By Amy Brown
Connor Kilpatrick’s recent essay for Jacobin, “It’s Okay to Have Children,” argues for having children by speaking on behalf of women As a cis woman, I’ll start this off with a personal anecdote, since accounts of or data from personal experience are notably absent from the essay. Then I’ll move onto a more general critique.
It’s September 2018, which means that it’s almost 20 years since I conceived my son, who is my only child. I did not “decide” to conceive my son: in fact, his conception was the accidental result of a one-night stand under the influence. Nor would I characterize my carrying the pregnancy to term as a “decision” so much as an inchoate impulse. I was raised Catholic, felt terribly lonely at the time, and believed on some level that a child would “fix” me.
At the time of my pregnancy, I made good money and had solid health insurance. By the terms of Kilpatrick’s argument, in which financial support is the main guarantee of happy moms and kids, this should have been true. Instead, I found myself completely undone by the prospect of spending most of my waking hours with a tiny, dependent human being. I discovered quickly that I had very little on the inside to give this child. Fearful of the rage that would result from being trapped in what looked to me like a domestic graveyard for 18+ years, and even more fearful that I would take that out on my son, I placed him in an open adoption. (Middle-class white ladies get to elect open adoptions; not everyone is as fortunate.)
The only thing I regret about the adoption is not being able to watch my son grow up, although I saw him twice a year for most of his childhood and adolescence. I am certain he was and is better off where he was. I know that I am certainly better off for having had freedom from family responsibility, which, even though I was born with a uterus, is decidedly Not My Thing. I was born and raised to be a thinker and writer. I’m not social at all; had I been born with a penis, I would likely been able to have had a partner and family too.
All of this runs contrary to the central threads of Kilpatrick’s essay. While that essay gives an occasional nod to legal abortion access and freedom from nuclear family structures in socialist countries, it makes the following poorly founded assumptions:
- The vast majority of people who can get pregnant (referred to below as AFAB folks or cishet women) want at their core to bear (or raise) children at some point in their lives.
- There is a prevalent social stigma against people who want to bear and raise children.
- Child-bearing comes about via an individual and conscious decision as opposed to being primarily the product of biological determinism and social and economic forces.
- Refraining from having children is in accord with the current capitalist hegemony, as evinced by present or future threats to state budgeting for health insurance and education.
Gender Essentialism and Social Pressure to Have Children
Using phrases like “the desires of women” (apparently, all women), Kilpatrick really seems to think that most or all AFAB folks want to bear and raise children.
To the contrary, many AFAB folks do not want to bear or raise children at all, regardless of economic circumstances. Cishet men, who bear less of the childcare burden, are, unsurprisingly, more likely to want children than their partners. Some of the reluctance of cishet women regarding children has to do with the anticipated perennial lack of reciprocity in cishet households around chores: guess who still does most of the (unpaid) work. I’ll say more about unwaged household work later.
The CDC study that Kilpatrick mentions (but does not cite) regarding the gap between the desired number and actual number of children borne by Americans, by necessity, does not focus primarily on the number of American AFAB folks whose desired number of children is zero. As many AFAB folks who don’t want kids can attest, talking or going public about your desire not to have any children is grounds for a wide range of signs of social disapproval, ranging from hurt-puppy looks to downright familial rejection¹:
- If you are under 40 and want a tubal ligation (i.e. permanent sterilization), you can generally expect a fight or complete refusal from your gynecologist.
- If you are bold enough to join a public support group for people who don’t want children, such as the NoKidding! group, you can expect public shaming and character assassination. This blogger had such a piece published and repeatedly republished in the Atlanta State Constitution.
- Many cishet women who don’t want children partner with men who, while initially supportive at the outset of their relationship, back off and often dump them when they don’t change their tune as time goes on and the march down the aisle becomes more plausible.
