Oh, TIME Magazine. You’ve done it again.
Last summer, you asked moms if they were “mom enough” by showing a picture of a perfect mom complete with a flat stomach, skinny jeans, and a breastfeeding toddler, insinuating that moms who didn’t look that way and breastfeed until their child was well past old enough to feed himself weren’t good enough at being moms.
Now, you’ve delved into the other side of the issue: the childfree side. After all, you can’t leave us couples without children out. (Let’s not even mention the fact that, to you, it seems that there are two options: the super mom and the not-a-mom.)
True, more women than ever are deciding not to have children. In fact, according to the TIME article, the U.S. birthrate is the lowest it has ever been. Ever. This is newsworthy. In fact, under other circumstances, I’d be elated that the mainstream media has latched onto this idea. As someone who has often wrote and spoken out about not wanting kids – or, more recently, wanting them on my own timeframe without pressure from literally EVERYONE IN THE WORLD TO DO IT RIGHT NOW – I’m glad to see the mainstream media latching on to the idea that not having children is a viable option. However, between the cover pictured above and a few other articles with accompanying photos (The Guardian, for example), it seems that the attitude toward childfree couples is still very much one that assumes wealth, free time, and whiteness.
Now, many working moms will say – and have said to me – that this is because of the simple fact that, when you are not a mom, you simply have more free time. But is that really true? And why is it that moms don’t have that coveted free time when it seems their husbands have no problem taking a day off to golf or a few hours out to watch a game?
Sarah Jaffe has some ideas in a recent In These Times article. It’s a fantastic article, and I highly recommend you read all of it, but here are some gems in case you don’t have unlimited leisure time to read the whole thing (pun most definitely intended):
And public policy has a huge impact on gender equality, Gornick notes. ‘There’s no question that young couples get together and envision gender symmetrical lives, but the minute the kid is born the dreams start to fall apart. The childcare situation is terrible, there’s no high quality part-time work. Finally you realize that it actually does make sense for somebody to stay home, and it tends to be her because she was the lower earner but also because of all the social pressure. If she does it it’s admirable and normal, if he does it, it raises questions.’
This really resonated with me. For the amount of time Tim and I have discussed a gender-equal partnership, there is no question that, since I will be carrying and nursing a baby when that time comes, there will be a sharp division of labor, and one that is going to be very difficult to correct once our child is more independent, but we’ve spent a number of years already dividing the roles between caregiver and other work.
The question of opting in or opting out, is a question reserved for women who have economic options in the first place. For the vast majority of us, money is the limiting factor, not time. Our choices are proscribed by what we can afford, not whether we will have time to “have it all.” Choosing not to have kids doesn’t magically open up time and money for leisure when your hours are priced at $7.25; having children, on the other hand, can be a ticket straight to poverty.
Sarah Kendzior noted, the reality for most mothers is that they’re strapped. “From 2004 to 2010, cost of childbirth rose by 50 percent. Average out of pocket costs: $3400. That’s with insurance. Most pay more. Now you decide whether to work. Average cost of daycare is $11,666 per year. You have two kids, pay more for childcare than average rent.
This states more eloquently than I ever could a dismantling of the idea that childfree couples are wealthy and lying on a beach somewhere. For those of us who cannot afford extravagant beach vacations, not having a child often means more work and less play, especially if they are living at poverty level. This isn’t to mention the fact that, often, work is handed to those who don’t have children at home because those who do will not have time to do it.
However, the crux of the article is that women should demand more leisure time:
None of this is to say that there are not genuine pleasures in caring for children or indeed in one’s paid work. But it is to say that neither one is enough for a fulfilling life, and the idea that women should cheerily do both has meant an unfair amount of work. Caring for children, Gornick notes, is a social good, not merely an individual concern. And in creating policies that allow for a better distribution of leisure, we will also need things like (well-funded) child care and early childhood education, which allow children to be well cared for when parents aren’t around.
We need to argue, then, not just for the ability to “balance” two kinds of work, but for the right to free time—to leisure and pleasure. As women, we need to do so particularly because the idea that “family” is the only option outside of “work” is a dated, sexist ideal whether or not one has children, wants them, or can’t stand the sight of them. We will be closer to gender equality when we argue that just like men, we have interests outside of the home and the workplace.
For women, work-life balance is often a misnomer. “Life,” in most cases,” is code for “family.” There is no life in the balance and that is why, as The Atlantic so eloquently put it, women still can’t have it all. “All” is not work and family, “all” is work, family, and free time. Men can have it because they demand it and, lucky them, society systematically pushes most of the housework on women, freeing up a lot of their time. Women, stuck with the brunt of the housework load and working outside of the home, cannot.
This is exactly what terrifies me about having children. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to gain my free time back until my child is 18 and off to college because that is what society expects of us. It’s a more nuanced argument than making choices and sticking to them; often, that is impossible when the demands and the bar for success raise with each subsequent child.
Luckily, Tim read the In These Times article at my request, and he and I had a great talk about it. He understands the need for free time, and he also has no interest in functioning as a babysitter to “my” children. He wants to be a dad – a real dad – not hired help.
I’ll have some work to do, though. After teaching all day, if I come home to our child and decide I would rather go out to get drinks with my girlfriends than spending time with the kid, I’ll feel an immense amount of guilt. Will that be intrinsic or will it be because society says that I should spend every moment I can with my baby? Is it something I can talk myself out of for one afternoon, telling myself that Tim deserves alone time with the kid, too, or is it something that will haunt me forever?
I suppose I’ll never know until that time, but, as feminists (and as women), it seems like we still have some work to do in this area.
Photo Credit: TIME Magazine