Sunday, April 29, 2007

Stevens and Surprising Choices

I find myself obsessed lately (OK, well mildly obsessed) with Wallace Stevens' personal life. This is all wound up with various feminist issues in my head, including Linda Hirshman's recent op-ed in the New York Times. And there is no particularly direct line through my various thoughts on this subject: Wallace Stevens simply acts as the hub of this mental dance.

First, last Wednesday, Linda Hirshman did her basic spiel from her book (which title I forget, and which book I have never read) as a NYTimes op-ed. She basically argues that women should be enabled to get back into the workforce, and that, furthermore, they're doing society a disservice by NOT being in the workforce. She also generally argues that highly educated women are doing themselves a disservice by staying home with their children rather than working, i.e., making a lifestyle choice because they have the financial luxury to stay home. If you want to know more about what she says, google her, because I'm not going to explain much more here.

I find myself most often not disagreeing with her--this is indeed a double-negative, but pretty much sums up how I feel about it. I think Linda, though much derided, has a point here. I'm not sure I want to get judgmental about it, but her points that huge amounts of income are lost by women who opt out to care for babies and that perhaps, gals, this is a false "choice" we're being offered are, I think, well-taken.

As you can imagine, every time this woman says anything, a whole group of people start screaming various coherent and incoherent things. Right now, most of Linda's detractors think that Linda is patronizing them. I offer no comment on this. They also think that the desire to take care of small children does more for the social good than does working in an "office"--it's more "noble" and "harder" than working in an "office." Hmmm, this is starting to smell a little funny . . . . it kind of smells like defensiveness overdrive: we're not just sitting around eating bonbons and chatting with the neighbors! We're the Matrons of the Public Interest, and btw, changing a poopy diaper is not for the faint of heart! Yes, this all may be true, but . . . . They also sometimes seem to think that taking care of small children is more "natural" for women than working in an "office." Gag.

Then there was this letter to the editor on Linda Hirshman's op-ed: "If we learned nothing else from the feminist teachings of our youth, we learned that choice is key, and, for those who have the choice, we need to rally support." This is the entire letter written by Susan Komisar Hausman.

I have to say, this letter stops me dead in my tracks because of its (apparent) unintentional hypocrisy. Let's read this backward and try to parse it: Support is needed for those upper income, highly educated mothers who've taken the brave stance of "choosing" to stay home with their children because they have the money and time to do it. That is, let's cheer on those for whom staying at home with small children is a matter of lifestyle luxury. Forget all those working mothers trying to make sure their kids have enough food on the table or access to a college education or whatever, all those mothers, married or single, for whom work is a necessity.

Let's not worry about making life better for women and mothers across the board. This is the insidious perversion of the word "choice" from its roots in the abortion debate. My biggest question lately is: what does it mean for women to have a "choice" in this society? Does it really mean anything at all? Sometimes I think that the word "choice" just signals that you're going to defend your territory, regardless of what others may think, and regardless of the needs of other members of your larger group. I "choose" this, thus I am correct in my thinking and my lifestyle, thus I owe no obligation to the greater good or betterment of women or mothers generally. The personal is the political. My "choices" owe nothing to the common good. I am not responsible for it.

Several years ago, an old college friend with whom I'd lost touch wrote a letter to the editor of the NYTimes on another topic: that of the medical debate surrounding aborting a disabled fetus. She noted that that situation had happened to her, and while it was wrenching to make the decision to abort, that it was clear it was the right decision.

Her letter was very moving, and I found myself sympathetic to her. I googled her (her geographic location was listed with her letter) and was going to email her--but I found I couldn't do it. On a small scale, of course, I approved of her "choice" to abort the defective fetus. On a larger scale, though, I didn't. All I could think of was the bigger issue in the original newspaper article: as it becomes socially acceptable to abort disabled fetuses, and insurance companies are more willing to pay for those abortions (rather than assume the overwhelming burden of paying for the medical care for those kids once they are born), will the care levels for disabled children diminish because of the implication that parents could have "chosen" to abort such children, but didn't? That is, if you know the kid you're carrying is going to have medical problems, disabilities, or mental retardation, perhaps you should be responsible for the financial obligation of caring for such a child, should you choose to have him or her. That's quite a complex ethical argument.

It doesn't apply to Robert, of course, because there was no way of knowing he would be disabled while I was carrying him. But that's true of a lot of kids with disabilities. And I don't know what "choice" I would have made had I known what the future would bring. But this flicker of an idea: that parents of disabled kids could lose societal empathy and help because they could be accused of selfishly burdening society with their disabled kids. And, trust me, after my forays into Slate's "The Fray" and other chat rooms, lured in by an attempt to defend the disabled, people really think this sort of thing. The most memorable was a woman who began a reply to me by saying something like, well, I have friends who say kill them all at birth, it would be more merciful . . . .

And how is this connected to Wallace Stevens? His work is genius quality. And how did he accomplish it? He had a full-time job and a family. He was wealthy enough to hire people to cook and clean for him and his family. But he lived an absurdly privileged life, even taking those things into account. Even if he hadn't had the financial means to hire servants, his wife would have done all the caretaking for him. You think someone like Wallace Stevens was ever going to cook a meal for himself? Clean a toilet? Care for a sick child? Plan a dinner party for his friends? Go grocery shopping? Run any errand? Iron his own shirts? Lay out his own clothes? Purchase his own clothes?

Was this lifestyle his "choice", allowing him the "choice" of writing poetry? No, this is what society handed him on a silver platter. Isn't it grand not to ever have to think about a single aspect of self care? To live in a world where the luxury of your "choices" has no consequences for you?

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