Two articles ran in the online press this week that provide a glimpse into the reason for the endless and ongoing culture war about women's bodies and fertility, and what women "owe" society.
I knew early on that I didn't want children. I never played with baby dolls. To the extent I enjoyed playing with dolls, they were either little-girl dolls like Madame Alexanders that were like me, or Barbie, who in our house had the nightclub singer dress but never the bridal gown (which cost five bucks -- too expensive for an outfit for a doll my mother vehemently opposed anyway). I hated baby-sitting. I wrote a sociology paper in college titled "Voluntary Childlessness in Marriage." Later on, with my mother's voice constantly yammering in my ear that I wasn't getting any younger and the older I got, the harder it would be to find someone to marry, I'd find myself imagining being married to someone and waking up in the middle of the night to feed a baby, and the picture just never really resonated with me. I really don't know why this is.
Perhaps it's because my closest friend in early childhood was a boy, or perhaps it's that I could not form a picture of what mothering was because my own mother was already too deep into depression by the time I was born to parent me. Or perhaps on some level I knew that when one's earliest memories of one's own mother are of screamed at and locked into your room because you don't WANT to go out and play, it means one never develops the tools to be a parent. Certainly my mother didn't. She grew up in an emotionally (and perhaps physically) abusive home in which two sisters each felt hated by their mother, each feeling the other was the favorite -- and then proceeded to repeat the exact same dynamic with her own daughters.
The refrain I always used to hear about my determination to not reproduce was "Who's going to take care of you when you're old?" I always felt that this was a terrible and selfish reason to have children. It seemed unfair to essentially sign that contract for a being that never had a chance to read it or make a free-will decision to abide by it. And as I now know from what my sister endured for the last few years, and especially the last few months of my mother's life, this burden is a terrible thing to do to your children. We were lucky, because Mom had long-term care insurance and enough resources to have a few paid helper/friends until she started to decline precipitously in September, and then sufficient resources to pay for an assisted living residence until early December, when she came home and my sister was able to hire 24-hour care for the 36 hours she lived after returning home. Imagine if that had not been available. My sister has a real estate agency that just happened to be in slow season, so at the time she had some time flexibility that she doesn't have most times of year. I have a high-pressure, high-stress, deadline-intensive job that often affords me no time to do housework, let alone provide 24-hour care. But aside from the logistics, what does one "owe" to a parent who was as toxic and as damaging as my mother was? When your mother rejects you outright, as my mother did my sister for a very long time, or emotionally blackmails you for decades, as she did to me, how does an adult child provide the level of care that is required?
On Monday, Emily Yoffe wrote at Slate.com about this
Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.
Eleanor Payson, a marital and family therapist in Michigan and the author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists
, sees some clients who feel it would be immoral to abandon a now-feeble parent, no matter how destructive that person was. Payson says she advises them to find ways to be caring while protecting themselves from further abuse. “One of my missions is helping people not be tyrannized by false guilt or ignore their own pain and needs,” she says. Setting limits is crucial: “You may need to keep yourself in a shark cage with no opportunity to let that person take a bite out of you.” It’s also OK for the conversation to be anodyne. “You can say something respectful, something good-faith-oriented. ‘I wish you well’; ‘I continue to work on my own forgiveness.’ ”
Dr. Ronald Rohner, an emeritus professor of family studies and anthropology at the University of Connecticut, has devoted much of his career to studying parental rejection and its effects. He says there’s little research on adult role reversal—that is, what happens when the parent is vulnerable and wants support from the child. But he says the studies that do exist demonstrate that “it really truly is as you sow, so shall you reap. Those parents who raised children less than lovingly are putting their own dependent old age at risk for being well and lovingly cared for themselves.”
In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”
My mother and I did talk about my childhood a few years ago, during one of the few times that she was able to drop her wall of defensiveness and denial. She apologized for being such a terrible mother, but indicated that I had to have compassion for her, because her own mother had been terrible to her. I explained to her that I forgave her for the way she was when I was a child, but that when she continued to behave towards me in the same way, and when I have to navigate the shaosls of the damage that was done to my psyche, it was impossible for me to forget. Not a week goes by in my life when something doesn't trigger a highly emotional anticipation of some dire consequence to some trivial mistake I made. It's far better than it used to be, because a whole bunch of therapy helped me recognize it when it happens and realize it is the reptilian response of a four-year-old whose mother is screaming at her for some trivial infraction, or a twelve-year-old being called a painted whore for daring to come home from social dancing school wearing Yardley Frosted Slicker on her lips. Without that, I am like the friend who more than once has landed in the hospital from panic attacks because her mother is angry at her. It's much better, but it is there, and any forgiveness had to take that into account.
How my sister managed to put her even more troubled relationship with our mother aside for the last twelve years, and especially the last two, I'll never know. I'm not sure it was forgiveness so much as a sense that this was somehow a karmic destiny that was necessary. But there's no getting around the fact that Mom was really pretty rotten towards the one person who arranged all of her care during those last few months, as she'd been to both of us for most of our lives.
