Lately, I’ve been thinking about babies. No, not because I have them. Also not because I want them, though as a 35, soon-to-be-36 year old woman who is not a mother but who is married to a man, 99% of the world seems to assume that I do, that I must, and quite pointedly that I should want to be a mother, and should be pursuing motherhood as an urgent imperative second to none. No, I have been thinking about babies because my friends are having them, because the children of my mother’s friends and of my parents-in-law’s friends are having them, and because there is a lot of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing a life without children, in accepting a life in which your children choose not to have children. There also seems to be a whole other load of heavy existential shit wrapped up in choosing to have children, but that’s not my area of expertise.
The other, bigger-picture reason why I’m thinking about babies, and about women’s reproductive choices and access to family planning is because I am living in the U.S.A in an era when fewer and fewer women have access to health care at all, and when access to resources such as contraception and safe and legal termination of unwanted pregnancies are specifically further and further out of reach for huge numbers of women. I could conceivably wake up one of these days to discover that my health insurance provider has been forced by the government to stop covering the benefit that allows me access to the birth-control pill that’s allowed me to avoid an unwanted pregnancy for almost 15 years of having sex with men. The pill could become a luxury- an out-of-pocket cost I can’t afford, if it’s available to me at all, to the inevitable detriment of my emotional well-being and my stable and happy (voluntarily child-free) marriage. And I live in deep-blue California. This lack of access to reproductive health care is already a reality for women all over this country and is bound to become more and more dire. I read something a couple days ago about what “back-alley abortion” could mean in a potential (dare I say “probable”?) post-Roe world. Very likely it would not greatly resemble what was commonplace pre-Roe. More likely it would mostly involve drugs ordered off of the internet to chemically induce miscarriages. One would like to claim this would be safer, however, many women who have miscarriages, self-induced or otherwise, require medical care and support. A few months ago I read an article about El Salvador, where all abortions, self-induced miscarriages, etcetera are legally framed as homicide. Even a miscarriage that is suspected to be in any way self-induced can lead to a woman doing years of jail time. This situation basically results in women whose pregnancies terminate avoiding those who could give them medical care they need for fear of being turned over to the authorities, slapped with homicide charges and railroaded through a criminal justice system rife with misogyny where they are presumed guilty based on nothing more than the testimony of neighbors, bitter exes, abusive partners, family members or physicians who can have no presumed objectivity (and don’t need it to be taken at their word). I hear some of you saying “but that’s El Salvador…poverty…corruption…backwards… ” and so on. Here’s the thing though. If (when?) Roe is overturned, we could easily find ourselves in a not dissimilar situation. The difference is there may be wild variations from state to state or even county to county. Example: two college women in post-Roe America. One is a Sophomore at University of California, Berkeley. One is a Sophomore at Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Both wind up with unplanned pregnancies and for any number of legitimate reasons (lack of resources, desire to finish education and establish career, income, stable, healthy relationship before having a family, or simple lack of desire to be a parent), both of these young women use the internet to order pills to induce miscarriages at home. Both develop alarming symptoms, fever, hemmorhaging, etcetera, get scared and seek medical help, whether at a campus clinic or a local E.R. Chances are any doctor is going to look at this scenario and know immediately what is going on. The question is, are any of the medical personnel involved in stabilizing this woman- keeping her alive and healthy- going to call the cops on her? Is this more likely to happen at Bob Jones or in South Carolina than at U.C Berkeley or in California? And lastly could there be a mental affect- a fear of criminal proceedings- that could prevent either of these young women from seeking medical help, thus potentially risking extremely serious lasting complications or death?
Are we going to see a whole branch of the FBI dedicated to cyber-surveillance of purveyors and purchasers of the drugs that are used to induce miscarriages? Are we going to see sting operations to round up and arrest those staffing underground warehouses that ship these drugs to desperate women all over the country? are we going to see women spending years in jail for ordering these drugs on the internet?
