Monday, July 28, 2008

Ruining your life

Judith Warner, who writes the Domestic Disturbances blog for the NY Times, had a great post/column on Friday that also questioned the application of the word "choice" to how women with children (mothers) redirect their lives.  As we used to say in grad school, she suggested that "choice" had been "problematized."  Warner doesn't link the term directly to the abortion debate, but I still say that's where this diction and its connotations come from.  

Warner is riffing off a congressional report commissioned by Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney of NY, "Equality in Job Loss: Women are Increasingly Vulnerable to Layoffs During Recessions."  Warner argues that what the media have, for some time, been referring to as the 'opt-out revolution' in which women, particularly educated women, announced they were leaving their jobs to stay home and be full-time moms really masked women being forced out of the workforce for various reasons, such as low pay, layoffs, and family-unfriendly workplaces:

It has happened like clockwork. In the past two economic downturns, as job losses have forced women out of the workplace, a sort of angel has appeared to guide their way and re-label their unfortunate circumstances as virtuous “choice.”
This is not to say, as some female readers I know might object, that raising children well and with love is not a worthy goal, nor that it is easy work.  But having made the 'choice' to have children, as though 'two roads diverged in a'--well, however Frost did describe that wood--yellow?  Which one is 'the least traveled by'?  Working with kids, or staying home with kids?  And what does 'make all the difference'?  

Making a 'choice' implies that you pass something up, with some sense for what you are losing, or full knowledge of what you are doing.  That you retain control.  But you can't retain control in an economy in which you might need a second income, an income commensurate with your skills, if only the workforce would recognize them as such, rather than chastise you for having let your skills 'lapse.'  Or offer you part-time jobs with little room for advancement or mobility.  Or benefits.  And how can it possibly be fair to ask female parents to 'choose' or make them feel as though that's noble when male parents are not really asked to do the same, but, in fact, supported and rewarded in their dual roles, as study and anecdote prove.

I have to quote several paragraphs of Warner's article because her language is so on-target:

But when men in their prime working years drop out of the workforce we don’t say they’ve gone home to be with their kids.

We say they’re unemployed.

The distinction is truly meaningful beyond the neat way it encapsulates our inability to separate ideology from fact when it comes to thinking about mothers and their much-vaunted “choices.” Unemployed people, after all, are entitled to benefits. As a society, we tend to think it’s incumbent upon us to get them working again — for their own good, individually, for the good of their families, and for our collective welfare. Politicians promise to retrain them. Devise policies to retain them. The unemployed still fall under the ever-retracting umbrella of people we consider, to some extent, to be worthy of our care.

Mothers, with their glorious array of post-feminist lifestyle options, have long been seen as something else. They’re individuals, making choices, responsible for the fallout of those choices even if, in point of fact, those choices were made for them by a weak economy, the unaffordability of child care or an inflexible workplace. They don’t need “government handouts” like quality child care, flextime, sick days, family leave and top-notch afterschool programs, because they’ve made their proud choices and, by golly (unless they’re whiners), they’re going to go it alone.
And I really feel that the feminist organizations that claim to serve us, like Planned Parenthood, NOW, and NARAL, are still trying to bully us into believing that we have to choose between abortion rights and mothers' rights.  Between abortion rights and workforce rights.  They don't want to give up their political chits to help working women, especially working mothers--let's face it, abortion rights is their fundraising bread and butter.  They don't want to risk losing that kind of money to help mothers in the workforce.  The money they make from scaring us all with the bogeyman of back alley abortions, by making us feel that any woman risks 'ruining' her life by having a child without submitting to a degree of unrealistic 'planning' that simply coincides with good luck--that money pays their salaries.  I'm tired of living under that kind of emotional pressure.  Until they change their tune and get with the 21st century, I won't support them.  If I'm wrong about these groups, I stand corrected.

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