Mothers Deserve Bodily Autonomy Too

I wrote most of this response to a viral blog post when it was first written 13 months ago, and am posting it now as part of my efforts to empty my draft folder.

Of all the headlines I never thought I would need to post on my blog. This post came to my attention almost two months ago, and it shouldn’t have taken me so long to respond to it, but I’ll plead end of semester and baby’s first Christmas. Matt Walsh’s blog has a few faithful readers among my more conservative facebook friends. I have agreed with a few of his posts, like the one about leaving childless people alone, and disagreed with most of the others, but none have disturbed me the way that this one, written by his sister Chrissie, has.

The headline is, “I’m not the only one who has a right to my body.” That, to me, is an issue worth talking about in itself. The saying and the idea that ‘you are the only one that has a right to your body’ is meant to be about rape and sexual abuse. The idea of no one having a right to any other person’s body is related to the legal fight to outlaw marital rape, among other things. Feminists started saying “you are the only one that has a right to your body” in response to the persistent idea that husbands are allowed to have sex with their wives whenever they want, regardless of the wife’s wishes. (Many parents and teachers have also started using this idea to instruct children in how to resist those who would abuse them.) By headlining an article in a way that contradicts this fundamental idea about bodily autonomy, the author, Chrissie, lines herself up with people who say that men are entitled to do what they want with women’s bodies. I don’t think she intends to support rape culture, but she does.
This post takes this idea of bodily autonomy out of the context it was meant for (rape and sexual abuse) and applies it to motherhood. Chrissie says that her children “missed the cultural memo” about feminism and do, in fact, have a right to their mother’s body. (This article also has a subtext about abortion that I don’t care to address here.)
I disagree with Chrissie on this central point. Children do not actually have a right to their mother’s body. They have many legitimate needs, and they have the right to have those needs met, but their mother has the right to choose whether she is the one to fulfill those needs from minute to minute, or if she will arrange for someone else to do so instead. For example, a baby has a right to be fed, and if he is not fed, he is being neglected and his rights have been violated. I totally agree with that. But no baby has the specific right to be breastfed. Just because “breast is best” does not mean that an unwilling mother is obliged to sacrifice her body to provide milk for her baby. Another example: every child needs to be held and soothed, but not necessarily by her mother every single time she is upset. Fathers, family members, and paid caregivers can also fill this need. In fact, pretending that a mother is the only one who can care for a baby and meet his needs is insulting to the loving fathers and child care professionals who do this work every day. Recent research has proven the importance of “alloparents,” adults who have strong relationships with children but are not their parents (see Overwhelmed); Chrissie would deny her children these formative relationships by keeping them selfishly to herself. A child may prefer to have his mother fill his needs instead of someone else, but a child may also prefer to eat candy for dinner. A child has the right to have his needs met, but does not have the right to demand a say in who meets them. Children need to learn the difference between preferences and genuine needs, and to understand that they must sometimes wait to get what they need, that their needs are not always the most pressing in the universe.
By phrasing her argument in terms of the “rights” of a child, Chrissie implies that there should be legal consequences for other parents who do not make the sacrifices she makes. She seems to say that some parents who are inferior to her are violating their children’s rights all the time. Does she really believe that it should be a crime not to breastfeed, not to cosleep? Is formula feeding equivalent to abuse or neglect?
Just because a woman has a baby does not mean that she stops having needs of her own, whether that’s an hour to exercise, three square meals, eight solid hours of sleep, or privacy in the bathroom. And just because a baby’s needs are usually more urgent than an adult’s doesn’t mean that the adult’s needs are less legitimate, or that they must always come second. A family is a unit that must balance the needs of its various members against each other, and make no mistake, those needs will often conflict. My baby’s need for nursing and comfort at night definitely conflicts with my need for uninterrupted sleep. Every night I have to make the choice to meet my baby’s needs or my own. But I don’t sacrifice my sleep because I am obligated to, or because I feel I would be violating my baby’s rights if I did not. I do it because, for now, my need is less urgent than the baby’s need, and the family as a whole is best served by prioritizing our conflicting needs in this way. But there may come a time in the future when I am so incredibly sleep-deprived that if I do not prioritize my own sleep I will be jeopardizing my sanity and safety (and my baby’s, though carrying him or driving with him while drowsy). When that night comes and I put my own sleep first, I will not be abusing or neglecting my son. I will be doing what is best for my entire family, including the child.
