I’m finding it difficult not to get really angry at middle-class women right now (some of them self-identified feminists) in the debate about Marissa Mayer’s assertion that she intends to continue to work after the birth of her first child. In many ways, this media controversy is crystallizing some of the discomfort I’ve felt over the past few years about a kind of resurgent pro-natalism, draped in the language of feminism and neoliberal work-balance discourses.
Years ago, Michelle Stanworth said that reproductive choice was an impossibility as long as women could opt NOT to have children without it reflecting negatively on them. To that, I’d add that reproductive choice remains impossible insofar as women continue to police the reproductive choices of other women. And we see this taking place vividly around resurgent pro-natalism and the kind of savvy, knowing subject of all these mommy discourses. This is being very clearly conveyed in the debate about Mayer. Since she is not yet a mother, Mayer can’t possibly know the demands mothering makes on one’s time. “Oh, she’ll find out” is the refrain by women consulted about this – all those canny moms out there whose experiences makes them experts on the complexities and difficulties of doing something humans have been doing for millennia – bearing and raising children.
I don’t want to minimize the labor associated with bearing and raising children, but I do want to argue with the romanticization of childbearing and rearing that has always been a dominant strand in Western culture. It being the telos of women’s lives, it’s not surprising that it is through childbearing that women become the guardians of culture, the agents of civilization, the educators of the next generation.
And what about the rest of womenkind? Those who can’t bear children, who – defying one of the most central precepts of Western gender norms – decide that they do not want to embrace that which is said to define and transform them. What about them? They continue to be seen as somehow unnatural, incomplete, and illiterate when it comes to the very grammar of gender. They can’t are deprived even of the ability to criticize resurgent pro-natalism because they just don’t understand.
The debate about Mayer is a tempest in a teapot. Mayer is part of the one percent. She is having one child in circumstances unimaginable to the vast majority of Americans. She’ll have fulltime childcare – likely in her home or her office – she’ll have fulltime domestic labor in the shape of housekeepers, cooks, personal trainers, etc. Her baby won’t be going to daycare when s/he’s six weeks old and coming home with viruses and infections that will lay the whole family low for weeks and months. Why shouldn’t she be able to return to work, providing that she doesn’t suffer any complications from labor and delivery?
For other less privileged but still privileged women, the stakes in this debate are high. If childbearing and raising isn’t seen as a universally and totally immersive experience, then it puts the lie to their own romanticization of their identities as mothers – and the ideology that goes along with it.
It’s high time we talked about class. Caring for children is work – it’s not a vocation, particularly in a culture where mothering is likely to take up two decades of lifetimes that may be four times that long. Mayer can and will pay for other women to do much of that work for her, likely for a price substantially below a living wage and in conditions over which those workers have little control. When women criticize Mayer for “underestimating” how difficult the work of child care is, when they suggest that only women who have had children can judge how difficult that work is, they help mystify the class issues that are at the heart of these debates and re-romanticize some universal and all-encompassing mom’s-eye view of the universe.