Authors Call for a Rethink of Birth and MotherhoodHistorians in the News
tags: gender, family history, children, womens history, motherhood
Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth
By Jennifer Banks, Norton. 251 pp. $27.95
Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother
By Peggy O’Donnell Heffington, Seal Press. 245 pp. $29
Why aren’t Americans having more babies? Inquiring minds — by which I mean, a certain breed of nervy social conservative — want to know. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat, for whom today’s historically low birthrates are a national catastrophe, says the answer is not the dire economic straits faced by millennials but something soggier and more sentimental. “Deeper forces than the financial crisis may keep American fertility rates depressed,” he speculates darkly in a representative column. “The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion.” The column in which this plangent cri de coeur appeared bears the subtle title “More Babies, Please.”
Despite the steady stream of alarmism from Douthat and his ilk, it can often seem that babies are the most powerful lobby in America. Politicians are forever clambering to demonstrate their “family values,” while the rest of us are consigned to weather a constant barrage of exhortations to do it — whatever it happens to be — “for the children.” The verdict in favor of compulsory motherhood was delivered perhaps most memorably by Theodore Roosevelt, who told the National Congress of Mothers in 1905 that women who choose not to reproduce are as useless as “unleavened bread.”
So, which is it? Are we drowning in propaganda for pregnancy, or is our society hostile to would-be parents and awash in late-modern malaise? The answer, according to two unusually thoughtful new books about birth, is that motherhood is simultaneously over- and undervalued. It is “venerated in places like the U.S. and the UK except when it comes time to pay the bill from the maternity ward, offer maternity leave, feed a mother’s children, or come up with solutions to the child care conundrum,” laments Jennifer Banks in “Natality: Toward a Philosophy of Birth.” Historian Peggy O’Donnell Heffington reiterates this claim in her probing study, “Without Children: The Long History of Not Being a Mother.” “Despite the expectation we all become mothers,” she writes, “we receive little support once we do.”
Just as motherhood is both an obligation and an afterthought, it is both a national obsession and the stuff of cheap talking points. There is no end of hand-wringing over careerists who forgo the delights of cherubim in favor of corporate paychecks, but careful interrogations of parenthood are few and far between. Both Banks and Heffington struggle to break with the established scripts, even linguistically. Banks begins by noting that “there is still no single, alternative word to express for birth what ‘mortality’ expresses for death,” namely “how birth shapes all human life, defining its limits and its possibilities,” while Heffington opens by reflecting that “we have a term for women with children, which is mother. What we don’t have is a great term for a woman without children other than ‘a woman without children.’” “Natality” and “woman without children” may be unfamiliar — even clunky — phrases, but they are appropriately jarring rebukes to the glibness of our usual rhetoric, which rarely seems to move beyond entreaties for “more babies, please.”
For all the panic about fertility rates, few evangelists of reproduction have paused to pose the question: Does it matter that we are born, rather than spawned or deposited in the world fully formed? This question could mean: Does it matter that we are bounded creatures, bookended by twinned expanses of nonexistence? Or alternatively, that each of us initially lived inside another person? Or alternatively again, that we depend so wholly on our caretakers for the first decades of our lives? Unfortunately, Banks never clarifies which of these many aspects of birth is central, and “Natality” is unwieldy as a result.
Heffington, who takes it upon herself to speak on behalf of the “unleavened bread” derided by Roosevelt, is more assertive. “Without Children” is a feat of diligent research and, better yet, blazing argument. It begins by debunking the persistent myth that Americans do not place a high premium on procreation. On the contrary, “the expectation that people sexed female at birth would become mothers was forged by a long history that sought to make reproduction into white American women’s primary civic contribution.” In 1873, a Justice of the Supreme Court wrote in a concurring opinion that “the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother,” and as recently as 1974, a couple who confessed that they did not want children on “60 Minutes” received death threats after the segment aired. The centuries-long cultural campaign in favor of procreation is one side of a historically eugenicist coin, and the other is even darker. Before America graduated to telling upwardly mobile White women that, if they decline to reproduce, they are avatars of late-modern decadence, it was forcibly sterilizing Black women in the Jim Crow south.
Heffington goes on to rebut several unsubstantiated yet persistent explanations for America’s increasingly childless estate, which range from mawkish (“late-modern exhaustion”) to downright conspiratorial (feminism is a plot designed to transform tender matriarchs into corporate mercenaries). In chapters that focus on common reasons for forgoing parenthood, Heffington shows that institutions assumed to be timeless and immutable are in fact historical anomalies, whereas practices presumed to be novelties are in fact longtime staples.