tatjna (tatjna) wrote,

An hour late today

I don't normally read The Listener. To me it seems very much like TIME magazine - a pseudo-intellectual mainstream rag that purports to address the tough issues while subtly encouraging conservative sameness. Seriously, the content analysis thingy I did with TIME magazine last year was interesting to say the least. I'm no linguist, but tracking trends over a period of 12 years showed that the tone of articles in this mag followed the dominant political discourse of the day like a little lapdog after a biscuit. And I think The Listener is more or less the same.

Because of this:

You will note the smiling, happy woman in the apron holding the baby lovingly, is the same stressed-looking woman in business clothes clutching the cellphone and the baby. You might also note the headline "MODERN MUMMY - What's her problem?"

And that picture said to me "This is going to be one of those articles that talks about the stresses of juggling motherhood with a career, isn't it?" Please note the subtle message that being a non-working Mum = peace and happiness whereas being a working Mum means your kids are an afterthought and life is stressful. Oh wait, it isn't that subtle, is it?

So yeah, I bought the mag and started reading the article with some preconceived ideas of what it was about.

As it turns out, they are bemoaning New Zealand's low birth rate. The article starts with the 31-year-old author being asked by her doctor if she's considered having a family yet, and her going "WTF?" Apparently doctors are dealing with lots of people who've delayed having children, and then ended up with fertility issues, so they have started talking to younger women about this.

"But wait!" says Tats. "Why are they only talking to the women?"

Well, apparently men remain fertile for much longer so it's not such a 'ticking bomb' issue for them. Except for the bit where, you know, it takes two to tango and while hooking up with octogenarians might be some women's thing, for the majority they like to have kids with someone closer to them in age - so while it might be the XXs that get less fertile with age, it's an issue that affects both XXs and XYs. Dear doctors, if you're going to subtly pressure people to have kids, let's have some Equal Opportunity harrassment kthx, Tats.

Anyway, other issues covered by the article include the cost of raising children vs the cost of living vs income - essentially, people are leaving having kids later because it's expensive and because people like to provide stability for their kids, and financial stability is arriving later in life than it used to. Owning a house now eats up nearly 40% of income on average, compared with the 10% of our parents' times.

This seems like a pretty valid reason.

And then there's the pressure to be The Perfect Parent that has supposedly been brought about by the scrutiny of the communication age - people can't make parenting mistakes privately any more, schools/kindies/institutions are on the lookout for signs of trouble at home, the media reports what kids are having for lunch and the Youth Of Today are held up in front of us as an example of what happens if you don't monitor and correct your parenting. Society is considered more dangerous so we must accompany our kids to school, supervise them at all times, thoroughly vet anyone we allow to look after them who isn't us.. and the list goes on.

Except for the missing information. The bit where society actually ISN'T more dangerous than it was when we were growing up (at least, not as measurable in statistics), the Youth of Today are no more violent than they were 20 years ago, and amazingly, despite all this supposed danger and need for us to be the Gestapo of Safety, most kids still manage to grow up as okay people despite their parents' best efforts.

So we have all these straw man arguments for why women are choosing to have children later (yes, apparently it's only women who put off having kids). At some point in the article, someone gets a brain and goes "Hey, I know! Why don't we ASK them!"* And the most common reason given by childless women in their 30s is the lack of a suitable partner.

At this point, if I were such a person, I could jump up and down and go "SEE! MEN SUCK!" Only, that would be just like Paula Bennett jumping up and down and going "SEE! THE UNEMPLOYED ARE LAZY!" while studiously ignoring the wider social issues that lead to long-term unemployment.


Thing is, I don't think men suck. I also don't think that men have particularly changed in levels of quality (sorry guys, not trying to be rude here) or partner-suitability. People are people and while culture, attitudes, trends, all sorts of things change over time, I think that there's not that much difference between the number of good people and the number of bad people now, and 50 or 60 years ago.

So what's the deal with this 'lack of a suitable partner' thing? I'll get back to that..

One of the major themes of the article is the opportunity cost to women of having children. Why would a woman give up or take time out from a successful career to have children? Or, worse (hark back to the picture on the cover), juggle a career and kids? Workplaces, while improving, are still often not facing the realities of family life for their employees, being inflexible about leave for caring for sick kids, rushing off for family emergencies and the like. There's mention of the benefit to children from having their mother around more, with time for them instead of being frazzled and tired with work/family labour. There's talk of the pressure to excel at work and at home, and the tradeoff of happy children for children who do well at school through overpowered parents applying pressure....

*SKREECH* *rattlerattle*

That was me stopping the train and backing it up a bit. There is a huge glaring assumption going on here - that it's the woman who pays the price of children. That it's the woman's presence from whom the children benefit, and that it's the woman who's doing the juggling of work and family.

In the article, when it talks about decisions related to having children, it talks about 'the parents' making the decisions. When it talks about the responsibilities related to parenting, it talks about 'the women'. Subtle. Not.

