Courtney Fraser, LSRJ Summer Intern (’15, University of California, Berkeley Law School)
Since time immemorial, I think it can be uncontroversially posed, there has been tremendous cultural pressure on women to have children. Recently, though, it seems – from a limited and particular sample of my college friends – that some sub-cultural, post-third-wave push-back is gaining traction among certain young women. In my corner of the world – a hipster-heavy liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon – it is far more fashionable to not want kids. Gracing the Facebooks of my friends are links to such vindicating gems as “Sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion, study finds,” or a t-shirt that reads, “Why would I want kids? I’m ENJOYING my life!” Perfunctorily scrolling through our news feeds, we’d groan in the deluge of pictures featuring babies or pregnant bellies. “Another one? Gross!” – or whatever. Against this backdrop, when I started thinking I might – might – want to someday sport a baby bump of my own, I was actually petrified to say so lest my confession meet the same deriding aversion we had leveled at those other poor parenting fools. Yet it is undeniable that the hegemonic norms in the larger society still coercively point women toward motherhood. The reasons for this don’t have to be recapitulated – blah, blah, evolutionary psychology, structure of capitalism, blah, blah – but the other side of this emerging double-bind got my attention. Why is it that some young American women are not only choosing to be child-free themselves but aggressively denouncing the reproductive decisions of others?
Could it be that mothers in the United States get really, truly screwed?
Obviously, there are much worse places to be a mother – or a woman at all – but that discussion is outside my scope. Privileged checked; onward we go. The wage gap that’s so tenacious, it turns out, can be attributed in non-trivial part to parental status – so mothers stand at a disadvantage not only to men because they are women, but to other women because they are parents. (The opposite is true for men, interestingly – Shelly Correll’s 2007 study revealed that, while potential employers responded negatively across the board to a hypothetical mother’s resume compared to that of a non-mother, fatherhood actually came with bonuses to the likelihood of hiring and the recommended starting salary.) Pregnancy discrimination is routine, despite being unlawful, with employers denying pregnant women important health-related privileges (such as access to water, restrooms, or a place to sit down) until they are forced to quit. These anti-mother biases seem to stem from, rather than any actual deficiency in the workplace productivity of parenting women, good old-fashioned prejudice (no other reasonable causes forthcoming). Mothers are stereotyped, according to Correll’s study, as warmer but less competent than childless women – even when their qualifications are the same.
I understand the impulse to push back against the status quo in this way. Rejecting the motherhood paradigm seems like a solid way to signal that women aren’t all incompetent, unreliable workers who deserve to be segregated into less prestigious, lower-paying jobs – the only problem is, the group that loses this symbolic joust is the one that’s been othered in the process – i.e., mothers. Mothers, in this model, have become a proxy for women writ large – and childless women are reaping (some of) the benefits by filling a role in the workplace adjacent to men, who typically do not have to compromise their careers for their families (although some are choosing to, and I think that’s swell). Perhaps a more productive (and RJ-driven) way to transmit the same message would be to implement policies to benefit employed mothers, as Sweden, Norway, and some other countries have done. Honoring the needs of new parents rather than treating them as detriments would be better for mothers, fathers, and children, and – crucially – could help to lift motherhood out of its devalued status by showing that we, as a culture, respect women’s choices – at a bare minimum, enough not to penalize them for making the very choice our society encourages them to make.