It remains an act of social defiance, and quite a bit of work, for cishet women to refrain consciously from having children. Any “stigma” to the contrary seems to be confined to recent thinkpieces in the Guardian and New York Times and certain works of literary fiction, all of which are read mostly by wealthy white liberals. In other words, the stigma against childbirth that Kilpatrick mentions, if it in fact exists, would affect mostly white women.
Moreover, any preference to remain child-free today is quickly being mooted (again) by capitalist forces: the increased unavailability of safe, legal abortions and the cost of prescriptions and procedures for birth control threaten to make those who can get pregnant dependent on their children’s biological fathers (or on their extended families) on a widespread basis, just as their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were.
Pregnancy and Childrearing as a “Decision”
Kilpatrick really need not worry about most cishet women not bearing children at all or being forced into a “decision” not to get pregnant. If you have a uterus and ovaries, have sex (ever) with someone with a penis and active sperm, and do not have a biological impediment to fertility, odds are that sooner or later you will get pregnant, and eventually one of those pregnancies will come to term.
But what about birth control? Again, if you’re AFAB, have sex with people with penises, haven’t had your tubes tied, and don’t have another impediment to fertility, you probably will miss a birth control dosage eventually. There are more reliable, less error-prone BC methods, such as IUDs and longer-lasting hormonal birth control, but their side effects may make you have to discontinue them.² Birth control, by itself, does not make pregnancy and childbirth into a real “choice” for everyone.
Kilpatrick uses the word “decision” in connection with pregnancy and childbirth quite a bit. In the face of biological determinism, social pressure, and economic necessity, thinking about pregnancy and childbirth in terms of free will is a destructive fallacy. The teen moms Kilpatrick mentions whose “decisions” to bear and raise children are lauded by (white) academics and the chattering classes? Did anyone talk to those teen moms about the circumstances of their pregnancies and births? Perhaps they thought about having abortions but because of parental consent laws, were prevented from doing so. Another interesting question: how much unpaid support they’re getting from people outside their families of origin. (The burden of childcare for children of teen moms often falls on the grandparents, many of whom have full-time jobs and have already been through the childcare mill at least once.)
Stigmas and demonization, while destructive to their targets, simply do not prevent childbirth. A recent study by the United Nations projected that this planet will be home to 11 billion people by the year 2100, 82 years from now. Even more daunting: that amounts to an increase of nearly 9 billion people since the year 1950. Given that exploitative societies and systems combine to make life difficult at best for the vast majority of those billions living today, one wonders how any call for or encouragement of more human births can possibly be justified.
The Fate of People Who Bear Children in a Capitalist Society: 150 Years of Socialist Feminist Thought
Socialist feminists, from Marx and Engels onward³, have spent quite a bit of time thinking and writing about the many people who can and do get pregnant. It’s valuable when thinking about these issues to read what they’ve written. You can find an excellent survey of socialist feminist writing in Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
By the time the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe, the historical exclusion of cis women from the sphere of waged work was so pervasive, and so destructive to their freedom and autonomy, that Karl Marx himself remarked⁴:
However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and the relations between the sexes…
Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the labourer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the labourer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery.
By the mid-twentieth century, Western capitalist society, with respect to labor of all kinds, consisted largely of two work realms: the waged workplace, whose inhabitants were primarily cis men (with the exception of gendered waged work such as teaching and nursing), and the household, where the (unpaid) cooking and cleaning work to help the husband maintain his job and get the children to school fell to the wife.⁵
It was this world upon which the socialist feminists of the 1960’s and 1970’s based their refinements of Marxist thought with respect to the role in a capitalist society of unwaged reproductive labor. To summarize: historically, as capitalism has taken hold, AFAB folks have been forced out of the waged labor market in favor of bearing and raising children and providing unpaid domestic support for their cis male partners.⁶ This made them economically dependent on those partners no matter how well (or poorly) those partners provided for their families. Unpaid reproductive labor enables capitalist enterprises to ensure the relative health and stability of their (cis male) labor forces without having to spend more money on them.
