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Could the economic crisis shift attitudes about child-bearing?

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, February 9, 2009 17:53 EDT
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Confession time: I think that show “The Soup” is fucking hilarious and I’m trying to watch it regularly now. Their reaction to the “scandal” over Jessica Simpson’s weight is worth the price of admission alone. It’s the only place I’d ever see clips from “Jon & Kate Plus 8″, which is how I came across a clip, apparently typical, of Kate screaming at Jon because he forgot to use a coupon for some item. At this point in time, I had the stunning realization that the octuplets mom, who is being lambasted from every corner of the planet, might be on the sane side of over-fertile. She has certainly exposed how the pro-patriarchal arguments about the glories of unemployed, fertile femininity and the embracing of human life were all 100% empty—in the end, it’s all about having a man, and that was the difference between hero and villain. But maybe Nadya Suleman saw “Jon & Kate” and realized that you can have a litter of small children or a happy, peaceful marriage, but you can’t have both. (I guess the Duggars achieved it by removing Michelle Duggar’s personality and will from the equation.)

There’s no doubt in my mind that the reaction to Suleman is hostile for sexist and possibly racist reasons, because if you do think she’s off her gourd to have so many kids (especially at once), then the proper response is compassion and not anger. But the anger aimed at her is interesting, because the official response right up until she gave birth to 8 babies while unmarried is to treat ridiculous levels with fecundity with open arms, and never, ever to question our culture’s preference for child-bearing over not. I don’t think the sea is changing on that because of Suleman—if she was married, the question of sanity would never come up in polite company—but there’s a few indicators that this economic crisis, amongst other things, might be causing Americans to rethink their opinions. But maybe we’re going to see the decision not to have a child (or have a child right now) start to gain equality with the decision to have a child. With the caveat that some groups of women’s child-bearing has always been considered suspect depending on their age, race, or socioeconomic status.

This week on Reality Cast, I interview the policy director of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association about the family planning item for Medicaid that got struck from the economic stimulus package, and it’s an illuminating interview. The way the issue got distorted in the mainstream media coverage was shameful, and she sets the record straight. But one thing that I thought was kind of interesting, and goes a long way to explaining so much of the knee-jerk hostility to the bill, is that all it would do is, pragmatically speaking, put the choice not to have a child on an equal playing field with the choice to have a child, which was preferred before. Though not necessarily by design. It’s more that lawmakers’ prejudices plus the immediacy of child-bearing induced them to expand Medicaid access for prenatal and childbirth care, while not giving a similar expansion to access to contraceptive care. This bill would have changed that, making the choices equal from the Medicaid funding perspective. What Sloane Rosenthal said during the interview that really floored me was that 9 out of 10 voters approves making these two choices equal from a funding perspective. I think one thing that was driving the pearl-clutching media coverage over this was the assumption that it’s taboo to say that not having a baby was an equally valid choice to having a baby—the tradition has been to favor child-bearing over not for so long that it was hard for many pundits to realize public opinion is shifting on this. (To make it even more confusing, the taboo generally shifts depending on whether or not the choice-maker in question already has children or will in the future, but that sort of nuance has been completely scrubbed from the discourse around this issue in mainstream media outlets.)

Obviously, it’s a complicated issue, and I haven’t fully wrapped my head around it, in part because I think we’re midst paradigm shift. But this past week I saw not one, but two mainstream media articles talking about something that’s hugely controversial and is usually avoided for that reason, which is the idea that, for some people, having kids is just a bad idea. Now, I’m not talking about the usual groups of people targeted for the no-kids discourse—teenage girls, women of color, poor women, single women, and drug addicts. I mean, there’s some movements towards suggesting that some people who have been in the past all but required to procreate are seeing doubts raised and downsides explicated.

The first comes from, believe it or not, Parenting magazine. I saw it at Broadsheet, and it caused a great deal of angst, being mentioned in other posts and causing 151 comments. Parenting did a survey and found that child-bearing causes a lot of marital strife.

