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Who’s Failing at Feminism?

feminist-mother“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Society tells women, particularly those with a college education, that they can answer anything they want. Women not only have the opportunity to divorce their reproductive systems, but society enshrines this disassociation as an essential human right. These young women grew up with Title IX and CEO Barbie; they are free to lay claim to any future they want, save one.

“I tell people I want to be a teacher when I graduate,” Lauren confesses sheepishly. “I’ve wanted to be a mom, like, since I can remember. But you can’t tell people that.”

Why not?

Why, in a world constantly reassuring women that they can do anything they want, do so many women identify a sense of embarrassment when admitting a desire to embrace motherhood as a legitimate and stimulating life option? Emily, a 26 year-old stay at home mom explains that often “women who want to give their children all of their energy and attention without having to give some of it to their careers feel that they do not have worth, value, or dignity even amongst their female peers.” In a culture where contraception and individual control over fertility stand as the norm, having children has become a choice left solely up to the partners.

The lack of essential connection between sexuality and family gives rise to the phenomena of “choosing to have a family,” a hobby seemingly no different than choosing to start a garden, or choosing to take up marathon running, except with far greater start up and overhead costs. When children are not seen as a good in themselves, but rather as a good dependent upon their parents’ whim, having and raising children becomes inadvertently viewed through a lens of suspicion. Is it really the best thing for a woman to waste economic resources and stay at home enjoying a hobby, when she could be contributing to society? Moreover, if she chose to work and have children, she could outsource the maintenance of the child’s basic necessities to another. She could remain an autonomous contributor to and participant in modern life; she could do so much more than simply raising a child.

This belies an inherently false assumption, namely, that devoting oneself to the formation and development of the next generation by raising a child is not a worthy endeavor. Yet, is it not worthwhile for a woman to use her gifts and talents to form good, upright members of society, if that is what she wants to do? A woman should be able to choose to become a medical doctor or a mother; if she must be judged by society, it ought to be on the merits of her devotion and effort in that particular role. Monica, a 24 year-old stay at home mom, told me that she “actually recently became very comfortable with telling people that I’m a stay at home mom rather than using the ‘well eventually I’d like to go to nursing school’ line…[partially because] people see how well I’m raising my child and want to know how I do it.”

Monica made a choice to raise her child, not because her child is a hobby, but because she values her child as a unique person, and she desires to be there to assist in his development. She made a decision that makes her happy. If she had become a nurse, because that made her happy, feminism would have succeeded. If she is happy raising her child and fostering his development, then how has feminism failed?

In a society so enchanted with statistical analysis, there exists the underlying assumption that if something cannot be quantified, it lacks value. This premise often leads modern society to assume the idea, so often explicitly denied, that money and success equal happiness. Because motherhood is not, and in fact ought not to be, easily receptive of a numeric value, we look at the women who commit themselves to the role of mother as lacking a quantitative value that other women retain: namely, income. To lose that quantitative marker is to become “valueless.”

Yet, this notion of value imposes a level of economic analysis that, while properly denotive of a variety of fiscal situations, is inapplicable in the case of interpersonal and human interactions. Maybe being a mother can be quantified by a certain numeric pay grade level, if the costs of outsourcing those jobs she performs are considered, but is that really how attending tee-ball games or sitting through hours of romantic drama with a teenager ought to be understood? It is highly beneficial for her daughter’s development as a human being that her mother listen to and encourage her after she is dumped by a boy for the first time; this interaction helps the daughter to grow into a strong and confident woman who sees herself as valuable. Yet, this is not easily expressed in economic analysis.

Society now allows women so many opportunities. Women can do whatever they want, and should be supported in their choices. In affirming the good so many professional women have done in our society, it is essential that we also affirm the good done by women who embrace having and raising their children.

The goal of feminism is the pursuit of happiness. This happiness can take many forms, and each woman ought to be supported in her pursuit of it, whatever form she wants it to take.

 

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