I've thought about that moment a lot over the course of my career since, and it's not the last time I've had a student indicate that the fact that she has given birth to and mothered a child makes her specially qualified in the interpretation of literature. I no longer reveal whether I have children to my classes, and when those comments come up, I now respond directly in a way that indicates I don't agree that motherhood has anything to do with one's ability to read or to understand literary texts.
Now, you might be thinking, "But these are students! It is your job to teach them! What do silly and uninformed comments like these have to do with your life outside of the classroom?" Well, I'll tell you. I have finally made the connection that the above feels in many ways identical to what I feel when I read some comments to recent blog posts, here, but also elsewhere. It's not just uninformed students who believe that parenthood operates as a special qualification that trumps all other things. It's not just uninformed students who believe that people without children should change what they think to better accommodate the feelings and needs of people with them.
Take my post about academic casualties, a post that was all about how the choices of women across experiences are shaped by a career in academia. I had the audacity to refer to my childless status as "unencumbered," and to take pleasure in thinking of it that way. How dare I? Well, never fear: I was upbraided:
I get your point, but honestly while I don't care for "child-free' or "childless," I equally don't care for "unencumbered," because it implies that those with children and/or partners are encumbered. Ick. As if my child were a burden, a limit, a restraint. NO WAY.Here's the thing. When I used that word, I wasn't saying anything about anybody else's situation. I was talking about my own. And I'm a person who wants children, but I'm also a realist. I will not have the freedom that I have now if I have a child. Period. I will be tied down in a way that I am not tied down right now. Raising children, as parents so often like to remind non-parents, is the "toughest job you'll ever do" and this is the reason so many parents need so much accommodation from us empty-womb types, right? So yes, having internalized all of those messages, I think that right now I am relatively "unencumbered." And it's my blog, and it's completely fine for me to use that word and to feel that way, right? Except it isn't, because apparently I'm not qualified to pick my own words. I'm not a mother.
Sure, I don't have all the time in the world to myself, and I definitely miss certain aspects of my life pre-child, but I don't see my life being limited or restrained by my child. I'm on the tenure-track and, while I might not be as productive as my "unencumbered" colleagues, I don't see that as a problem. It's just the way it is. (Of course, check back in a few years: if I'm denied tenure because I demonstrated limited scholarly engagement, well then maybe I'll rethink this position, but I still wouldn't consider myself "encumbered." Again, ick.
Great post otherwise!
Or take Tenured Radical, who wrote a brilliant post about service obligations and saying no. The post is quite lengthy, but TR dares to include three offensive sentences:
"At the risk of the hard-working parents who do come to work and carry a fair load with the rest of us, I need to ask: if you have a child and I don't, and we get paid the same salary, why am I doing your work for you? I didn't have children because I wanted the time: instead, I got no child and I got no time. You get someone to help you navigate the nursing home, I'll end up with a big bottle of Klonopin mixed in a bowl of ice cream."How dare TR have an opinion? How dare she, even though she is careful to acknowledge the hard-working parents who do not fit into the category she describes, have a problem with doing parents' work for them? Well, never fear: she was upbraided:
"At the risk of annoying the hard-working parents who do come to work and carry a fair load with the rest of us,"Or maybe this is not just an illusion. Maybe Tenured Radical was actually stating something that was a "real problem." Why is it that when people without children have the audacity to note that in their experience they have to pick up the slack for people with children that the counterargument amounts to, "surely that one group, of which I am a member, isn't more of a problem in this regard than any other group! You clearly are exaggerating out of a prejudice against parents!" Why is it that the opinion of child-free folks about this issue has absolutely no validity and is always dismissed? Why do parents get to define the "real problems of organizational culture" and not people without children? Look, some parents use their children to get out of work. People without children often have to do that work in the stead of these parents. That happens, people. It is really annoying, and it's not fair. And it is totally ok to speak that truth.
Yes, you certainly annoyed this one, even though I like much else about this post, and I usually love your blog. Are people with kids really the problem here? And note, when 'people with kids' are attacked, it's generally 'women with kids' that is heard. The rest of the post identifies much of the real problems of organizational culture, deliberate incompetence etc. I'm sure people with children are part of that, but I really don't think we're disproportionately so. Maybe we're just a disproportionately easy target.
Except apparently it isn't. If it were, so many parents wouldn't sweep the internet policing any opinions that they perceive as anti-parent. I read a good number of blogs by parents, and I don't go over to their places and tell them that all of their opinions and experiences are wrong. I don't tell them what words they're allowed to use, or what they're allowed to post about. And yet, if I dare to utter a word about attempting to negotiate a workplace (mine) that typically bends over backwards to accommodate parents while it does not offer similar accommodation to non-childed workers, people do not extend me the same courtesy.