These are the things I think about around Mother’s day. The never-ending war on the rights of women to decide if and when to have children. The tiers of pressure and coercion. The first tier is the soft coercion of the way girl-children are socialized. The dolls and the “playing mommy” and the toy kitchen, and the expectation of play-caretaking which is designed to lead to a life of caretaking, i.e unpaid work, in particular the unpaid work of motherhood. Incidentally, if my mother wanted me to produce grandchildren for her, the first mistake she made was basically allowing me to be a genderless feral child and do whatever the hell I wanted to do when I was very young. I didn’t have an inborn interest in playing at being “mommy”, I was never made to or even especially encouraged to play “mommy” and I never developed an interest in being “mommy”. I think these things are related. I don’t doubt that there are some children, and some people, who have a natural gravitation toward the role of being a parent. I also feel fairly sure that there are many many people who only become parents- and specifically women who only become mothers- because of a combination of early coercion in their socialization as children combined with enormous pressure to become mothers in their child-bearing years, all topped off with lack of availability and/or affordability of reproductive health care. Put it this way- the fact that I have a cat and I love her does not mean that I want to have a baby- (though I wouldn’t mind a possum. Or better yet, a baby sloth).
So why does the government want to force me to have a baby human being? It has occurred to me that there may be a simple answer: economics and demographics. Late capitalist economies require constant growth. Economic expansion is not possible without demographic expansion. You get demographic expansion in one of two ways: Babies, or immigration. In countries that are sour on immigration for any number of reasons (hewwo, Brexit, hewwo, Trump’s America), the attempt of legislators/pols/patriarchal stringpullers/old white guys to keep the old engine of capitalism chugging away and hopefully stave off fiscal disaster as the baby-boomers come into their long stretch of waning dependent years is to stimulate demographic growth by taking away women’s access to reproductive health care and forcing us to have children whether we want to or not.
and we find ourselves full-circle, right back where we started, pre-womens movement, pre-suffrage, pre-enlightenment, pre-mass female literacy, pre-women in the professions… right back to the beginning of civilization where a woman is nothing but a uterus to be locked up, guarded, bought and sold and discarded if not in proper working order and so on and so on. This is the premise upon which all these efforts to pressure or force women to have children (and to groom little girls for motherhood) are based: the premise that for women, biology is destiny. You are not a human being. You are an object. An incubator/milk machine. A Uterus that will serve at the pleasure of state and patriarchy, which happens to exhibit some very human characteristics at times. The ideology is so pervasive (and so important a component of the algorithm of capitalism) that it even has girls and women pressuring each other, using the ancient instruments of ostracism and shame to coerce compliance. I feel grateful that I actually live in one of the least oppressive places in the world (reading this article today about the situation my sisters in Saudi Arabia find themselves in snapped things back into perspective), but I see the erosion of what’s been built up over centuries of progress and I regularly experience the toxic effects of continued patriarchal and capitalist control of society’s ideas about women’s autonomy and about the legitimacy-and legality- (or lack thereof) of the choice female-identified humans may make to not be mothers. We cannot afford to harbor any illusions about how very far from innocent and how dreadfully consequential the ideology of required motherhood is.
Back at the beginning of this post, I mentioned the heavy existential shit. I intended to talk more about it, but then I started going on and on about all the other stuff. Luckily, it can be summed up briefly. It is tempting to have children because we human beings are the only animal (as far as we know) with an awareness of, and therefore an unshakeable fear of, our own mortality. We are going to die, and we know it, and this scares the shit out of us. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could at least create another person who looks a lot like us, who will still be alive after we die, who will remember our stories, pass on our legend? wouldn’t that be kind of like not dying? Better yet, if that person could make another person who might look kind of like us, who will be alive even longer… We do it all “for the children”, but hey, they were saying that back when I was a child! (As Norm Macdonald says on this topic in his new standup special, which is hilarious: “I recognize a Ponzi scheme when I see one”).
yup, the problem is having children doesn’t actually solve the human dilemma, which is awareness that we are going to die and ultimately, everything we do will disappear without a trace. Knowing that, how can we attribute meaning to anything we do in life? Having a child may make you too busy to think about it, at least for a couple decades, but it’s not going to make it go away. Having grandchildren is not going to make it go away, either. Personally, I’m hoping that reading and re-reading Epictetus and Lao Tzu and Yeats, for 80 years if I’m lucky, may help me to make a dent in this smooth hard wall of nothingness. But if it doesn’t, that’s okay, because none of it matters, anyway, and I’ve got this furry zen master curled up in my lap right now, showing me (again, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating) how to just fucking relax.