Saturday, August 7, 2010

Motherhood and Privilege: A True Case of Intersections

One thing I have learned about the feminist blogosphere with absolute certainty is that when you bring up the issue of whether or not there should be child free spaces, it's sparks a shit storm. Maia, a guest blogger, recently rehashed this discussion over at Feministe (the last place I witnessed this particular shit storm). Her basic thesis was "you do not have a right to child free spaces," which, I'm sure, you can imagine set a lot of people off. Last I checked, the comments were up to almost 700. A shit storm, for sure.

I don't really care to go deep into the discussion about the feminism of child free spaces. I will state that I, like many, was rubbed the wrong way by Maia's post, but I tried to understand where she was coming from. And for those of you unfamiliar with the debate, I'll summarize the conflicting sides:

1) Children are people too. They deserve to be in public. That is where they can learn appropriate behavior. However, kids are kids, and so they're going to behave inappropriately time to time. Because our society still places the responsibility of child rearing disproportionately on women, to restrict children from public spaces is to essentially restrict women from those same spaces. It is not always reasonable that single parents can afford childcare or a babysitter, but they should not be restricted to their homes because of this.


2) Adults have the right to adult-only spaces that are free from the behavior challenges of other people's children. Of course, some public places are kid friendly and any person entering them should reasonably expect to interact with children, but that is why adult-only public spaces should be respected. Childfree people* have the right to enjoy childfree environments, where it is logical (like bars, upscale restaurants, and their own homes when inviting guests.)

So with this as the background, what I really want to discuss is how privilege and motherhood interact. What I have seen emerge in the comments (which I fizzled out on reading inevitably...) is both sides accusing the other of privilege.

Motherhood as privilege: Childfree people assert that there is an inherent privilege in having children. The default position of our society is to "settle down and have kids." When you get to a certain age and meet new people, one of the inevitable questions is, "Do you have kids?" From this perspective, the privilege comes from being a mother because society promotes motherhood as what "good" women do. Because motherhood is seen as a the ultimate role a woman can take, there is inherent privilege. Childfree people are positioned as the other; outliers in the social structure that caters to families which include children.


Childfree as privilege: The other side asserts that the privilege is in not having children. The idea is that our society doesn't support women in parenting, especially single mothers. Instead of affordable childcare, living wages, and accommodations in the workplace, women with children face a number of financial and societal barriers, making those who are childfree the privileged in their workplaces and social circles.

Both sides are pretty compelling, right? The way I see it, neither is actually right or wrong. Instead, there are so many more factors to consider, because as every feminist situation, there are numerous intersections. I'm going to just address a few.

First, there is the issue of money. High income mothers obviously experience privilege. They are able to fit the expectation of being the "ultimate woman" by having children. And yet, they don't face any of the aforementioned challenges (like affordable childcare.) Additionally, for many low income mothers, there was never an option to be childfree, be it because of lack of access to contraceptive methods or information about sexual reproduction, or even because of coerced or forced pregnancies. Also, being childfree interacts with income. As mentioned above, it is much easier to be childfree if you have access to money and education.

Other factors also interact with motherhood to compound various privileges. For example, women of color are much less likely to be privileged by being mothers. There are so many racist stereotypes surrounding the black "welfare queen" that I can safely say African American mothers are not regarded as favorably as white mothers by American culture. Imagine what people would say, for example, if Michelle Duggar was black. And don't get me started on this new terms of "anchor babies." If that term doesn't highlight the racism, fear mongering, and scorn associated with Latina mothers, I don't know what would.

My point is that in the case of motherhood, as with so many things, you can't sit back and blanketedly say "being a mother gives you privilege." There is so much more at play, and no two person's experiences are identical. I, as a married, middle-class, hetero/cis white woman might feel a societal pressure to conform to having a traditional family which includes children. But that doesn't mean that all mothers are privileged.

It'd go a long way for us all to remember that our own frame of reference isn't the rule for everyone.

*I use the term childfree in this blog to connote a certain lifestyle choice, not people who just do not have kids currently. I do not identify as childfree although I currently don't have kids because I see them in my future, and I respect that this is not what the childfree lifestyle is about.

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