Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Feminism, Motherhood, and the Pandemic

Kim Brooks thinks the huge burdens that have fallen on women during the pandemic show that feminism's gains are fragile, reversible, and maybe wrong-headed in the first place:

It was around the middle of May that I began to realize how disastrous the pandemic was going to be for mothers. I felt it myself and I saw it all around me, the mounting fear, the feeling of helplessness and isolation as we realized that the institutions we depended on were failing women and children, and that there was no backup system in place. Mothers themselves were the backup system. . . . 

As any woman who’s ever tried to take more than a month or two of maternity leave knows, extended child-related lapses in employment are at best frowned upon and interpreted as a lack of professional dedication and at worst grounds for termination. Leaving the work force, even under the most dire circumstances, tends to be a one-way street. 

For working women, she writes, 

Feminism meant cheering on women trying to gain status in this broken system. There was no way out, but if you worked hard enough, you could try to move up.

Pondering this ongoing crisis, Brooks has come to question whether the two-career, nuclear-family marriage is a good model for society. Asking this question, she has found lots of datum points:

A few months ago, I stumbled upon another startling statistic related to family life under Covid-19. It turns out that in the United States, the survival rate of infants has gone way up during the pandemic. There are reports that premature births, one leading cause of infant mortality, fell significantly in the early months of lockdowns, when women in their final trimester of pregnancy were able to do something many of them cannot afford to do in normal times: Stay home from work.

Additionally, some suggest there have been protective benefits to infants of more attentive, home-based child care, with less exposure to the viruses and infections that circulate in institutional settings.
But what is the alternative to the two-career nuclear family? The money needed to raise middle class children has to come from somewhere, and with two-career couples bidding up the price of housing, that lifestyle is just hard for a one-income family to achieve, at least in the big metropolitan areas where most Americans live. It is not impossible, but it requires a different set of priorities. Brooks toys with some socialist ideas that both she and I think have no chance of becoming reality:
truly progressive policies like health care for all, paid leave for anyone caring for a baby and a universal basic income for anyone raising children in the home.

Besides the enormous cost, this isn't going to happen on a large scale because most women of our time find staying home with babies boring, unfulfilling, and isolating; pretty much the only thing we can think of to offer hard-working people in our society is a "career" or a "good job," with the status and stimulation that go with it.

Brooks is also attracted by the communal, extended family plus friends arrangements that some Americans, mostly poor ones, still use:

A friend of mine who has been un-schooling her daughter for years pointed out that some of the people least psychologically affected by the pandemic are those who “don’t expect the systems to work or to protect them, and have gained other survival strategies and ways or organizing and thinking about existence: home-schoolers, for instance, but also people living in communal housing situations or with extended family, people who have figured out how to live without working the way a lot of us feel we have to work.”

Perhaps, she suggested, rather than hurrying back to normal life, “we should see what we can learn from those who have successfully resisted it.”
Resisting the status quo is a concept I embrace, and I agree that these arrangements work for some women. But in my experience most grandparents etc. hate being treated as readily available babysitters, and juggling unconventional childcare arrangements always shows up  as one of the biggest stressors in the lives of single mothers.

Plus most of us just don't want to share our houses with a bunch of other adults. It's not our way. Still, Brooks keeps coming back to communal arrangements as the only plausible solution:
Another friend, a single mother who runs a gardening nursery and lives in a tiny house with her daughter, told me she wouldn’t have been able to survive this year without the support of her best friend. She lives nearby, is also a single mother, and the two of them instantly formed their own small bubble.

For her, the pandemic has crystallized her long-brewing feelings about the unworkability of the status quo. She has taken this year to further develop her plans for a woman-centered communal living project. She imagines a place where women in different ages and stages of life might come to live and share the work of child-rearing and care taking.

When I asked her why she thought more of these kinds of places didn’t already exist, she answered bluntly: “Because America and the world would collapse in 20 seconds if women were showing up for each other instead of being exploited for every form of labor.”
Brooks calls this "a feminism grounded in solidarity as opposed to 'success'."

That is something I entirely support, as I support any arrangement designed to promote human happiness as opposed to economic growth. If enough people talk about these sorts of solutions, maybe more people will be able to build small communities that work for them. But, again, it means dramatically changing our notion of a good life, which is no small thing.

A parallel with polyamory comes to mind; polyamory does solves many problems that trouble monogamous couples, but it can only work if people completely revise their expectations of each other. 

I think about this problem all the time, because of a deep sense that the two-career, multiple-child nuclear family is not a sustainable social system. It puts too much stress on all of us. Yet I have never seen any sort of solution that I thought was both possible and adequate to the scale of the problem.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"Yet I have never seen any sort of solution that I thought was both possible and adequate to the scale of the problem."

What always bothers me about how you frame these sorts of things, is that I can see where you are coming from, I just think you insist on a sort of pessimistic American Exceptionalism where you reflexively dismiss possible solutions that can and have worked elsewhere in the world, on the basis that "It could never work here".

It could and probably would work here, if we actually would give it a real chance to succeed instead of writing it off automatically! There are solutions, both possible and adequate, but we're just so obstinate and pigheaded as a people that we refuse to even consider them, and in so doing render them utterly infeasible through our own obsessive recalcitrance.

And it's not that I think you're wrong about the difficulty of implementing such potential solutions! I just get angry that the default response to every attempt at meaningful change is one of overwhelming pessimism and negativity, fueled by a realization that we are collectively too stupid to not act against our own good.

The country that dared to be the first to put a man on the surface of the moon now refuses to try and make progress on improving its citizens lives because it seems "too hard" and "not realistic". And what little progress we might actively make at any moment always gets shot down before it can happen.

American is crippled by cowardice, and clings to the status quo like a drowning man clinging to an anchor, afraid to let go for fear of not knowing what to grasp instead.