Friday, December 08, 2006

Some days you make the choice, some days the choice makes you

There have of late, in my corner of the blogosphere, been a number of brilliantly written and pensive posts (see links below) about the balancing, for women, of life and work, about creativity of both the Artist and the Offspring varieties, about choices made and chances lost, about what we choose and why we choose it and how we react when the gods step in and deliver some cruel, wild blow of chance.

The most recent of these posts is Ampersand Duck's heartbreaking tale of her recent days, and the end of what she says is her last attempt at having a second child.

A. Duck and I share a gynaecological peculiarity -- she's talked about it somewhere on her blog, but I can't find it -- that makes it considerably more difficult to have children and may explain, in my case, why I'm practically the only woman of my age I know who has never accidentally conceived. Or not, at least, to my knowledge; apparently, very early miscarriages can sometimes disguise themselves as a particularly challenging period, so you'd never know for sure.

I don't have kids, being from a generation of women for whom if you wanted to survive in academe it was almost fatal to get pregnant, and almost impossible to establish, develop and sustain the kind of relationship you'd want to be well into before you even thought about having kids. (Some years ago I wrote a whole essay about what academic life used to be like for women, and no doubt to some extent still is: it's here.)

By the time I got out of the academy, the maternal moment was well past; I think the day I realised that particular option had closed was the day the man in the furniture van delivered my new sofa, and I looked at its blinding, spotless whiteness and realised my subconscious had spoken.

I'd made a series of smaller situational choices along the way, choices about career and money and blokes and circs, but on the whole my non-maternal status had been an incremental closing-down, more like Gertrude Stein's line about her gradual estrangement from her brother: 'Little by little we never met again.'

The strange (normal for cats, though: I swear that this is true) malformation of the girly bits and the resulting limited capacity for (human) childbearing was only discovered in my late 40s when I went through a girly-bits reckoning with which I shall not bore you. Suffice it to say that when I looked back on the infinite time, trouble, money and mess involved over my decades of careful contraception, the irony of it struck me dumb for days.

Before this discovery, there was also the truly ghastly moment at which the gynaecologist, almost young enough to be my daughter, looked me sternly in the 47-year-old eye and said firmly 'Now, before we go on, is there any chance at all that you could be pregnant?'

I had opened my mouth to say 'Don't be silly, people my age don't get pregnant' when I remembered that she was, after all, a gynaecologist. The words died on my lips.

I thought about it.

Slowly and carefully, I lowered my head to her desk and banged it a couple of times. Hard.

Silently, she handed me a specimen jar and pointed down the hall to the loo.

Negative, of course. But in the interval between the head-banging and the test-checking, I faced a number of hard questions. Hypothetical father: impossible. Income: shoestring freelance. Age at the hypothetical child's 21st birthday party: 68. And yet, and yet ...

It wasn't the worst moment of my life, but it's on the shortlist.

But it's not really a matter of sadness or regret for me, not having kids. I would not have been the world's greatest mum by a very long way. I am absent-minded, and a bit over-anxious about the helpless and vulnerable. I dislike being financially or emotionally dependent on anyone else even for a short time, and I dislike being interrupted when reading or writing or thinking. Someone's had a lucky escape.

For those who think my absence of angst about this makes me an unnatural woman, I can only reply that what it makes me is an un-cultural woman. We live in a culture still deeply, deeply steeped in the notion that a woman with no children is some kind of pitiable freak, and a woman with no children who isn't hysterical about her childlessness must be evil as well. I've been fortunate in the circles in which I move, where those views aren't widely held.

Which brings me to my real point. Thinking about A. Duck's experiences and my own reproductive non-history brings to mind Virginia Hausegger, who is a former student of mine, so I am no doubt one of the traitorous feminists she blames for the fact that she has no children, because of 'the golden promises of our feminist foremothers' (NB: I don't know who she'd been reading, I'm sure) that she could 'have it all'.