Even more weird is that whether one is actually a mother is kind of beside the point, it seems. What matters is whether one defines oneself as writing "as a mother" or not. Nobody knows whether Historiann has a child or not unless they know her in real life. But every time she dares to have an opinion about something related to motherhood or parenting, you can guess what happens.
Recently, Historiann wrote a post in which she considered discourses on breastfeeding in relation to patriarchal equilibrium. She concludes the post:
The B.I. [Breastfeeding Imperative] is brilliant: it links women with children once again, and because of the time and work involved, it prevents women from engaging in paid employment. It’s a patriarchal equilibrium twofer! Awesome. Let’s change that old expression, “barefoot and pregnant” to “nursing and topless,” shall we? (And, let’s try to keep things civil here, folks. Whether you have experience with nursing or bottles or none of the above, they’re all different legitimate experiences. There is no one right way to feed a baby or to raise a child–as a feminist philosopher friend of mine used to say, “that kind of thinking only makes sense if all women and all children are exactly alike.” And, of course, we’re not.)
But you know where this will lead, right? Because nobody knows whether Historiann has birthed any babies, she's not really authorized to have opinions about breastfeeding. And on top of that, she uses the word "breeders" at one point. How dare she? Well, never fear: she was upbraided (and actually, I was, too! Even though I didn't even leave a comment to that post!):
I think the reason my hackles end up getting raised in these conversations (here and at Dr. Crazy’s, where because I love her so much I couldn’t even bring myself to comment) is that there is always an edge to these posts when written by folks without kids, as though you are resentful of the choices those of us with kids have made. I’d love to be wrong, I’m just saying that’s how I read it. I would love to read a post about mothering from someone who isn’t a mom that doesn’t feel like an attack. Maybe it’s because I always knew I wanted kids, but I never felt derision towards women with children (maybe the kids at times, but never the moms or dads), and it wasn’t long ago I was in that category.
Let me state some things clearly and for the record. I resent being told that my opinions don't matter. I resent the fact that if I have an opinion I'm seen as waging an attack. I feel derision against people (women, men, whomever) who suggest that my opinions are the result of not "always" knowing I wanted kids, as if somehow "always knowing I wanted kids" would make me compassionate, kind, accepting, etc., and as if not knowing that means that I'm the opposite of those things. You know what I don't resent? The choices that other people make. Make any choices you want. Have opinions that you want. Do what you want. I don't actually understand why I'd resent parents' choices, unless those choices directly affect me. Similarly, I don't understand why parents would resent mine, unless my choices directly affect them. To each her own, I say.
But don't tell me what I should think or what words I'm allowed to use. Don't expect me to believe that the needs of parents are somehow more important than the needs of other workers. Because I just don't believe that. The fact of the matter is, I don't identify as "child-free" and I've not chosen not to have children in some sort of decisive fashion. I think that I'd like to have a child. But I don't think that having a child would be some special contribution to the world. I don't think that it would be an accomplishment. I don't think that it would somehow mean that my opinions or beliefs would be more valid than those of people without children.
Further, I don't believe that because I don't have children that my opinions or beliefs are more valid than those of people who do. I think that, ultimately, if we're going to have an honest conversation about parenting and the workplace, it's probably more important to listen to a variety of perspectives rather than policing those perspectives that differ from our own. I think it probably makes sense to consider that people without children who note the ways in which their professional lives are affected by colleagues with children may be talking about something that is real. I think it probably makes sense to consider the ways in which women - whether they have children or not - are inscribed within discourses about motherhood, and the negative consequences of that inscription. I think it probably makes sense to agree that if a person writes a blog, she probably has the authority to make decisions about that blog's content, about the words that she will use, and about the ideas that she explores. I think it probably makes sense to agree that when we comment on other people's blogs we probably should engage with what they wrote, we should not resort to ad hominem arguments, and we should not assume that people who are writing for a public audience are attacking that audience and attacking that audience's choices.
I don't feel like I'm incomplete because I don't have a child or partner, and I don't think that women who do have those things are complete because they have them. I don't think that children should be used as an air-tight excuse for getting out of unpleasant tasks, and I don't think that colleagues without children should be expected to look the other way when colleagues with children do this. I believe that if we're going to talk about equitable workloads in universities, we've got to address the needs of all workers, and I don't think that the needs of parents should come first. I don't think that it's my responsibility to talk about parenting or motherhood in a way that parents or mothers approve. I'm not hostile to parents or to children or to helping to accommodate colleagues. I'm not judging women who have children, or attacking them. I'm not resentful of them, nor am I envious of them. I don't look down on people just because they have children, nor do I admire people just because they don't have children. I don't, ultimately, judge people by whether or not they've procreated. All I'm asking for is the same courtesy. How dare I?