I had a debate in a tutorial with a young man doing law. He was talking about the opportunity cost to women of having children being a reason women are often not as successful as men at being lawyers. He was utterly gobsmacked when I pointed out to him that 'the time out required to have a baby' equals between 4 and 40 hours of labour, plus recovery time. For me, I was recovered and fighting fit within a week. For others, it's longer. But he was assuming that having a baby = at least 3 months out of the workforce for a woman. Every woman. And that's why men do better at being lawyers.

This is the assumption that frustrates me most. The fact is that women carry babies and give birth. Everything else after that is a social construct, including the assumption that the opportunity cost of children is borne by women (it is, currently, but that's because everyone assumes it will be, including the women themselves). There is absolutely no reason why, once the woman has recovered from the birth, she can not go back to work while the father takes over care of the baby and the raising of children. There is absolutely no reason why the responsibility for running the home, creating a family life, rushing off from work for emergencies, taking kids to school camps, the juggling of career and kids, cannot be done by men. What, exactly, makes having their mother around so important vs, say, having a parent around? Why does it have to be the mother?

A woman in a loving relationship has a baby. She's out of hospital in two days and at the end of the week she feels sufficiently recovered to go back to work. She expresses breast milk daily for the baby and leaves him in the care of his father, who has taken parental leave for the purpose. When the kid gets older, ir the father chooses to go back to work, they place the child in a reputable daycare.

What do you think of these people? What bits triggered your moral judgement? What bit makes you go "Oooh, bad parents!" Is it the idea of a woman going back to work so soon after birth? A stay-at-home father? Daycare as a parenting option? Difficulty of parental leave for men? A bottle-fed baby? Which (if any)?

Thing is, everything that causes those feelings of judgement are constructions of dominant ideology. Mothers are supposed to want to be with their little babies and willing to make any sacrifice to do so. Breast is best. Fathers don't nurture as well as mothers. Leaving your kid with strangers is a selfish copout that's bad for the kid. And the things that we all 'know' about what's good for children and how things are supposed to be, are the same things that the people making these choices 'know', and that 'knowledge' influences decisions not only on an individual level, but in policy. Why is available paid parental leave for mothers much longer than that for fathers? (this is flexible, by the way - the main caregiver can take the longer one regardless of gender but special application has to be made because it's assumed it will be the mother).

Fact is, it doesn't have to be Mum who nurtures baby - it's the bonding and nurturing that counts, not the gender of the person who does it, and fathers are just as capable of nurturing as mothers. Go check out the maternity ward sometime if you don't believe me.

Breast is best. Human milk is best for human babies. Duh. The method of delivery matters not at all.

Not every mother wants to place her baby above everything else in her life. For most other mammals, the offspring is the centre of the universe until it's mobile, then it becomes a well-protected part of the scenery. Somehow, in our 'civilisation', we've managed to make it so our offspring remain the centre of our universe well past the time at which they should've been part of the scenery. Don't believe me? Why is our media so full of "Won't anybody think of the children?" Even when these children are sexually mature themselves. Why are they more important than the parents, that the parents must sacrifice everything for 20 years for the sake of replicating themselves for the future?

And back in the olden days, kids were raised by more than just Mum and Dad. The nuclear family is also a societal construct. Daycare is not a prison, and they are run in such a way that the kid is not being 'raised by strangers' - they often get attached to their caregivers and the other kids. My kid, aged 14, is still friends with a kid he met in daycare aged 6 months.

So now we've established that it doesn't have to be the mother that makes all these sacrifices, can someone please tell me why even supposedly emancipatory articles in our mainstream media are still running with these assumptions? The two paragraphs dedicated to men talked about the sidelining of fathers in the parental role - are we surprised at this given that even the author of the article assumes that it will be mothers taking on the responsibility of children? Even adding up simple column inches, we have five pages dedicated to mothers and about two inches dedicated to fathers. What does this say about who's important as a parent?

So when women say they can't find a suitable partner, it could be that women have actually realised that it doesn't have to be them wearing the cost of children. They may even have found a partner who agrees with them - although I would argue that many young men still grow up with the expectation that children = mostly her responsibility. And yet, the rest of society has not caught up with these changing expectations - a couple who want to have a family in this non-traditional way is swimming upstream the entire way. And that's HARD. The question then becomes, if it's hard, and costly, and everyone's going to disapprove of your choices - why do it?

Congratulations, Listener, on managing to keep that dominant discourse keeping on. If the government would like people to start having more kids, they need to address:

a) issues of equal parenting in relation to employment, leave for births, and flexibility of hours.
b) address the lack of quality daycare facilities by encouraging the industry and education in the industry. In an economy where both parents must work for children to be a viable option while still looking after one's own future, quality daycare is essential.
c) do something about the relationship between income and cost of living, particularly with regard to housing.


a) address the issue of equal pay for work of equal value, and start with parenting as a valuable contribution to the productivity of the future.

Your call.

* One of the reasons I think Filament is awesome is that it has asked women what they want to see instead of assuming they know based on theory.
Tags: gender equality, parenting is hard, waving fist at government
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