But the very notion of being 'betrayed by feminism' is kind of bizarre. Those who live by any ideological framework and personalise it enough to be able to feel 'betrayed' by it when it doesn't meet their expectations were playing a mug's game in the first place.

My own take on this question is the exact opposite: feminism has helped me make my way through what has not, at this time and in this place, been a particularly typical woman's life. It's shown me that I had choices, shown me what they were, predicted (rightly) what the difficulties would be, given me a framework for understanding and dealing with those difficulties, and given me a vocabulary in which to think and talk about them. Institutional feminism, 20 years ago, provided for me a brand-new Equal Opportunity Officer with whose help I negotiated the crucial point in my academic career. Literary feminism, all my adult life, has given me an array of models for a thinking, reading, writing life without children: Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Jane Austen, Christina Stead, Colette, the Simones Weil and de Beauvoir and countless others.

I don't know what my life would have been like if I'd had kids, or how different it would have been. I've seen and done enough in life to know just how chancy the whole reproductive business is. But anyone who'd like to see me wringing my hands and wailing about having produced no Pavlov's Kittens for posterity is going to have to wait a bloody long time.

Lest some ill-willed sod should ever turn up with a camera in one hand and an overblown sense of symbolism in the other, however, there's always fruit in my bowl. Just in case.

More texts for Life Management for Women 101. Perhaps an anthology ... :

Ampersand Duck
Kate Moment

Heroines, every one.


TimT said...

Thanks for this post, PC. As a young guy who grew up with three brothers, I guess I'm pretty complacent about my place in the world and as a result I can be pretty insensitive to women from time to time, but posts like this - although I'm sure they're more aimed at a female audience - really do help give me a bit of perspective.

And your writing is so damned good! So, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I've just been reading Julie Phillips' biography of Alice Sheldon, who fooled the sf community by writing with great power in the male persona of James Tiptree Jr. She was also a child explorer in Africa, a woman soldier, a CIA agent, psychologist, artist and finally died in a murder suicide. It's very intense stuff, but repeatedly as I read I thought: this is the story of clever/gifted women in the 20th century. It resonated, as a great biography should. And yes, Tiptree faced much of the stuff you mention in yr and the other blogs, with great courage.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for a great post. I have children, but the first one was an accident, so I often wonder what my life would have been like if that accident hadn't happened.

It's not a socially acceptable thing to wonder, though, only women without children are allowed to have regrets.

I don't have regrets; I just think that I would have had a just as enjoyable life (but very different) without children.

comicstriphero said...

Breathtakingly good post.

Georg Hibberd said...

Fantastic post PC.

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh, that's such a good summary. Thanks for all the links, all of which I've read but now I know where to go for the Full Picture.

You are a lovely writer, there is no doubt.

As for our shared attribute, Zoe aptly calls it a Heart-Shaped Box. Lovely concept, cranky-making to live with.

GS said...

Thanks for the great post.

(I keep deleting my personal response)...lets just say it pushed a few well timed buttons :)

JahTeh said...

I was considered quite strange for having a tubal ligation at 24 after one child but I never regreted it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. Great post. Honoured to be included in the companion anthology.

To some extent, I've never really understood the 'betrayed by feminism' thing, given that it was always about negotiating difficult choices.

Ampersand Duck said...

Forgot to say before: Alice Sheldon is one of my heroes too (I don't think she'd like being called a heroine).

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding repetitive: great post. Illuminating and thoughtful, brilliantly written (ditto for the links).

I agree that feminism is about negotiating difficult choices involving love, career, children, creativity, personal achievement. Nobody has found The Answer about how to Do It All. (Surely you can't - not satisfactorily, anyway.) There's truth in the cliche 'you can't have your cake and eat it too'. I interpret feminism to be about equal opportunity to pursue these things, not equal entitlement to Have It All.

And the negotiations are tough, albeit different for everyone. Thanks for the insight into yours.

Anna Winter said...

Oh, thank you for this post, Dr. Cat.