Some comments on the article attempt to correct Chrissie (and Matt I suppose) on their conception of feminism. “Feminism is about women having choices,” they point out. This is what Chrissie has to say about the idea of choice: “I can choose, of course, to deny my body to my children. I can abandon them. What I cannot do, however, is abandon my children and still be happy.” To this woman, “denying her body to her children” means “abandoning them.” To me, “abandoning” a child means leaving her in state custody, or walking out of her life entirely. Obviously, there are many things Chrissie could do to reduce the sacrifice she makes without abandoning her children. She could formula feed, sleep in separate rooms, share nighttime duties with her husband, use babysitters. None of these choices constitute “abandonment.” All of these options would allow this woman to fulfill her own needs, including her need to love and nurture her children, without violating her childrens’ rights. Chrissie’s rhetoric, her choice to ignore these options, and thus to equate them with abandonment, is insidious and judgmental. By her standard, every working mother has abandoned her children.
If Chrissie had said, “I could choose to let someone else care for my children sometimes. But I cannot do that and be happy,” then I would not have a problem with that. If she doesn’t feel comfortable putting her child in care, that’s up to her. But if she says that while also complaining about how she can’t sleep alone and can’t get over a cold because she has to drive around town so her toddler gets a nap in, then it’s a problem she has at least partly created herself through her choice not to accept or hire the help of others. She needs to take responsibility for the choice she made there, rather than pretending that she is suffering because it is an eternal truth that mothers are the only ones who can ever meet their children’s needs.
Chrissie’s ideas about parental sacrifice are wrong because they contribute to inequality between mothers and fathers, and thus men and women in general. It is certainly true that because of our biological makeup, there are some physical sacrifices that men cannot make, even if they want to. No man will ever have to give up his waistline to pregnancy or go through labor pain or breastfeed. But once the baby is born and weaned, parents can be completely equal if they want to be because both men and women can nurture. There isn’t a word in Chrissie’s entire article about fathers and the sacrifices they make, but presumably she does not expect men to give up their sleep, privacy, or personal space. When women are expected to make these sacrifices, but men are not, it is because women’s time, energy, needs, and bodies are valued less than men’s. Chrissie perpetuates the idea that women’s entire purpose in life is nurturing others, that women’s only value comes from the relationships they have with others, because on their own they are worthless. Chrissie may not have intended this sexist conclusion, but her article supports it nonetheless.
But I wish that were the worst I could say about the article. However, I truly think Chrissie’s words are not just wrong and unfair, but dangerous. Believing that motherhood inevitably means a loss of bodily autonomy is a recipe for guilt and overwhelm. Personally, when I feel guilty, it makes me a worse mother because it makes me depressed. Guilt makes me feel unworthy of the blessing that is my child, and that makes me want to withdraw from him. And I believe that when people are overwhelmed, that is when they are most likely to lash out or give up or take some other extreme action. In the very worst cases, feeling overwhelmed can lead to shaken baby syndrome or other forms of child abuse. Chrissie seems to be aware of the fact that her rhetoric can lead down this dangerous road, because she emphasizes that she doesn’t want mothers to overwork themselves. However, this protestation feels pretty meaningless when she has spent the entire post glorifying herself for doing exactly that.
Chrissie is obviously a great mother, but a woman who has a different attitude about sacrifice and bodily autonomy could also be a great mother. It is not necessary to romanticize sacrifice in order to give children the love and care they need to grow. I view sacrifice instead as a necessary evil, something I just have to get through and actively work to minimize, rather than something to make me feel virtuous and self-satisfied. Chrissie’s self-righteous and sanctimonious tone just provides fuel for “mommy wars” that divide women needlessly (and I suppose I’ve contributed somewhat by responding, but I’m judging her for being a sexist and anti-feminist, labels I’m not entirely sure she’d reject, rather than calling her a bad mom).
Chrissie says, “My children have a claim on my body that is as real as my own. Parental love is utterly premised upon this.” It is true that in my experience, there is a physical aspect to the love between a parent and child. I have a gut-level urge to hold my baby sometimes, and I assume he feels the same way about my husband and me. But that does not mean that my son has a “claim” or a right to my body. He has only what I choose to give him. And isn’t that more beautiful anyway? Isn’t it nicer to think that I give my arms, my milk, my love to my baby because I have made a conscious choice, rather than because I feel an obligation, or because I have a biological impulse? Contrary to what Chrissie believes, it is possible to love your child while also placing limits on the things you will do for that child. If this were not true, no parent would ever say ‘no’ to a child. No parent would ever work outside the home or see friends without a child in tow or cultivate a hobby. I don’t believe a world in which parents could not do those kinds of things without irreparably damaging their children would be a good world for parents, or children, or anyone. A world in which women give up the right to say no when they have a baby would be a sad, scary world indeed.
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7 thoughts on “Mothers Deserve Bodily Autonomy Too

