read an article about how the 'opt-out' generation is finding out that they can't opt back in. This article was about the 'movement' of professional women who decided to quit their jobs and careers and stay home with their children. They were very vocal and created a craze of media in their wake. Now, it seems, one of the most vocal of them is changing her tune. After getting divorced, she returned to the work force and found that 11 years away, it was extremely difficult to get back in. The article read like a cautionary tale for women who might make that choice to stay home with their kids - there are grave consequences that you couldn't possibly understand right now, don't make the same mistake these women did. But the problem with this article is exactly the same as all the 'smart childless women' articles. They talk about this all as if it's just about personal choice. And yet when you read the story, it's pretty clear that the reason this becomes a problem is not because women are making the wrong choices, but because there is no support available for them to be free to make a real choice.

The story of Sheila O'Donnell which is covered extensively in the Times article really exemplifies this. While reading it, it was pretty clear to me that this wasn't a case of her having made the wrong choice, it was a case of her not feeling that she had any choices. First of all, by her telling, her husband was a terrible partner. She was working full-time and yet the job of finding and coordinating child care and of taking care of the household fell almost 100% on her shoulders. This is the case for a lot of women. Housework and child care is still not shared equally. This means that many women who work outside the home have two full-time jobs, not one. It would make sense that she would decide not working was easier, since she could afford it. Next, the childcare, even for someone with a good income, was still an issue. Reliable and affordable child care is difficult for most women and means that many of them decide not to work outside the home even when they really need to or want to.

The story goes on to talk about what happened to O'Donnell when her marriage fell apart. She was left without a home and had to move into a much more modest house with her three children and needed to get a job in order to support them. The story does not say why this was the case. The picture that is painted of her married life leads us to believe that her husband was well off and they had a lot of assets together. What is wrong with the legal system and divorce laws that she wouldn't be getting enough child support in that situation to allow her a little better standard of living?

The story then goes on to talk about how O'Donnell and most of the other 22 women in the story really struggled to find decent jobs and opportunities for advancement once they returned to work after raising children for many years. This again, is framed as the consequence of personal choice. The issues of pay equity, the lack of opportunities for women in corporate jobs, the lack of support for women who wish to work part-time or job share while they raise their children, inadequate child care forcing women to quit their jobs, and the unequal treatment of women in the work force are not addressed. Instead, women are advised to be very strategic if they decide to leave the work force - make sure they keep their contacts, volunteer, and keep up their skills. So ya, it's all our fault.

I'm sick to death of these stories and I don't want to see one more that does not look at this 'choices' from a larger perspective. Instead of cautioning women to be careful about their choices or telling women that they are stupid if they have kids, maybe we should be looking at ways we can even out the playing field so that women can make choices more freely.