While it's a decision that I'm perfectly comfortable with not to have kids, it's still nice to get a break from the "you'll change your mind" response one normally receives.

cristy said...

I read your post yesterday and it prompted so many thoughts for me that I forgot to leave a comment to say how much I enjoyed it.

Thank you.

Mindy said...

Great post Dr Cat.

When my Mum remarried she was in her early 50's and I was 28. I was having fertility treatment and she was getting checked out by the Doc to ensure that falling pregnant wasn't going to be an option for her. It was a bit weird for all of us. Fortunately things went right for both of us and she now has grandchildren, rather than more children of her own.

Some particularly hectic days I wonder what it would have been like not to have kids, then I feel awful, and then I think that I'll put those thoughts away in a box and just be thankful for what I've got. I made my choice and I'm happy. The grass may be greener on the other side, but ya still gotta mow it.

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Blue said...

Wonderful post PC - you are a fantastic writer. I read Virginia's book and it felt like the whinge of a small child - it raised some interesting discussion points for my friends and I regarding choice and the notion that if you are not aware you have it, do you? Still not sure I have an answer...

Anonymous said...

Dr Cat, here's another of this amazing crop of posts, this one from Cristy two peas no pod

comicstriphero said...

Gee anonymous, you could've at least stayed on topic.

Anonymous said...

Reading the other posts in the anthology helps put my little career-crisis into perspective, but I'm honoured at the inclusion.

I also want to echo the other people on your brilliant, clear writing.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Sorry, CSH, that was a hilarious comment but I just had to remove the evil spam posted by Anonymous. If one were to sit an evil spammer down in a chair with a cup of tea and say 'Now then, evil spammer, justify your behaviour', I wonder what s/he would say.

Thanks for all these responses, folks -- good to have struck a chord. TimT -- the piece is 'aimed at women' only in the sense that I was fairly sure it would interest only women, so I'm glad you (and some other blokes, it seems) read it and got something out of it.

I should have added that I neither 'like' nor 'dislike' children -- I feel the same way about them as I do about adults. Some you adore, and some you want to ship to Antarctica.

Anonymous said...

It's a topic that always reminds me of Oprah saying 'sure you can have it all, just not all at the same time'.

It's not a long academic treatise, but it sums it up nicely. Feminism doesn't 'give' us anything. It merely reminds us of our right to make our own decisions, and be grown ups. I think Virginia Hausegger missed the point somewhere along the line. You taught me once upon a time too incidentally, as far as I recall you stuck to discussions of the set texts and the importance of handing essays in on time, so my reproductive decisions aren't something I'd blame you for.

One of my other lecturers did influence my decision to have my unplanned baby. She didn't influence me on purpose, and she wasn't the only factor, but watching her deal with unsuccessful IVF for a few years in her late 30s definitely had an impact.

p.s. I don't like being interrupted when I'm reading and writing either, and I'm also rather absent minded, the little tacker will just have to learn to live with it.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

'You taught me once upon a time too incidentally, as far as I recall you stuck to discussions of the set texts and the importance of handing essays in on time'

Heh. Yes, that was definitely me. Haven't changed, either.

Good on you for going ahead with the unplanned one. I would have, too.

Mindy said...

Being a Gen Xer feminism was pretty much going strong when I became aware of it, and I remember 'getting' the message from some quarters that we Gen X women should be trying to have it all because of what those women who had started the whole movement had done for us. It was almost like it was an obligation to take what had been given to us and do everything that women before had been unable to do because of lack of contraception, no acceptance in the workplace etc. To not try and have it all would be a sort of betrayal of all they had fought for. I'm not saying that message came from all feminists, but I think there were some who felt that they'd missed out a bit on the benefits so those who came after had to bloody well do their bit. This was around the time that the message about putting off kids until later so you had your career etc started to come out too. So it's not surprising in a way that many women are now turning around and saying 'You said I could have it all'. Voices of reason like yours Dr Cat seem to have been lost a bit in the shouting I think.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, PC.

