Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Only Children and...Feminism?

When Daphne (my coeditor on Only Child) and I are asked in interviews why there's been such an increase in onlies in recent decades, the answer is that women are marrying later, having children later (and therefore generally having fewer), the divorce rate, and economics (it's never been more expensive to raise a child - and not just here in NYC). We're asked about the stigma that still seems to exist in spite of the fact that single-child families are increasingly common. Feminism has allowed women to feel more comfortable having only one, but women who have "just one" kid still often seem pressed to defend their choice.

This quandary is interesting in light of Linda Hirshman's recent advice to women who want to stay in the labor force: Have a child, just don't have two, she tells women in her book *Get to Work.* While I'm not so sure that the single-child family is the ultimate solution to the work/life crunch (it's companies, not American family size, that clearly need to change in my opinion), there's no doubt that life is easier for the working woman who just has one. I can't speak (yet) from personal experience, but I'm pretty sure that my friends who have more than one would agree. Is it possible that, after all these years, women who choose to have an only because they want to continue with their careers are still seen as somehow "selfish"? Is this what the stigma is still partly about?

Last week's Boxer-Rice exchange makes me realize all the more the furor around those who chose to have none. Boxer's comments about how Rice is not paying the direct price for the Iraq war (as measured in lost children) was quickly spun as unsisterly speculation about Rice's childless, unmarried life. Since I'm generally a fan of Boxer's, I'm loathe to believe she was going for the jugular in the way all the spin suggested. And having just turned in a book on feminist in-fighting, the rush to turn this into a catfight made me, well, tired. But I did perk up when I read that Condi (regardless of how I feel about her) was also an only. As Broadsheet reminds us today,

in December, First Lady Laura Bush told People magazine that Rice probably wouldn't run for president, in part because she is single and has no immediate family. "Dr. Rice, who I think would be a really good candidate [for president], is not interested. Probably because she is single, her parents are no longer living, she's an only child. You need a very supportive family and supportive friends to have this job."

So, wait, an only child can never be President? Hmm... Not so sure about that.


Katka said...

I can't imagine what possessed Laura Bush to speak for Rice. Perhaps she's just calling attention to her own unwavering (and misguided) support of her husband?

Alison said...

I taught Hirshman's American Prospect essay in an upper-level Women's and Gender Studies class last spring, and my (mostly female) students were pretty prickly about her advice--in particular the advice to marry down and to have only one kid. I don't think they were responding to the stigma around women with only one child. Instead, they were defensive about anyone constraining their choices--they are so incredibly adamant about being able to choose everything about their own lives (and doesn't Hirshman talk about this very thing?). They were deeply offended that someone would suggest that their decisions about marriage and children should be affected by practical considerations.

And on a vaguely related note, my friend Linnae's mom says of children, "One is an accessory. Two is a lifestyle."

Deborah Siegel said...

In response to Katka’s: amen, sister. And to Alison: I’ve wondered how younger women would take Hirshman’s prescriptive. Many thanks for the data. I wonder what age audience she had intended it for. It's so interesting to me the way prescriptive books/messages aimed at younger generations of women so often fail (dismally) to hit their mark. I actually thought Hirshman had some very important points, that got lost because of the tone...Kind of how I felt about Sylvia Hewlett's Creating a Life a while ago.

Alison said...

I actually really loved lots of things about Hirshman's piece--particularly how unapologetic she is, and how clear about the fact that our choices do have consequences which we can't just imagine away (i.e. if you're not making money, your partner will get to make lots of the major life decisions). I'm going to teach it again this semester and see what happens.