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The opposite of choice

By Judith Stadtman Tucker

September/October 2007

MY YOUNGEST SON'S fifth-grade class is studying vocabulary. "Ugly and disgusting are antonyms of beautiful, and pretty and good looking are synonyms of beautiful," he wrote on a recent worksheet. "Sad and miserable are antonyms of happy, and caring and loving are synonyms of happy." Well, not according to the dictionary -- or his teacher, who subtracted points for "caring" and "loving." But I happen to know that in my ten year-old son's version of the moral universe, loving and caring are inseparable from the concept of happiness. And frankly, I take it as a sign that I have not screwed up this parenting thing too badly, after all.

Not to get all sentimental, but I find myself wondering what America's laws and values would look like if our collective definition of "happy" encompassed the elements of "loving" and "caring." Think about it: from "bliss" to "euphoria," there are no common substitutes for the word "happiness" that imply a connection (much less an obligation) to children, partners, and other living things in our environment. In fact, another synonym for "happy" is "carefree." Perhaps the pursuit of happiness is meant to be a solitary journey. On the other hand, loneliness, abandonment, and isolation are not conditions most people equate with joy and contentment.

Another semantic/moral paradigm I've been wrangling with is the application of the word "choice," particularly the way contemporary mothers use a predictable script, or "discourse," of personal choice to relay their feelings, values, problems, and shared experiences. Just as the language we have for talking about happiness glosses over the relational context of emotional life, the discourse of choice of masks the persistence and variables of women's inequality, and the scarcity of adequate options. As historian Rickie Solinger observes in Pregnancy and Power (2006),

In recent decades middle-class women have typically defined their relation to childbearing as a "choice." But federal, state, court and corporate decisions about employment policies governing family leave, health insurance, and day care, for example, have all constrained or expanded the individual choices of even these women. Intensely private decisions about reproduction, including decisions about getting pregnant or not, staying pregnant or not, being the mother to the child one gives birth to or not, are always shaped by public laws and policies. This may be a particularly difficult insight to bring into focus, in part because of the way "personal choice" has eclipsed all other ways of thinking about pregnancy and motherhood.

Linda Hirshman (Get to Work, 2006) and Pamela Stone (Opting Out?, 2007) have respectively criticized and explored the articulation of personal choice as a moral position among professional-class mothers who "opt out" of the paid workforce. Describing the "disjuncture between the rhetoric of choice and the reality of constraint that shaped women's decisions to stay home," Stone concludes that high-achieving women "face a double-bind which is created by the pressure to be both the ideal mother (based on the intensive mothering model) and the ideal worker…The result of this double bind is that their choices or options are indeed much more limited that they appear at first or than the women themselves appreciate."

My own pet peeve is the tendency to confuse feminist principles with the consumer-culture ethic of female empowerment through freedom of choice. In explaining her decision to take a less demanding (and less prestigious) position after the birth of her second child, ABC news anchor Elizabeth Vargas remarked, "I think feminism means we all get that chance to make our choice. And if it just isn't right for me, it isn't right for me…For me it just wasn't working." Actually, feminism means ensuring that women's choices, opportunities and wellbeing aren't compromised by systems and institutions that benefit from women's subordination -- such as the workplace, the education system, the health care establishment, and governments guided by patriarchal values and free market fundamentalism -- but that's another story. (To Vargas's credit, her first project after returning from maternity leave was a report on the lack of policy support for maternal employment in the United States.)

The present generation of mothers did not pull the discourse of choice out of thin air. The language and concepts we have available to name our shared experiences -- as well as the language and concepts used to label mothers as irresponsible and unfit -- are are drawn from the dominant culture, particularly the modern taste for hyper-individualism and the political framework of personal responsibility. When fused with prevailing ideals of middle-class mothering and the myth of maternal omnipotence, the formulation of "choice" as the basis for female moral action obscures important differences between mothers and the structural origins of women's complex inequality.

As Barbara Katz Rothman writes, dominant ideologies have the power to limit our perception of the world and what is possible. "An ideology can let us see things, but it can also blind us, close our eyes to our own lived reality, our own experiences…The ideologies of patriarchy, technology and capitalism give us our vision of motherhood while they block our view, give us a language for some things while they silence us for others" ("Beyond Mothers and Fathers: Ideology in a Patriarchal Society" in Mothering: Ideology, Experience and Agency, 1994). In a 2003 interview, Janna Malamud Smith assigns political meaning to the missing language of motherhood: "One way to undercut the power of any group is to obscure the truth of their experience…it's against the interests of the dominant culture to let groups who are marginalized or oppressed own a vibrant language to describe their reality. Instead, we construct descriptions and expectations of motherhood based on ideologies and stereotypes that preserve the status quo." Although the present-day script of maternal choice acknowledges the expansion of women's opportunities and economic roles, it is invariably improvised around a critical void.