I see women of a certain age who are comfortable without children as strong and whole, because I was one of those incomplete women who imagined a child would complete her. Which, oddly enough, did happen. It was only after I had a child that I found the fulfilment to get on with other things in life. You? you got on with things anyway.

I had mixed feelings about Haussinger's book (funny that she was your student!). I thought it pathetic, dishonest and indulgent on the one hand, but on the other, that kind of grief can distort your thinking. Without my child I did feel empty and grief-stricken, because I had a constant, nagging, visceral longing. It may, as you suggest, have been more social than natural: I just don't know. I don't imagine for a minute this emptiness is true of all women (clearly not yourself). And in a sense, I'm thankful you didn't have children, because you're a prolific talent. Love your work. Just read your linked essay (about men and universities), and it so impressed me that I've abandoned one of my own, on an entirely different matter, because yours has shown me just how much my clumsy, haphazard thinking and prose doesn't measure up, damn you. You're certainly the real thing. Thanks so much for this.

(Oh, and I agree with Laura on LP: this IS ENTIRELY POLITICAL.)

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Thanks, Mindy, that's the best explanation I've seen. In fact it's the only explanation I've seen. You're right, I would never have said such a stupid thing. The only time I ever get cross along the lines of 'We worked so hard' is when I see young women saying feminism is passe and they don't need it because we're all equal now.

My answers to which are

(a) Horsesh*t we are all equal now. We are still living under patriarchy and some of us are more equal than others still, and will continue to be till the childbearing/rearing thing gets sorted out.

(b) Said young women have no historical knowledge of how impossible it was, how recently, for a woman to do anything much at all unless under the aegis of either father or husband. These things were enshrined in legal and other infrastructures in ways one did not realise until one came smack up against them. When I got married at 19 in the mid-70s, I had so much trouble trying to keep my own name (with the taxation department, the university, and the then indispinsable private medical insurance, for a start) that in the end I gave up, and when I wanted to revert to my own name after the divorce, I had to change it back by deed poll. Even at that daily-life level, that's how oppressive it was. Women who are, say, 25 in 2006 have no idea about this, or do not (hi ThirdCat) have their listening ears on when their mothers tell them about it.

And if they don't believe that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, they should go over and have a look at the almost exclusively male comments threads on some of the right-wing blogs.

Anon: no no no! When you see writing that you like, it is supposed to inspire you, not deflate you! Start again at once!

Anonymous said...

Heh! It DID inspire me, Madam PC. It inspired me to close my laptop, do some gardening, and put off writing stuff until I've got more interesting things to say.

(Did I mention your essay was stupendous? I read it out to my partner, who FINALLY seems to understand the intricacies of sexual politics. But he asked, with regard to your two male colleagues bullying you with a sexist joke: "Does it make any difference if the joke's funny?")

Anonymous said...

Now that I've had a bit of time to reflect on Mindy's thoughts... Maybe the problem is that people confuse the idea of 'having it all' and 'doing it all'. You can have a career and children, you can't (unless you can live on two hours sleep a day) work full-time and do all the housework, and take primary responsibility for a couple of kids.

In many fields women (and men) who want a career and time with their kids are discriminated against because part-time jobs don't lead them up the career ladder in the way that full-time jobs can. It should be possible to have both, but the reality for a lot of individuals and families is rather different. Heterosexual women's working and reproductive choices still rely pretty heavily on what men do, and what they are prepared to change about their working lives and relationships. What bugged me most about Hausegger's argument (I read an article she wrote, but not the book, I might have missed something) was that it didn't engage with that point at all. She didn't seem to hold any of the men in her life accountable anymore than she did herself.

We all make decisions, sometimes we make decisions we regret later and we have to find ways to live with them. Sometimes there's a clear cut moment, sometimes it just creeps up on us. Most of us acknowledge that we make the best decisions we can within the environment we've been born into. We accept that we can't have a perfect life because we've got to negotiate an imperfect world. Then we do what we can to change the world incrementally.