Over the last 40 years, socialist feminists, by and large, have proposed two main solutions to the problem of unpaid reproductive labor⁷:
- Compensate unpaid household and childcare work with a wage. These ideas, the fruit of the 1970’s Wages for Housework movement, have given way to the far less radical notion of integrating AFAB people into the waged workforce on a grand scale.
- Remove barriers to AFAB folks working for a wage. The last few decades have in fact seen a large uptick in cis women in the workplace, which has afforded them some independence and, in many cases, ability to choose work that suits them better than household or childcare work would do.
Availability of waged work to AFAB folks has done some of what Marx thought it might do: it’s given them some independence to choose work that might suit them and, in many cases, has allowed them to choose (or to leave) their partners without massive economic consequences.
It should be noted, of course, that much of the available work for cis women is still highly gendered and subject to other biases:
- Should they prefer traditionally male work (such as programming or construction), they often face harassment and intimidation on the job with little or no help from their employers (or, often, their largely-male unions).
- Ancestry and class background will often limit the jobs that are available.
Also, making waged work available to AFAB folks does not solve the problem of unequal responsibility for reproductive labor: in fact, they generally wind up doing more hours of work of all kinds per week than their cis male counterparts.⁸ In some ways, they are super-workers in a way that nineteenth-century capitalists could only have dreamed of: performing waged work often at a deep discount of a cis man’s wage, then sustaining their partners and children (laborers-to-be) with domestic work. If the household’s waged income is high enough, some of the domestic work is typically outsourced, many times to folks of color at a low wage. While this frees wealthy white cis women from some work responsibility, it simply shifts the burden to their sisters of color.
How, then, do we go about achieving gender parity AND a society in which people can do waged work (or not) AND bear and raise children (or not) as they desire? Kilpatrick alludes favorably to some circumstances that resonate with arguments made by autonomous Marxists like Kathi Weeks. It is these that I’ll turn to next.
Happiness and the “Refusal of Work”
Kilpatrick mentions a study that found that some of the happiest people in the world are Dutch women, many of whom, thanks to a robust welfare state, do not work full-time. While this finding could easily be construed as a reason to steer or coerce AFAB folks from waged work back into the kitchen and bedroom, it also happens to be a telling commentary on waged work.
The fact is that “the workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society”⁹. Having to enter into a contract to sell your wages is bad enough, but the exercise of authority and hierarchy that follows on a daily basis is, if you’re paying attention at all, much more destructive to your well-being over time.
According to Kathi Weeks, orthodox Marxist and socialist feminist thought, especially of the Anglo-American variety, uncritically promotes an ethic that work, and lots of it, is good for the person and for the soul.¹⁰ For example, orthodox Marxism holds that organization at the industrial workplace will bring about a socialist revolution. This requires a workplace and a substantial time commitment at that place. Many socialist feminists see no problem with a substantial part-time commitment to waged work and a second shift of unpaid work, although they would like to see cis male partners take more of a share in that. That’s still…a lot of work, especially when commuting is figured in. All told, primacy is given to being very busy quite a bit in some recognizable way.
Autonomous Marxist thought¹¹ has given rise to the notion of “refusal of work” and a “post-work” world. Following this line of thought, Weeks (reiterating and restating the demands of the Wages For Housework movement) argues that universal basic income (UBI) would allow people a choice simply to do less. They could engage in “work” as is defined today that interests them or that needs to be done to support themselves and their families, and the dichotomy between “valued” labor for a wage and “unvalued” labor at home would disappear.
It’s important to note that “refusal of work” does not signify turning away from all life-sustaining labor, but rather refuses to valorize work as the superlative moral good of the world of Weber’s Protestant ethic. Food needs to be obtained, prepared, and stored; baby bums need wiping and changing’ leftist screeds must be written. What the “refusal of work” theorists say is that those activities are no inherently “better” than producing YouTube makeup how-to videos or birdwatching, and that yes, fewer hours per day of busyness than the Western tradition prescribes is probably better for most people overall.
