Monday, April 11, 2011

Talking with...Kelly Hogaboom: Why are online conversations among women about mothering and children so contentious?

Last weekend on Twitter, I was disheartened to read that one of my favorite bloggers, Kelly Hogaboom was taken aback by a link that I posted in my weekly roundup on What Tami Said: Childfree or Die Hard--Snappy Combacks to Inappropriate Questions. The post on Persephone Magazine humorously offered rejoinders that women without children can serve up to nosy reproduction detectives. But in some of the suggestions and comments to the post, Kelly noticed some tired attacks on mothers and children.

I have long noted in online spaces, perhaps particularly those devoted to women, that discussion of motherhood and children quickly becomes divisive, with SAHMs squaring off against moms who work outside the home, women with children squabbling with their childfree sisters. Our reproductive decisions become things to defend and fight about. There is less sharing and support than picking sides. In the following discussion, Kelly and I discuss why and offer some solutions.

Tami: Let’s start with the Persephone article. Tell me about what you saw in the comments and your reaction to it.

Kelly: The Persephone article was one of those "snappy comeback" articles, for which I always feel a great deal of wariness when it comes to feminist or kyriarchal issues. In this case, reader Liza thanked the commentariat for providing a space where it's OK to say "I don't like kids." It actually is quite okay in our country to say that (The very real pressures we apply rigorously to women without children notwithstanding...And I know we'll get to that in detail) and mainstream feminist and self-named progressive spaces do far less to call out that issue than other open displays of bigotry. Nor do they address the issues of the child class and their carers to my satisfaction.

I'd also like to point out this "child vs. no child" discussion attempts to pit parents/carers and those without against each other, and is heavily weighted to create infighting amongst, primarily women. Or at least that's how I see it!

Tami: And you know, I was worried about that when I posted the link. I liked the post. Thought it was funny. As a woman who always knew she didn't want biological children, I have experienced my share of intrusive questions about my uterus and what I plan to do with it. Sometimes it helps to be snarky and laugh about it. But, as I said to you via Twitter, these sorts of posts--whether they be about parenting or not parenting--always go sideways...even in feminist spaces...maybe especially in feminist spaces. Why do you think that is? I mean, in a space where women are all about supporting other women, this issue is always so contentious.

Kelly: The article WAS funny, and I agree with many points she made. I also think snarky responses to invasive questions about one's breeding or non-breeding habits is fair game. The article itself had a few eye-twitching moments for me. For instance, the soccer practice and PTA jabs aren't appreciated since I know so many hard-working moms. Let's quit beating the Soccer Mom Drone horse. And that whole misanthrope defense of anti-child sentiment: "Well, I don't like lots of people, and yeah, I don't like most kids.” I can't really defend that.

However, I do have theories for why this issue is contentious, and that is women (Because let's get real, men are rarely routinely and publicly asked to defend their choice of children or their choice to not have children) are pressured from all sides and essentially it suits kyriarchal systems to keep 'em fighting. I'm frustrated so many women continue to agree to do so. This is going to sound overly simplistic, but I think a lot of painful misunderstanding could be a voided, and a lot of connection could be made, if people continued to speak in the first person. For instance, #7 in the Persephone article, I've seen many parents query non-parents in that way, and it's unnecessary and hurtful.

Tami: I agree that the fighting over this issue is a result of sexism and pressure women get whether they choose to become mothers or not. It hit me when we were discussing this earlier in the week that I don't think these conversations happen on sites geared at men. That's because society doesn't care whether men reproduce or not. And when they do, they are considered helpers and not primary caregivers. (I know plenty of dads are equal parents. I'm talking about society's view here.) This is bad for women (And men, really.). It means that parenting and the people who do it are not respected (as it is "woman's work") and it means childless women are marginalized for making a decision out of keeping with what society thinks they should do. And it means that emotions surrounding the issue run high among women, because we all have experienced some sort of judgement surrounding it. And we are tired. And we are fed up. And we feel like no one understands. And, maybe worst of all, we cannot spare compassion for our sisters.

Kelly: This is why speaking one's reality, in first person and without crystal-ball proclamation about a future or past one hasn't had, is important. For instance, a woman with young children can say something more truthful instead of: "What do you do with your time?" (highly insulting and condescending - or at least, often experienced as such). She can express her own reality that her life has changed since having children. She can say that she is undersupported (by her partner, if she has one, or society-at-large) and that she sometimes feels ambivalent about her new (24/7) responsibilities for other vulnerable, high-needs human beings. I have a hard time believing a person without children can't relate to that.

I also wanted to ask your opinion about the perception that those (women) without children are somehow selfish, or even less-than-human (or not "real" women). This seems to be a commonly bandied-about perception and I'm wondering if you've experienced it and what narrative(s) you think that really serves.

Tami: I like the idea of speaking personal truth. And I wanted to ask you, as a mom, how it feels to read those "I hate kids" statements.

I have definitely experienced the idea that not being a parent makes one 1) less than a woman, and 2) selfish. A very good friend told me--knowing that I did not plan to have children--that she once thought that people who didn't have children were selfish. Later, after having kids of her own, she said that she could better understand people like me because parenting is hard work. (So basically, I'm lazy not selfish.) I think the line of thinking stems from the idea that women should innately be caregivers and nurturers, and that bearing and being the primary raiser of children is the only way we can do these things. Of course this idea serves the patriarchy. (And, I have to point out there is nothing wrong with raising and nurturing children. It's a great thing! An important thing. It's the SHOULD. And it's that the SHOULD is applied only to women.)

[Editor’s note: I should add that I married into a family with two great kids. And that a stepmother’s role is often equally disrespected. As these children did not spring from my womb, I have encountered the belief that I am not mothering. This, despite the fact that my (step)son lives with my husband and I. I once had a commenter on Love Isn’t Enough express that having an editor who was a stepparent, but not a “real” parent, was “pushing it” for a parenting site.]


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