I read Hortense’s piece at Jezebel about this UK survey – in which 74% of women surveyed allegedly said they believed childless women should be entitled to something equivalent to the standard six-months given for maternity leave in the UK – and sort of thought to myself: I smell some social science journalism trollery.
I have no idea why this proposal has to be framed as an “equivalent” to maternity leave. I’m childless, but actually, in my sort of general feeling that Capitalism Is Bunk, think we all need more leave time. In my highly corporate day job I get four weeks’ vacation, plus a lot of side time if I need it and my hours are up to speed – this is the one joy I derive from being a so-called “professional.” And yet, on a recent trip away, I said to a friend that when I do eventually quit this job (ETD: sometime between April and June 2010, if all goes well) I’m gonna need like a month just to sleep. My body is run down; I have three separate stress-related medical conditions I’m currently treating. And yet I’m the kind of person who is considered a “slacker” at my job and have, most years, taken much of my allotted vacation time. This year I have taken three trips! Which makes me wonder how other people are doing it.
All that said, my vision of more flexible workplace policies that would allow us all to be healthier, less crazed people has very little to do with some kind of quid pro quo with my child-bearing sisters. While I will admit to occasionally being annoyed when one workplace colleague on Facebook (who gave birth a few months ago) posts statuses like, “hmm, soap opera or nap?” I’m mature enough to recognize that my twinges of jealousy in no way negate that she probably spent three months locked indoors with no adult conversation for her pains, and also, like, pushed a watermelon out of her hoo-ha. Which! Annoying as my job is, I did not do. So probably she’s entitled to more quality Price is Right time than I am.
Nonetheless, being on the childless side of the fence as I am – and likely ever to be – I can’t say I don’t watch the whole maternity leave debate with a bit of irritation at times. First of all, while I am totally on the moms’ sides here as detailed above, I can’t help but feel, viscerally, devalued in this debate. This has a lot to do with how parental leave tends to get framed as a “women’s” issue – as though it were of universal concern to us. This is of course a second-order question – in some sense it is a women’s issue because it affects a large number of women, and that needs to be enough, a lot of the time. But it is yet another way in which I am reminded how much I have removed myself from the “sisterhood,” so to speak, simply by choosing not to procreate.
That sounds melodramatic, of course, and yet it is how I feel, often, in the company of women who do have children. They will talk formula and mat leave and they will complain about not having enough time to spend with children, and I will say something about what’s going on in my life and they will smile and change the subject. And they do not have to do this in the underminery way that is caricatured on television, they can just be uninterested, separate, apart, inaccessible. In my heart of hearts I do not really think my life is lesser than theirs, nor do I think they would phrase it that way if I asked them, of course. But the sense is there, anyway.
And of course I find all too often that maternity leave has become the sum total of “women’s issues” in the workplace. At my own workplace, for example, the women’s committee spends almost all of its time talking abou how to balance motherhood and career. On Meet the Press this weekend, parenthood was discussed as the major feature of womanhood without much challenge. Other issues – sexual harassment, coping strategies for mansplainers and male silencing techniques (which I think are HUGELY important if women are to become equals and yet are almost never addressed) – are treated as less important, less crucial to womanhood in the workplace. Some of this has to do with living in a society that regards itself as post-sexist, certainly. But a lot of it also has to do with that in certain fundamental ways, mainstream feminism continues to concede that women are, by and large, heavily focussed on procreation.
I’m not interested, particularly, in declaring war on mothers. But where I get annoyed with them, to be perfectly honest, is the point at which they don’t seem to be particularly on my side. I mean, sure, many will give lip service to these things, but at the end of the day – and this is maybe just a function of how parenthood works – the well-being of women with children is more important to them. This is of course not true of all women with children – I doubt many of our commenters would self-describe this way.
But as I grow older I am having a harder and harder time with this particular point of solidarity. I do think, for a variety of reasons that are no fault of their own, mothers are valued in a way that single, childless women are not. Motherhood is viewed as definitionally selfless, when I think, in fact, it is more complicated than that, and I think most women know that, but I don’t know how to get beyond this place where women continue to clutch at their roles as parents. To make it central to female identity. Obviously one of the solutions is to have men become more involved in parenthood, granted equal leave – I am personally of the opinion that nothing will be better for women than the day when men are expected to share equally in the care of progeny. But then, as far as the childless go, we are still at square one. We are still the people missing some fundamentally human feature.