According to Parenting’s nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 mothers on MomConnection, an online panel of moms, the majority of us confess to feeling anger at surprising levels. We love our husbands — but we’re mad that we spend more mental energy on the details of parenting. We’re mad that having children has turned our lives upside down much more than theirs. We’re mad that these guys, who can manage businesses or keep track of thousands of pieces of sports trivia, can be clueless when it comes to what our kids are eating and what supplies they need for school. And more than anything else, we’re mad that they get more time to themselves than we do.

It doesn’t surprise this feminist to learn that men decide to embrace male privilege with gusto once children come onto the scene and there’s a lot more work to be done, work that is just easier to foist onto your wife. But talking about the downside of having kids, at least for middle class couples, is still wildly taboo and you can see it all over this article, which is weighed down with lots of comforting language about how they really love their husbands even though they’re getting the shaft from them, they really do! And Abigail at Broadsheet squirmed with discomfort over this discussion about what a bummer it is to try to raise kids with a man who won’t do his part.

It’s not that I can’t relate to the moms’ agitation, but there’s something about this story, and the commentary it sparked, that’s more irksome than a trail of dirty socks on the floor. Lazy husbands! Nagging wives! It all leaves a feminist mom to wonder: How are we supposed to get past outdated gender roles if we can’t let go of such petty caricatures?

That struck me as unfair—the moms can’t get past the petty caricatures, because those caricatures are their lives now. I’m sure many of them have “now I feel like a caricature” on their list of complaints. But the only way to get past the petty caricatures is to become even less feminist and more submissive and simply accept that your second class status is your lot, and whistle away pretending you like it. Or get divorced, I guess. Or the men could pick up more the of the slack, but of course, the men in question are highly motivated not to do that. Who works more when you don’t have to?

But raising questions about whether or not child-bearing is the right choice for every middle class couple—or even most—isn’t just something hinted at in the margins of Parenting magazine. Now it’s the direct subject of an op-ed in the NY Times, written by Stephanie Coontz. What she’s reporting on has been known for a long time, but swept under the rug (I’d only read about it in one other place, the book Stumbling on Happiness) because of the big taboo against talking about these things.

Over the past two decades, however, many researchers have concluded that three’s a crowd when it comes to marital satisfaction. More than 25 separate studies have established that marital quality drops, often quite steeply, after the transition to parenthood. And forget the “empty nest” syndrome: when the children leave home, couples report an increase in marital happiness.

But there’s hope for people who don’t want child-bearing to trap them in a loveless marriage marked by endless bickering. Alas, you have to have a ruthless willingness to examine your own motivations and communicate with hard-to-muster honesty with your partner about whether or not you’re on the same page.

Some couples plan the conception and discuss how they want to conduct their relationship after the baby is born. Others disagree about whether or when to conceive, with one partner giving in for the sake of the relationship. And sometimes, both partners are ambivalent.

The Cowans found that the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.

And this won’t surprise the surveyed women at Parenting magazine.

Marital quality also tends to decline when parents backslide into more traditional gender roles. Once a child arrives, lack of paid parental leave often leads the wife to quit her job and the husband to work more. This produces discontent on both sides. The wife resents her husband’s lack of involvement in child care and housework. The husband resents his wife’s ingratitude for the long hours he works to support the family.

It’s good for people to educate them about these issues, even though it causes massive discomfort because the more research like this gets out, the more people we’re going to see decide that, on second thought, they don’t want kids after all. Which in turn causes all this bitterness. But we’re in an economic crisis right now, and that’s known to be a time when people are willing to accept major societal changes. Contraception was quietly growing in popularity before the Great Depression, but it was during the Depression that it really started to go mainstream, and abortion was semi-decriminalized for lack of enforcement. (Of course, heavy enforcement came back during the anti-feminist backlash of the 50s.) Perhaps articles like these are an indicator that we’re going to see a shift in official, public attitudes. People have quietly started to practice the belief that not having children or limiting yourself to one is an equally valid choice to more traditional child-bearing practices, but now perhaps we’re going to see more acknowledgment of that in public.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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