There ain't many nice things about being waffly, making decisions you can't live with, weighing your options endlessly, and feeling unable to settle on one tidy identity. Mom? Nonmom? "TTC" Trying to Conceive wannabe-mom? Childfree? Childless? "CSM" Childless stepmom? Nullipara? "CBM" childless by marriage? Stepmother? Feminist? Writer? Artist? Career woman? Traditionalist? What the hell am I and what the hell do I want to be?
Now I've spent four years investigating the whole mess: parenting, maternal desire, the biological clock, grief, and the unfair plight of the childless and childfree in our culture. For that matter, the also-unfair and strange position of mothers in our society. Have I finally learned something? Well, maybe. Here's what I've got:
We cannot know each others' experience based on surface identities alone. We cannot say anything without possibly inspiring angst, boredom, love, empathy, or agony in some listener or other. Everything we say can and will be interpreted with nuance, and will be heard through a filter the speaker may not realize exists. One woman's monologue on how giving birth has made her capable of real love, a love that no one but a parent can understand, especially a mother...
it might sound pretty offensive and belittling to a stepdad, an adoptive mom, or someone who has dared live her life with no children alongside her. Another's rhapsody on how she can truly devote herself to art and writing, full time, because might sound threatening and smug to a biomom who is also an artist or writer, especially one who actually has back-burnered her artistic output during her parenting years.
Since we can't stop speaking entirely, maybe we can ask each other thoughtful questions. And when the answers come? Maybe, just maybe, we can listen. If pregnant women are smug, as the hilarious Garfunkel & Oates song goes, can we find out why instead of writing them off? What about moms who become evangelical about their life-changing experience (see link below): could there be biological as well as cultural factors behind that?
If a woman isn't interested in your baby, your baby pictures, your birth video, is she unwomanly or "selfish"—or is she just overwhelmed or bored by the majority culture, which is composed of parents and takes up a lot of room celebrating families? Might she be really happy and fulfilled as a childfree person, and just not all that into kid and parent talk? Or might she be grieving the child she never had, and for reasons utterly out of her control, be unable to take joy in your joy?
If a feminist acquaintance decides to become a stay-at-home mom, do we write her off our list of intelligent, informed feminist women friends? If a woman works 12 hours a day while her baby is cared for by others, do we judge her for not staying at home? Is the experience gap between moms and notmoms so immense that it obliterates our ability to hear, befriend, and understand each other?
What if carrying and having a baby really *is* a singular experience? But what if it doesn't make a mom particularly special? After all, the majority of women do carry and raise children; "special" is hardly the word for something most people do. Can we acknowledge how special and amazing that experience was, not objectively, but for *her* personally, without getting stuck in the crazed mommy-worship spiral that simultaneously exalts idealized, Madonna/Christ images of motherhood and makes real-life mothers feel inadequate and under-supported? Can we also acknowledge how special and amazing other experiences are, for each woman personally, just as legitimate, wonderful, important, and worthy of cultural, familial, and political support as the hallowed institution of Family?
Isn't there room for all of this? How do we accommodate each other, rather than dismissing each other, fragmenting our lives? Is it possible, even, to truly understand another person and her experiences?
If we don't start listening and stop shouting, if we don't take the time to explore each other's real stories, we will lose the powerful forward motion of feminism. If gals can be socialized to readily identify with male heroes of novels and action movies, as we have been in Western culture for centuries, maybe we can learn to identify with each other—however alien our experiences might seem.
Here's a great conversation between two feminist women writers, one a mother, one not a mother, exploring some of these issues at Candor Magazine. Enjoy.