Fertility is not a superpower, let’s stop the childbearing fetish
In all the high theater around Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, nothing has been more cringeworthy than the slavish fawning over her children. One speaker after another has tripped over their words praising the Supreme Court nominee for being the mother of seven. Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked in all seriousness who did the laundry in her house.
So while women are marking a scant 100 years of being allowed to vote (if they’re white, but that’s another story) we are still being measured by how many live births we’ve managed. Never mind that when it comes to spending on healthcare and day care, many of those pro-life pundits celebrating Amy Coney Barrett’s fecundity believe, as the former Sen. Barney Frank said, that “life beings at conception and ends at birth.”
Wanting children is not a pathology, even wanting many children is not. But it is a highly personal decision, not a public statement. Those of us who grew up in large households know all too well the challenges.
Having children sets women back in their careers, impoverishes them financially and contributes to deteriorating health. Pregnancy worsens preexisting medical conditions; mothers get paid 71 cents on the dollar, and 1 in 4 are thinking of either quitting or cutting back work because they can’t handle working and the demands of pandemic parenting.
Yet, our bipolar culture keeps shouting at women that they must want to have children or else there is something wrong with them. All the self-empowerment you-go-girl blather goes out the window at the sight of the first celebrity baby bump. Jennifer Aniston has got to be crying her eyes out for her empty uterus, if you believe the headlines.
Is childbearing how we prove we are “normal” and contribute to society?
At a time when so many aspects of sexual identity — down to the very concept of there being such a thing as innate sexual identity — are being challenged, why not challenge the definition of what a straight, cis-gender female must be? And why can’t we as women set out own standards?
Many of us have done a fair amount of caregiving, to parents and other family members, but that doesn’t count. You can kid yourself all you want, but when people ask a woman “Do you have a family?” they’re not asking if her parents are still alive.
A woman of childbearing age who doesn’t want children is selfish; a post-menopausal woman who has no children is at best a pitiful curiosity, an unanswered question: How did she fail to fulfill her purpose on earth? Why didn’t she freeze her eggs when she had the chance?
The assisted fertility industry is set to pass $45 billion in annual revenues in the next five years. That is $45 billion spent on getting women pregnant. By contrast, the USDA’s national school lunch program spent $14 billion last year feeding poor children breakfast and lunch.
This is not to say that these families should not want to have children and use whatever means are within reach, if that’s what they want. But one has to wonder: What drives a woman to put herself through the considerable physical, mental and financial strain of fertility technologies? Even a “natural” pregnancy is a shock to a woman’s system. Stretch marks are the least of it.
Society’s message loop is a constant: If you’re a woman, you want to bear children. If you don’t want to, you’re not really a woman, or at least not the right kind of woman. Most women will spend their 20’s and 30’s in an endless do-si-do of baby showers and kids’ birthday parties that only reinforces the message. Not feeling it can make a woman question her grip on reality.
Speaking of reality, the worship of Amy Coney Barrett’s brood brought to mind a moment a few years ago. I was exercising one morning when one of the gym TVs showed the Octomom — the single mom who went through fertility treatments to give birth to octuplets when she already had six children at home. She was being interviewed on one of those ridiculous mid-morning talk shows, promoting her “pictorial”–i.e. a spread of nude photos in some skin magazine.
Even with the sound muted, the spectacle was enough to make one’s skin crawl. The vacant, sad expression of the woman soaking in a bathtub and posing uncomfortably in lingerie reminded me of those shots from escort-service sites usually displayed by police after breaking up sex-trafficking rings.
I remember wondering: How much longer is this freak show going to continue entertaining the public? Who else was going to step in to profit from a woman who had all the signs of suffering from some undiagnosed emotional disorder?
This was someone trying to paper over an emotional deficit with compulsive motherhood. Repeated multiple pregnancies were self-injury under cover of selflessness. Unfortunately, since women are expected to crave motherhood above all else, Octomom’s pathology was dismissed as some personality quirk.
If her self-injury had come in a more obvious form, like cutting or anorexia, she would likely have received psychiatric help. If she had been a pet hoarder, the authorities would have acted. Instead, she became some kind of carnival attraction for the digital age, available on any website or cable channel.
And she was hardly the only one: a rash of shows about multiple births peaked with the trainwreck of Jon and Mary Kate Gosselin and their eight children, along with the freak show of the Duggar family of 19+ fame. In a country where children go to bed hungry because their parents can barely manage to support one or two at a time, having children by the litter is considered entertainment.
Of course, this fertility cult is relative. Ride the subway and see how people look at a black woman trailing three or more children behind her.
For women of color, who have been victimized by forced sterilizations, experimentation and eugenics over the ages, childbearing can approach an act of civil disobedience. In the 1970’s the Indian Health Services of the U.S. government colluded in the sterilization of nearly 25 percent of American Indian women of childbearing age. In the 1960’s, Puerto Rican women were used as subjects to test the birth control pill. We only recently found out that immigrant women in ICE detention had suffered unnecessary hysterectomies, often under false pretenses.
So it’s white childbearing that’s admirable and “crave-worthy,” in the tortured syntax of mommy blogs and supermarket tabloids. Not coincidentally, non-Hispanic whites had the lowest rates of childbearing in the 2010 census, and there’s no reason to think that has improved in 2020, in spite of all the procedural gymnastics the Trump administration has gone through to keep the BIPOC count low.
You can trace a direct line from the fears of the alt-right that whites will be a minority in the U.S. within 30 years and the fetishizing of childbearing. This is all of a piece with the restriction of abortion rights and rise of “abstinence only” sex education. White women — who are not reproducing at replacement level — must have more babies, or as the infamous U.S. Rep Steve King said: “You cannot restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.”
It’s not by coincidence that the lunatic fringe of the right is filled with angry white men who resent feminism and want to put women in what they see as “their place.” To white supremacists, barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen is that place. The Proud Boys call themselves western chauvinists who “venerate the housewife” and many of their fellow travelers boast of their anti-woman agenda.
“There is a robust symbiosis between misogyny and white supremacy,” concluded the Anti Defamation League in its research report When Women Are the Enemy: The Intersection of Misogyny and White Supremacy. According to the report, the so-called alt-right has two main currents when it comes to women: “One side argues that women need to focus on their ‘natural’ duties of childbearing and supporting their husbands, while the other maintains that while women should be mothers and housekeepers first, women may use any additional time to advance the cause of the white race.”
Is this what we’ve come to? Are the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo Bois going to set standards for women now?
It’s time to take action, push back against this fetishization of childbearing. Stop clicking on ridiculous celebrity “baby bump” pictures; when the traffic slows down, the websites will stop showing them. The next time some Kardashian displays her pregnant tummy on social media, ask in the comments how many nannies she’s hired. Pull the curtain back from the Wizard of Oz.
Let’s stop wasting time on irrelevant uterus-worship. Let’s push to improve prenatal care for women of all races. Let’s put more effort pushing for parental leave, child care, better schools. Let’s care more for children once they’re born. That should be common ground for both the pro-choice and anti-abortion sides.
It took a massive wildfire to demonstrate the folly of gender reveal parties. Let’s take some radical action before the next conflagration. Let’s make childbearing a family affair again, not a spectacle or a statement. And let women off the hook for their choices.