  1. Hi Mary Jo, that link to the Matt Walsh blog doesn’t work. It goes to a page saying “page cannot be found.” As to Chrissie’s post about extreme motherhood being necessary to healthy children, she sounds like a psycho to me. I agree that being overwhelmed, stressed, and constantly feeling inadequate is a recipe for disaster. Plus, people who get defensive and self-righteous about their choices, to the point of wanting to impose them on others, squick me out. I’m in the Ayelet Waldman camp as far as marriage and children are concerned. Her 2005 article speaks to me in a way the Chrissies of the world never will. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/fashion/27love.html?_r=1&

    • I’m sorry the link didn’t work for you. I checked it and it worked for me, so I don’t know how else to fix it. Maybe you could copy paste this address?

      http://themattwalshblog.com/2013/11/15/im-not-the-only-one-who-has-a-right-to-my-body/

      Yeah, I agree totally that Chrissie’s attitude is a recipe for disaster. Extreme motherhood is toxic.

      I like that Ayelet Waldman essay too (although her bragging about her awesome postpartum sex life grates a little on me, as someone who experienced real sexual dysfunction as a result of childbirth). There is this message that a baby is supposed to become a woman’s entire life, and if he/she doesn’t, if the mom has other preoccupations and passions, then obviously she’s a bad mom. Waldman does a good job taking that idea down, especially when she brings up her husband’s lack of guilt for prioritizing their marriage over their children. On the other hand, maybe it’s hyperbole, but I also wonder if her “obsession” with her husband is entirely healthy.

  2. Hi Mary Jo — sorry for the confusion — it wasn’t Chrissie’s post I was interested in reading, but the one about “leaving childless people alone” — that was the post that came up Not Found. Have you blogged about your experiences post-childbirth before? That’s something I’d like to learn more about, since I definitely romanticize Waldman’s essay a great deal, and would never think to consider how grating she is from that perspective. What I love most about Ms. Waldman is her working relationship with her husband — how they communicate so intimately with their writing projects. I guess it’s just writer-porn to me, I eat it up. I love that they discuss books and their own work with each other all the time. Their passion for writing makes me swoony.

    • I can’t find that Matt Walsh post anymore either. Looks like he might have deleted the one post on his blog I don’t find offensive.

      No, I haven’t written publicly about my sex life. Maybe I will someday, but as much as I feel like these stories need to be shared and normalized, I still feel kind of nervous about sharing something so private.

      Yeah, Waldman/Chabon is pretty romantic. It must be fun to share such an intense creative passion with a spouse, but I wonder if it also becomes suffocating sometimes. I know a relationship like that wouldn’t work for my husband, who needs lots of ‘me time’ alone and doesn’t share my literary interests.

      • Yes, my husband is very similar — he needs a lot of affection, but he also needs a lot of distance, too. And he’s not a fiction reader at all. But he does let me read aloud first draft chapters to him sometimes, and catches me on my most egregious errors before I share my work with my alpha readers. And he does support my career, he just finds me really odd. 🙂 And I totally understand about not blogging about certain subjects in your personal life — Ms. Waldman herself is an example of how dangerous that can be. These are just the subjects I try to expose in my own fiction, and that’s why I find them so fascinating — anytime there’s something that’s too high risk to share openly, I think that’s the gift novels give us — to delve into the places where the stakes are too high, and the terror is real. There was so much backlash against Ms. Waldman for her essay, for instance — she certainly paid a high price for printing those words. As she did for her bitter comments on Twitter this month — http://review.gawker.com/ayelet-waldman-has-no-idea-how-non-notable-it-is-to-wri-1666698969 Though I still adore her more than coffee, and I love coffee. 🙂

  3. Pingback: MeReader: Year Three in Review | MeReader

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