The black box

Stone describes the choice rationale as a kind of "black box" filled with "influences that cannot be identified or disentangled" -- "a mystified catch-all of explanations." Among the professional women she studied, choice rhetoric "often had the effect of obscuring or rendering invisible to them the constraints they faced." Because women's full humanity -- and our social and biological role in human reproduction -- was never factored into to original accounts of who deserves rights and liberties in free societies, I propose that when women talk about work and family in terms of personal preference and "choice" -- a word that denotes agency, superiority, action, power, entitlement, self-determination, and an abundance of desirable options -- we're actually talking about the negative or opposite of choice: powerlessness, exclusion, subordination, self-denial, and limited, inferior options. Even though the discourse of maternal choice is presented as self-validating and empowering, it's ultimately a passive discourse because it accepts the status quo as just, fair and inevitable, and conceals the urgent need for fundamental change.

As Jean Baker Miller, the late author of Toward a New Psychology for Women, observes, "To create a society that would provide much fuller lives for women, men, and children would not be so difficult:"

What is difficult is to convince the culture to do it. We are often locked into forced and false choices without recognizing it, likely because we are so accustomed to thinking this way. These appear to be the only options, but we can easily think of many others. While major change in societal arrangements will take much hard work, many benefits follow from refusing false choices…When forced to choose between only two options -- being a fulltime parent or full-time worker -- we run the risk of feeling like failures. This is because neither one of the options is good enough.

How do we move from the rhetoric of choice to a discourse of change? We need to pry apart the black box and take a look inside. It won't be pleasant. But perhaps instead of talking about mothers and their choices, we can begin by talking about the dynamic elements that shape mothers' public and intimate lives and the unacceptable "choices" we're forced to make. I'm not suggesting we should attempt to eradicate "choice" from our vocabulary or conceptual arsenal, but that we need to qualify it in a different way. And we need to become aware that whenever we talk about women and choices, we're not talking just about rights and liberty, or the quality of life -- we're also talking about privilege and power.

The important thing to know is that despite pronouncements by anti-feminist pundits and at-home mom antagonists, mothers don't chose between equality and inequality, either at home or in the workplace. Women's equality was never on the bargaining table, because protection from discrimination (which woman have gained over the last forty years) has not displaced ingrained sexism, or guaranteed access to equal opportunity and rewards. In terms of self-determination, women's current option is to decide what kind of inequality and personal risk is more tolerable given the particular realities of our lives. This is not a "trade off."It's evidence of our culture's failure to accept women as equally human, or to recognize and support caregiving as a critical component of our social and economic infrastructure.

We need to strip away the choice mystique and get back to basics. When mothers talk about work, family, and the pressures of everyday life, we almost always talk about the same set of material concerns: love, care, time, work, money, opportunity, men & women, what children need, and difference. We also talk about a range of social states related to self-awareness and autonomy, such as identity, embodiment, spaces, mobility, visibility, community and integration of growth & change. And while the average mother may not use precisely these words, we use many metaphors, catch phrases, and narratives that center on the interaction of these elements in our daily lives, and we can use them to develop articulations of women, work and family that acknowledge differences in the social and economic consequences of maternity across race and class. Finally, if we want to move the conversation from a passive approach -- which accepts the way things are and prescribes individual solutions, such as making better choices -- to an active response -- which challenges the way things are and describes the way they ought to be -- we need to re-introduce the critical frameworks of fairness and progress, not only in terms of equality of opportunity and responsibility for men and women, but also equality of outcomes.

Despite the obvious economic risks and occupational penalties associated with maternity, it's likely that most women will continue to desire, and to "choose," motherhood, and that mothers will continue to prefer -- and whenever possible, "opt" for -- work arrangements which are favorable to caring for families. Under the circumstances, this behavior can easily be construed as irrational or self-defeating (or as Linda Hirshman famously claimed, bad for women, bad for mothers, and bad for society). Or we can make the connection between loving, caring, and happiness, and consider that perhaps mothers are getting it right.

mmo: september/october 2007

Last updated: November 2007

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the editor and founder of the Mothers Movement Online.
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