The Duck of Minerva

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Bad Advice on Making Academic Babies: opting in and out of heteronormative panic

September 15, 2014

What I remember most about my post-grad Gender and Politics seminar were the extensive discussions we had about having babies. It was 2004, and debates about babies vs careers, and whether women should ‘opt out‘ to raise families, were heated and divisive. Women were told in the 1980s and 1990s that the highest feminist aspiration was to wear oversize, terrible suits and work alongside men- as equals (or at least work alongside men, while accepting less pay and dealing with harassment). This was followed by the movement to denounce the double-day; the New York Times and Time Magazine led the charge in declaring that women wanted out of the work force, and were empowered by the choice to stay at home and raise children. Less than a decade later, it was declared that ‘women couldn’t have it all‘- the career, family balance was a loose loose choice. We had been duped. The opt out luxury was always ‘fiction‘ that only really applied to white middle-class women. Forbes pointed out that opt-out mom’s were unable to catch up in their careers and Al Jazeera concluded that women weren’t opting out, they were out of options. The opt out women ‘wanted back in‘ (are you confused yet about what *good* feminists should want??). Perhaps the culmination of this back and forth comes in Linda Hirshman’s book, ‘Get to Work…And Get a Life Before it is too Late.’ Hirshman calls ‘opting out’ a form of ‘self-betrayal’ (and also encourages women to only have one child).
Entangled within this debate were mixed messages about how to ‘time’ having children (note, there was no debate there about whether strategizing to fit children within one’s career plan was itself a problem).
One article I read back in 2004 encouraged women to ‘do the math’ and take control over the timing of children so that they didn’t ‘forget,’ have to rush to become a ‘last chance mother,’ or run out of biological time before they reproduced- ending up ‘single and childless‘.* The strategy went like this: pick the age at which you want to have a child (or your last child, if you want more than one), count back in years and account for how long you want to be married before you have children, count back more years and think how long you will date before you get married. The results- your long term birth plan.
Does it get more heteronormative that this? The article made several big assumptions, including:
1. only hetero married couples have kids
2. hetero couples only have kids after marriage
3. hetero couples wanted to get married
4. hetero couples stay together long enough to have kids
5. hetero couples are able to spontaneously, and easily get pregnant (ignoring the reality that 10% of women struggle with infertility)
6. that all other factors in one’s life would accommodate for this plan. In addition to the compulsory hetero pressure, the ‘plan’ sparked fear in women that if we didn’t plan things right, we would be in our 40s, alone and wishing we had reproduced. At the time I read the article I was single and 24. I did the math and determined that I should have met my partner a year earlier. I was already behind!!

I found the number of factors to consider daunting. I was simultaneously told that children would ‘make me whole’ and ruin my career. The mind reeled at studies declaring that parents were ‘less happy‘ or slightly less happy, or happy if they had one not two children, or less happy for a while, or happy as long as they weren’t single, or actually equally happy– but only after 7pm. Finally, the information on my biological clock made me afraid of my own seemingly self-combusting uterus: I was supposed to wait until my career was established and I was in a committed relationship (*when you are single and in grad school, this is like saying ‘have kids once you capture a unicorn and learn to ride it); but I wasn’t meant to wait too long, because my lady parts would turn into a pumpkin sometime between my 35th and 40th birthday.

WTF??!! And more importantly, where am I going with all this? It is pretty depressing to see the continued and renewed debates about whether women should get a job and get a life, whether they should have ‘one and only’ in order to be an effective modern parent, or whether women should reject the confines of domestic life and forge their non-maternal paths.

In addition to boxing hetero women into an unrealistic corner, where they have no real *good* choices, the debates ignore same sex families, single parents, step and adoptive parents, those who are struggling financially, women who face infertility (and can’t magically *time* their families), the precarious and part time nature of employment (which leaves many parents-to-be waiting for years to attain security and health care), and- perhaps most importantly- the debates place one’s career above one’s personal life. It is presumed that it is irresponsible to start a family at a time that is professionally inconvenient. And if you think of all the times that it is professionally inconvenient to have kids (before you defend your thesis, as a sessional, first year of the job, right before tenure, just before promotion)- well, you really will time yourself out of having a family.

Advice on families should be simple: 1) do whatever you want, when you want, and when you are able; 2. your career will survive if you have kids; 3. your happiness does not hinge on reproduction; 4. ignore hetero panic and look around at the plethora of family models around you; 5. feel free to change your mind about what you want and when you want it; 6. ignore all advice on your personal life.

*I’m still trying to find the original reading- I promise you I will post it when I find it…But for now, when I google ‘timing and counting’ with babies I keep getting articles about that crazy 19 and counting baby show.

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Megan MacKenzie is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her main research interests include feminist international relations, gender and the military, the combat exclusion for women, the aftermaths of war and post-conflict resolution, and transitional justice. Her book Beyond the Band of Brothers: the US Military and the Myth that Women Can't Fight comes out with Cambridge University Press in July 2015.