Motherhood Privilege: Another Lie of Individualism

Recently in my extended circle of online-only friends, a young woman posted:

“Feminists who don’t believe in motherhood privilege are ridiculous.”

The arguments for “motherhood privilege,” scattered throughout the comments by the original poster and others, seemed to boil down to the following:

1. People give me shit for not wanting/having kids
2. Society is oriented toward rewarding “breeding”

To begin with, I don’t think we, as women, should be calling each other’s opinions “ridiculous”–patriarchy is doing a bang-up job of that without our help. But on to the topic at hand.

Let’s talk about what privilege is. A good definition, I think, is the analysis that some classes of people hold material advantage over other classes of people.

For example, males hold material advantage over females. White people, in America and many other places, hold material advantage over people of color.

Now let’s talk about what privilege is not.

Privilege is not some people having it easier than others.

Privilege is not approval.

Privilege is not a spectrum. It occurs on an axis that has a top and a bottom (though there is more than one such axis, such as sex and race). Males as a class hold privilege over females as a class; there are no “kinds” of females who can join men in wielding privilege over other females.

The idea that every person in the world can be lined up and placed on a spectrum of privilege, where everyone is oppressing someone and everyone is oppressed by someone, is in direct conflict with class analysis and reduces any discussion of the power dynamics in society to absurdity. We largely have Michel Foucault to thank for this fuzzy thinking—a white man who hoped to excuse himself from privilege by theorizing that since he was personally turned on by sadomasochism, every power imbalance in society is probably a choice and kind of fun for all involved.

It’s also responsible for a great deal of personal whining and a related progressive degradation of meaningful activism. As liberal, once-progressive people increasingly divert their efforts into writing articles proclaiming their specialness credentials, policing language and playing oppression olympics, it becomes more and more difficult for somebody to do something, anything, to improve the world—lest it inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings somewhere.

That’s a whole article in and of itself; one I’ll write someday. But back to the issue at hand.

I get the original poster’s first point. I get it as much as anyone. As a woman who was raised in a rural area decades before this poster’s time amid redneck ethics and fundamentalist religion, I promise I get it. I never wanted kids and I never had kids. Kids aren’t intrinsically interesting to me, they’re expensive, and they tie you down, especially if you’re a woman. I was very, very careful not to have them.

And I was given a lot of shit for it.

When you are a woman of child-bearing age, people say “when are you having kids?” approximately a hundred times a year.

When you say you’re not planning to have kids, they respond with anything from a condescending “you’ll change your mind” to an appalled horror better directed at someone who roasts them over a spit and eats them. People call you selfish. People say they’ll pray for you. People say you’re going to miss out on the most important thing that womanhood and life itself has to offer.

If you make it beyond your child-bearing years without having kids, people remind you that there are medical interventions that can help you correct your regrettable misstep.

But there is no privilege in some people giving other people shit. It is important to remember that it is patriarchy that promotes motherhood, “rewards” mothers (more on that in a bit), punishes childfree women, and, importantly, enlists women with children, via intense socialization, to spread its message to women without children.

I know. You’re going to say that some mothers are baby-crazy and aggressive and would foist pressure upon other women to have children with or without patriarchy.

Maybe. And those women might be jerks. But they wouldn’t be privileged. Women who make certain choices don’t hold privilege over other women who make different choices. Women can’t manage their position on the axis of privilege by doing things.

And even if it were arguable that any women do hold privilege, mothers would be an especially terrible example.

Mothers are physically vulnerable for the nine months in which they carry a child. They alone can die before or during childbirth from a variety of rather common conditions. Even without complications, their health during this time is degraded or in peril and they must rely on the help of others.

That leads to the financial vulnerability they face. Under capitalism, which privileges the work of men, they must rely on others for financial support and sustenance. Also because of capitalism, as well as because of marriage, heterosexuality, the loss of extended family/community inherent in modern life and a variety of other societal conditions, the people that pregnant women must rely on are often men.

If the relationship doesn’t continue (or never existed), the woman is more likely to become the single parent. Single mothers are some of the poorest people in society. These are material differences in the lives of women with children. Material conditions are more important than perceptions.

Any time women must rely on men for sustenance or support, women are disempowered and patriarchy is bolstered.

After pregnancy, women who keep their children are chained to them for another eighteen+ years. This is intense during breastfeeding, when physical and financial vulnerability may continue, and still important during the remaining years, where men can more easily dismiss their parental and financial responsibilities than women can.

And then there’s the legal culpability. If a woman has a miscarriage during pregnancy, she alone can be tried for murder. If she walks away from the child after the birth, she alone can be charged for abandonment. And if the child accidentally dies in the subsequent eighteen years, she is much more likely than the father to be scrutinized and charged with a crime.

The financial disadvantage women face during pregnancy affects them for life. During child-rearing, a woman’s ability to participate in capitalism on a level playing field is diminished. After birth and/or child-rearing, her career potential is permanently altered because she “took time off” from the male-privileging world of paid work to reproduce.

Even where men and women raise children together and are jointly financially responsible, study after study shows that women take on a disproportionate share of uncompensated, messy, thankless child-rearing tasks.

Butt wiping! It’s not a privilege.

After women give birth, their partners resent them, pressure them for painful sex, chastise them for “letting themselves go,” are more likely to cheat on them, and are more likely to beat them. And everyone resents women, not men, when children cry and otherwise act like children in public spaces.

If motherhood is a privilege, we should have never fought for our reproductive rights. We should toss our birth control in the trash right now and start getting pregnant and enjoying the privileges therein.

But in fact, males do not approve of individual females more when they give birth—they simply approve of women as a class performing the reproductive labor that benefits patriarchy.

Remember, if patriarchy wants women to do it, it isn’t a privilege. Giving birth, wearing high heels, submissive sex, stripping… patriarchy loves for women to do these things because these things please men without putting women in positions of power. Owning their reproductive rights, owning their sexual pleasure, owning businesses, giving their opinion… patriarchy hates for women to do these things because they do put women in positions of power.

And even if somehow males approved more of women who gave birth, male approval is not privilege. It is the opposite–because it illuminates the power dynamic that makes approval something that men get to distribute and women must vie for.

There can be no greater triumph of patriarchy than getting women to think that male approval equals power or privilege.

Like opening doors for women, approval is a concession, and an insufficient one, that men exchange for women’s subjugation. It’s a “deal” that’s designed to make men come out ahead.

Conformity to patriarchy is not privilege. Conformity to patriarchy is the opposite—because it means that patriarchy got what it wanted. Patriarchy is not designed to ensure that women who conform to it get a good deal. A woman who bucks patriarchy, insofar as she can, is more likely to hold some personal power.

The more women choose to be child-free, the more powerful women as a class become. This is observable by comparing the lot of women before and after the advent of the pill and by examining the lot of women in societies in which birth control is not available.

This is all quite obvious–or would be, if a virulent strain of narcissistic individualism wasn’t taking over the Western world, largely via social media, that trains each and every person to find their special victim niche and to gain woke points by recognizing the infinite variety of special victim niches filled by others.

So there is no situation in which, for example, women with children hold most of the real estate and exercise their power to prevent childfree women from purchasing it.

That’s what privilege would look like.