The real story is how the sons of feminists have grown up and are becoming fathers - about how they expect to be involved in pregnancy and childcare, assume that their partner will have a career and that it will be just as important as his, and are horrified by the idea that bank managers used not to give women car loans without approval from their husband. It's not a state of mind that applies to all blokes under 40, but it's a bigger proportion of them than it ever has been before, and I think that's a win for Feminism.

Mindy said...

It's true that 'having it all' and 'doing it all' are often thought to be the same thing, and I've tried to 'do it all' with just one child and found it bloody difficult. Being a stay at home mum with two kids just about drove me insane until I told my husband that unless he came home from work earlier I was going on holiday with the baby and leaving him to look after our son for a few days. He comes home earlier now and does more stuff with the kids. But enough about me.

Women who try to 'have it all with help' lets call it, like a nanny are accused of farming out the raising of their children to someone else so that they can 'selfishly' have a career too. Mostly by other women. One woman who dared say that she'd rather work and have her kids in childcare and that they were all happier that way was virtually lynched (weekend paper a couple of weeks ago, anyone?). Some days I think I've failed Feminism 101.

I think one of the problems is that there is a perception that the current crop of Gen X and Y women have let the side down a bit in terms of feminism and that we are coasting along on the work of those that went before us and if we keep coasting instead of pedalling then we are going to start going backwards. As Dr PC pointed out we are still well behind men in many areas. But I don't think we can blame it all on men anymore. As I said before some of the most vocal critics of women are other women. This is not a criticism of the first feminists. We have a lot to thank them for, I just think we've lost direction somewhat and started sniping at each other because we have different ideas about what constitutes feminism.

I also think the definition of feminism needs to be reworked or perhaps fractured into new 'post-feminism' and 'Gen X feminism' etc definitions because it's all a bit confused now and feminism is in someways a dirty word. The church is now too broad to be easily defined.

Anonymous said...

I had a wierdly cheering feminist moment during a coffee break from computer training at my old job. It was an admin job, most of the other women were a little older than me (with young kids) and had a high school level education. Our bosses were also there, one of them is a woman in her 60s, with 35 years of Practical Feminism behind her. I don't know how the conversation got there, but she an one of the other mature ladies were telling the youngsters about starting work on less pay than men doing the same job. They remembered the difficulties of keeping a job after getting married (because they might get pregnant) and trying to get childcare in the 70s. One of the other young women turned to me after hearing about unequal pay and said "did you know about that?".

My colleagues were sadly under-educated on matters of feminist history, which is appalling, but they were completely shocked by the idea that women and men might be paid differently, which I found reassuring. That is what we're fighting for - that even very conservative women take such a feminist principle for granted.

genevieve said...

The fruit in my bowl is often withered, and I'm absent minded, withdrawn to the point of abstraction and occasionally rather short tempered to boot. I'm not quite sure if that means the kids should keep me or not.
Wonderful anthology, PC, thank you for your contribution and your collecting. I agree that so much of the hard work done by earlier feminists has been submerged - I was trying to remind some younger relatives a while ago of what it was like to be expected to be silent while men are speaking of certain things - like cricket, for example. They had no idea what I was talking about, and I am only 46 (albeit from a very conservative space originally.)
I do like that line about mowing the grass.

Kaethe said...

I think the "feminists tricked us about having it all" idea is a common conflation. The feminism I recall from my youth was primarily about equal legal rights and bodily autonomy. "Having it all" wasn't feminism, it was marketing. It was the women's magazines (never progressive) and advertisers and movies like Baby Boom that offered the archetype of the corporate executive who is also a fabulous mommy with a handsome thoughtful husband. She was a woman who could do it all without any help from anyone, except the makers of various fine products. Feminism, then, was about promoting childcare, and flextime, and fair employment, and other real-life solutions to inequality. Feminism never pretended any woman could have it all, it was too aware that women couldn't even get their share.

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