Some people just should not have children, and our mother was one of them. But have them she did, and here we are.
Funny how neither my sister nor I had children.
There's a running meme in our society that it is selfish to not hae children; that those of us who are not reproducing prefer to live lives of unabashed hedonism instead of being responsible adults. When you grew up in a home like my sister and I did, it's impossible to believe that everyone that has children is a responsible adult, let alone that everyone should have children. And when I look at some of the parenting going on -- people who dump their babies with their parents every couple of months to take yet another exotic vacation, helicopter parents who are taking calls from their kids all day long because God forbid the kid should have an after school snack without reporting in to Mom -- I wonder even more. I know a few people who are GREAT parents. One in particular has kids who are happy and fearless; they do things as a family like skiing and dog agility, these kids play hockey and violin and do Irish dancing because they've asked to. They're not overscheduled kids, they just see Mom and Dad doing trying new fun things and they do it too. If she could have two dozen kids it would be a gift to society. But there are many people who just shouldn't have kids. Whether it's because they were unloved in childhood as our mother was, or because they're immature, or because they just don't really like kids but Mom is nagging them, they just shouldn't.
Then there are the financial issues. There's no denying that kids cost money -- a LOT of money. When I was growing up, I'm not sure anyone thought about this much, because there were things like lifetime job security and reasonably-priced medical care. But today, in a society in which full-time jobs have been replaced by contract work that can be terminated at any time, in which there isn't a single field other than the highest echelons of finance that pays more than it did thirty years ago, when people are underwater on their mortgages and an inexpensive college education costs six figures, the built-in stress of guiding a person from childhood to adulthood is exacerbated by constant, gnawing financial fear -- and an inability to save for one's own declining years at a time when defined-benefit pensions are a thing of the past and the Republicans continue to aim their AR-15 of austerity and greed towards Social Security.
Why would anyone have children today under these condition? And more women are just saying no. We know that Ross Douchebag in the New York Times
plows this particular furrow with creepy and frequent ferocity But the unwillingness of women to reproduce in a society which offers little upward mobility for the poor and almost certain downward mobility to those clinging to the remnants of the middle class like Frodo clinging to the cliff over the fires of Mount Doom (but with no gallant and faithful Samwise Gamgee to save it) irritates Jonathan Last to no end
. And he's girding his frustrated loins to blame the inevitable Japanification of America on these women who are shirking their patriotic duty:
Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff. Those are all just symptoms. What America really faces is a demographic cliff: The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.
The fertility rate is the number of children an average woman bears over the course of her life. The replacement rate is 2.1. If the average woman has more children than that, population grows. Fewer, and it contracts. Today, America's total fertility rate is 1.93, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it hasn't been above the replacement rate in a sustained way since the early 1970s.
The nation's falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country's fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem—a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall—has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.
There's a constellation of reasons for this decline: Middle-class wages began a long period of stagnation. College became a universal experience for most Americans, which not only pushed people into marrying later but made having children more expensive. Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men. More important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing. And the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.
In WHAT decade are we? And we're still blaming the Pill? Yes, because being a slave to biology is SUCH a societal good and what those uppity wimmen needs is a lot less edjamacation! Last also blames Social Security, not because of what it costs, but because it reduced the burden of caring for elderly adults. What he doesn't discuss, however, is how such children (usually daughters) are supposed to care for an infirm parent while working an 80-hour week because worker productivity must keep increasing so companies can hire less people. Even if said children are entrepreneurs, it still takes 80 hours a week to run even a moderately successful business. What does Last suggest, that women return to dependency on husbands who are scrambling from temp job to temp job?
I think about the children of my friends, who will leave college with a minimum of $50,000 in college loans before they even get a job -- a job that will pay the same in inflation-adjusted dollars as it would have thirty years ago. And that's the ones who can even find jobs, as even the retail jobs that used to be the jobs of last resort dwindle to a precious few. I see how these kids are starting out with both hands tied behind their backs and a ball and chain on one leg. I see how the billionaires are regarding everyone who isn't in their club as simply an obstacle to them getting, as Charles Koch said recently, "their fair share -- which is ALL of it". I see a generation entering adulthood with absolutely no hope that their adult lives will be even as good as their childhoods were, let alone better. I see an older generation unable to leave the workforce because they've put most of their money into their kids and what savings they had were decimated in the crash of 2008. We are all STUCK -- with no way out. And writers like Jonathan Last are saying the solution is to bring yet more children into this.
We already see the value that is placed on caring for the elderly. A home health agency will charge twenty dollars an hour, and the aide makes ten -- to feed and clothe and bathe an infirm person that may not be coherent; to clean up their bathroom messes and sometimes tolerate verbal abuse from people railing against that good night. And they're supposed to do it with a smile. For ten bucks an hour. That's the value our society places on the daughters that people like Jonathan Last want to see out of the work force and back home where they belong, caring for Mom so Charles Koch doesn't have to kick in a few bucks more.
Labels: elder care, personal musings, social policy