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For Childfree Women, the Personal is Political

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) author Adi Avivi writes as follows:
The fourth and last construct presented in this discussion addresses the political aspects of child freedom. The construct’s title is drawn from the feminist mantra “the personal is political,” a phrase attributed to different writers of the second feminist wave. Although its exact origin might not be clear, its meaning is important. The phrase indicates that people’s personal decisions and private conduct have profound political implications. When a woman makes a decision regarding work, family, dress code, or choice of language, she is choosing to express her acceptance or rejection of social norms. This is, of course, a simplistic view, as the choice to perform similar acts can have different meanings for different people. For example, choosing to get married could be a defiant act if family or society disapprove of the pairing; marriage could also be an act of submission to the most rigid and oppressive social norms.

Intersubjective Theory: Social and Political Implications
Benjamin (1988) discusses the social and political implications of her intersubjective theory. She claims that in U.S. society, the narcissistic fear of surrendering one’s power over other humans is the source of political, social, and personal cruelty and oppression. Our society idealizes the father-image, which includes aspects of individualism, separation, and domination and devalues the mother-image of connectedness, closeness, and dependency. However, both needs exist in every human, regardless of their sex and gender. The masculine image requires men to maintain rigid separation from others, and in doing so, reject their need for connectedness and closeness. If they address these “feminine” needs, they will have to acknowledge their identification with the maternal. They, therefore, can only tolerate rigid definitions that will simplify their relationships with others. Such definitions help maintain hierarchy by engendering a sense of omnipotence among those who believe they are fitting the only permissible role in the absence of choices. Other options can be classified as deviant or in some cases rejected altogether or even declared illegal. Allowing others to be different but similar, close but separate, independent but needed is impossible when one depends on narcissism and a fantasy of omnipotence in order to maintain a coherent sense of self.
However, the other continues to exist. The participants expressed a desire to contribute to the growing knowledge about CF women, adding that they wanted their voices to be heard. They hoped to dispel misconceptions and misunderstanding, helping non-childfree individuals, policymakers, religious leaders, and mental health professionals to see childfreedom for what it really is: a diverse and rich community with culture and values, made up of individuals who cannot be fully understood or explained by their childfreedom alone.

Comments by Participants
They hoped that social acceptance would reduce the resentment and bitterness some childfree individuals felt while inviting people who might benefit from CF life to entertain it as an option:
S8: “On a less realistic note, I’d like to think that research like this is a big step in changing the way people talk to and about the childfree and the choice to reproduce. It would be nice if people asked ‘are you going to have kids?’ instead of ‘when are you going to have kids?’ and say ‘If you have kids’ instead of ‘when you have kids’. If the dreaded ‘bingo’ went away tomorrow, it would make life so much easier.”
S13: “I’m hoping to bring attention to the cruel and dismissive remarks (‘bingos’ and otherwise) we childfree experience on the Web and real life, and to dispel the myths behind the most common bingos. I hope research shows that we are just as human as the next woman, that there is nothing missing or wrong with us, and that parenthood is not for everyone nor should it be.”
S15: “I am eager to see more exposure of the experiences of those living childfree. My hope is that as information about CF living grows, that more young people will take the time to consider the choice to have children rather than just having kids without thought. So many people are brainwashed into thinking it’s a rite of passage…”
Most participants talked about being discriminated against or misunderstood, and those who did not feel this way still mentioned incidents in which they were met with bewilderment and disbelief. All participants reported that other childfree individuals they met online constantly talked about the discrimination, insults, and rejection they felt. This was especially true when the women were in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, if they had recently married, or if they lived in smaller, more rural locations.

Tolerating the “Other”
Allowing others to be different requires a capacity to tolerate pain, because seeing other options puts a spotlight on one’s limitations. This, according to Benjamin (1988), is true on the individual level, the community level, and the state and country level. Throughout history, the inability to tolerate the “other” and the need to make “me” the only option have pushed nations to wipe out other groups, to deny human rights, and to demand conformity explicitly and implicitly. Benjamin states that both patriarchal hegemony and some feminist worldviews demand that women be mothers and color the maternal role as the source of feminine power. If a woman is not a mother, the patriarchal social order is in danger. Also, the unique power of reproduction as a defining symbol of female supremacy is threatened when capable individuals live fulfilling lives without reproducing. However, the participants of this study conveyed that having childfreedom as an equal option will not ruin humanity or take away feminine power. In fact, it will allow for the definition of what is human to be expanded and offer greater choice for women.
For example, some participants expressed moral and political concerns, saying that while the pronatalist culture ostensibly focuses on children, it actually centers on the concept of future children rather than already living children who are in need. When thinking of the consumption of resources created by every Western child in comparison to children in Third World countries, the moral implications of pronatalism in industrial countries is disconcerting. Promoting motherhood as the preferred choice for everyone is actually a failure to recognize the needs of millions of other, less visible children, in communities whose resources are often abused by Western countries.
Indeed, public and political forces are involved in reproduction. That involvement manifests in campaigns around abortion rights and access, controversy over economic entitlements, workplace policies and employment benefits, and religious freedoms. Because the CF choice is not valued or even accepted in many cases, CF women suffer discrimination both socially and legally. For example, sterilization laws in many places do not support women’s desire to cement their childfreedom (Richie, 2013).

References:

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love. 1988. NY. Pantheon Books.
Richie, C. (2013). Voluntary Sterilization for Childfree Women: Understanding Patient Profiles, Evaluating Accessibility, Examining Legislation. The Hastings Center Report. 43(6), 36–44.

For Childfree Women, the Personal is Political

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.


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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). For Childfree Women, the Personal is Political. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 25, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/see-saw-parenting/2019/02/for-childfree-women-the-personal-is-political/

 

Last updated: 11 Feb 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 Feb 2019
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.