Every time I’m involved in a custody case, I wonder why the woman doesn’t gladly give the kid over to the father. Let him have the temper tantrums, the fuss, the pickiness at mealtime and the daily fight to get them out of bed. Not to mention the chronic exhaustion, constant worry, self-imposed guilt and sexual denial that go along with having a child. “But what kind of mother would give up her child?” they say to me, implicitly answering their own question.
Why should a woman’s identity be so intimately tied to her status as a mother? And why would any rational person assume the punishments of motherhood in exchange for the blandishments they receive?
Elizabeth Warren has written that, in the United States, there is no surer path to poverty and economic insecurity than to bear a child. A 2004 report by the Community Services Society found that a single parent in New York City needs to earn $49,874 to cover the minimum expenses of rent, food, utilities, clothes, transportation and childcare for two children. Even excluding college, the cost of raising a child to age 18 is more than $208,000.
I’ve never thought the world needed more children that look like me and hog the disproportionate resources that Americans are already exhausting. There are plenty of children in our foster care system who desperately need individual, permanent attention. Former comrades have disappointed me when they become parents. Suddenly the scope of their concern shrinks from all the world’s children to their own child above all.
Without European-style social supports, the financial and emotional costs of child-rearing virtually always fall on women. MacArthur fellow Nancy Folbre explores this in The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values. In France, any woman with at least 10 months prior work experience can take maternal leave of 16 weeks, paid at 84 percent of her salary. Both fathers and mothers have the right to reduce their work hours (and pay proportionately) until the child turns age three. National health insurance and day care centers with well-paid, well-educated teachers also demonstrate France’s commitment to what they call “our greatest resource.” Even the poor country of Morocco provides a government-paid Family Allowance of about $25 per month to all families with children. I’d gladly pay greater taxes to alleviate female and child poverty in the United States.
Ironically, the day care workers that I represented for a decade in Local 1707, mostly women of color and single parents, did not make enough to raise their own children. They are unionized, but their contract expired in June 2006 and Mayor Bloomberg refuses to meet with them to renegotiate.
And there are added risks to being a mother in New York City. In public housing, you and the rest of your dependents can lose your housing of last resort if one kid steals a chain or sells drugs. This is thanks to New York City Housing Authority’s “no tolerance” policy and a particularly heartless U.S. Supreme Court decision.
I’ve had female clients prosecuted in family court for having a dirty house or shut-off utilities, or for failing to get their kids to school. Yet it is exceedingly rare for a father or male companion to be held similarly responsible. He can simply leave the household.
Only child support laws provide any social coercion for men to take care of their children, and they are ineffective when the father is jailed or marginally employed. The fact is that men are not judged on their domestic skills. As a guy in a bar once said to me, “Having children doesn’t define who you are.” Imagine a woman saying that!
My Belgian friend thinks of raising children as “giving to the world.” That is a lovely sentiment. But here in the backward United States, the obligation to feed a family falls solely on the individual parents. Healthcare must be earned, lest we lose our incentive to work at a dead-end job. Children are an expensive luxury for those that can afford them; and for those already here, the sacrifices made by their caregivers are never counted and seldom recognized. It’s enough to make a feminist’s blood boil.
The new pro-natalism so popular in Tribeca, Fort Greene and Park Slope seems to carry no articulated critique of the nuclear family, nor of its constrictions to women’s development. I know that young fathers today participate much more in child-rearing than previous generations, but it is almost always the woman who is the stay-at-home parent, judging from who I see pushing the baby carriage.
Meanwhile, every element of the legal profession is obsessed with domestic violence and individual batterers, while ignoring the systemic causes of women’s poverty and degradation. Feminism has been robbed of its revolutionary potential, even while it’s given lip service by every judge on the bench in New York City.
Until it becomes possible to be a mother in the United States without doing violence to one’s self, I’ll boycott the institution.