The notion of our current neoliberal governments espousing anything like UBI is in fact controversial. To benefit most people, the authors of a UBI scheme would truly have to have the interests of most people at heart. The best chance of that would be with a socialist government. That being said, Weeks’ critique of unthinking replication of a “work makes you whole” ethic is on point, especially in the United States.
Kilpatrick does not mention UBI as a possible solution to overall economic and social inequality or the unhappiness caused by overemphasis on work. It’s unclear whose unhappiness he would like to reduce. Simply guaranteeing more money available for certain people to have and raise children will not help everyone: for example, it did not help me.
Gender-based beliefs about or prescriptions for behavior, or creations of anti-natalist bogeymen whose “scariness” just happens to coincide with some of capitalism’s more insidious forces against less privileged people, will not help us achieve a more equitable or happier society.
It’s also clear that the higher rate of population growth we’ve seen over the last few decades has not led to more people being happier or more free. In addition to a fair distribution of wealth, social attitudes and practices that create reproductive justice are a possibility. As enunciated by the international, multi-ethnic SisterSong movement, a society that honors the principles of reproductive justice would offer:
- Freedom to have children, or not to have children, as you desire. This freedom includes the practices of birth control and abortion but is not limited to those practices.
- Freedom to RAISE any children you bear in a healthy, happy environment. This includes support from the community (not just the biological family) in raising those children.
- Sexual freedom for all, pointedly for non-men and for queer people. Sexual freedom encompasses the desire to be celibate: compulsory or expected sex does not have a place here.
- Access to reproductive health services for all. Reproductive health services for trans folks who don’t intend to have children are very much part of this.
Donna Haraway’s intriguing book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene adds an important point to the necessary element of reproductive justice: recognition that humans share the planet with nonhuman creatures and that any reproductive freedom for humans cannot be practiced with full justice unless successful co-existence with nonhuman creatures is continually taken into account. The human species cannot survive without its non-human counterparts.
We have some excellent ideas available to us to guide the way toward reproductive justice that aren’t just about having more kids. Let’s talk about those instead.
Amy E. Brown, socialist feminist, toils in Cambridge, MA and spins a few miles north of the city. She sells her labor by writing software documentation, and she does this and that to help build a socialist movement where she lives and works. When she’s not busy with all of that, she’s out on her bike, reading, or listening to podcasts like Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual, which is where she learned about Donna Haraway. Many thanks to John Reilly for his thoughtful review and comments.
¹ I’m a member of several “child-free” channels on social media and can attest to the positive horror expressed to AFAB people who intend to prevent conception permanently. This is a social force that Kilpatrick either doesn’t know about or fails to mention.
² Interestingly, new birth control methods intended for use by AMAB folks tend to fail in trials because of side effects that, while the subject of legitimate concern, are no worse than those frequently endured by AFAB folks who use birth control. Because AFAB folks generally pay a higher price for pregnancy than do AMAB folks, however, they put up with it and continue to take birth control that harms their health.
³ It’s often a pleasure for a modern feminist to read Marx or Engels: some of their attitudes are typically Victorian, but in general they were friends to women in word and deed. Their critiques of the nuclear family, which is too often a crucible of misogyny, are particularly refreshing.
⁴ Karl Marx, Capital.
⁵ Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 28. Available at https://libcom.org/files/the-problem-with-work_-feminism-marxism-kathi-weeks.pdf.
⁶ Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004), passim.
⁷ Weeks, p. 12.
⁸ Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Viking Penguin, 1989), reissued 1997 and 2012, passim.
⁹ Michael Denning, Culture in an Age of Three Worlds (Verso, 2004), p. 224, cited in Weeks, p. 23.
¹⁰ Weeks, passim.
¹¹ “Anarchist Perspectives on Work and its Other,” Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).