I do not have children. I am not sure if I will have children, but I am leaning more towards yes than no. I have no firsthand experience on what having a child does to someone who identifies as female, but when I read Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic (y’all know the one – it’s been the big buzz getter), my blood ran cold when she mentioned the maternal imperative.
The way she talks about it is that for women, unlike men, there is no choice between work and family in that family always, always, always come first. This no-brainer pull of the family, whether culturally and socially ingrained or due to some sort of biological pull is one of the reasons she believes that women cannot have it all. I really appreciate her view that maybe creating a society where men are rewarded for sacrificing their family for the greater good where women are hounded for the same choice isn’t the best thing. But, when I read this piece and when I read any other piece that talks about the work-life balance, I get overwhelmed by fear and unease.
I am not what anyone would call a particularly nurturing individual. I am focused on my work and for my whole life, I have made choices that allow me to continue to move forward through school, academia, work, life, etc in a way that is best for me. I don’t think I’m particularly selfish, but I am motivated to do well in all of my professional pursuits and to achieve some standard of success. The thought that all that might change, that my whole sense of personal identity could shift so dramatically upon the introduction of a child into my life is horrifying.
I understand that it’s normal for someone to adjust to large life changes. I am not the same person I was five years ago and in five years I expect to be somewhat different still. But the impression I get from the discussions of the maternal imperative, the way I see it described, feels so antithetical to so much of how I see myself, is that my whole being will be swallowed and subsumed by this new family identity.
I don’t delude myself into thinking that I can have it all. No one can have it all, unless they outsource some of that all onto the backs of their wives or domestic workers. The men who set the standard for having it all were only given that all through the tireless work of their wives. I understand that there are trade-offs with every decision (though I do rue the reality that I can never simultaneously be this version of me and another version of me that is really, really good at skiing) and I accept that if I choose to have a family, there’ll be trade-offs that come with that choice. What scares me is the constant refrain that I am biologically pre-destined to fall into a set, all-consuming maternal mode.
I say the refrain is constant because even though there are many good discussions about the effects of nurture and society on gender roles and expectations, nearly every conversation I have about children and family planning either directly or indirectly emphasizes that the maternal imperative is inescapable. Even Slaughter’s article, which pointed out a lot of valuable truths, nodded to that. For so long, I was told that I could do anything I wanted, that I could achieve anything I wanted, that thanks to feminism and social justice, I could do me. Now, not only is that message proving to be inaccurate, but I am being told that there are immovable limitations within ourselves.
And you know, I can see someone else seeing that and fighting for a society where maternal contributions are acknowledged fully, where the maternal imperative is taken into account and does not create an obstacle to professional fulfillment. I support people who want to fight that fight. But right now, I am just trying to process that snap-shot shift in perspective. In every other instance where I’ve seen limitations, I can point to some glass ceiling, some double standard that I can rail against and fight. Here, though, I see myself limited by myself. And where in the first instance I found fellow fighters, here I stand alone.