Stop Asking Women If They’re Going To Have Kids

I wrote an article at the Daily Dot about Jennifer Aniston’s response to being asked about having children, and why you should stop asking women this question.

The Internet—and universe at large—may be very concerned about whether or not Jennifer Aniston is planning on having children, but she’s not. In an interview on Today this past week, Aniston opened up about constantly being asked about kids. She said:

I don’t have this sort of checklist of things that have to be done, and…if they’re not checked, then I’ve failed some part of my feminism or my being a woman or my worth and my value as a woman because I haven’t birthed a child….I’ve birthed a lot of things, and I feel like I’ve mothered many things….And I don’t feel like it’s fair to put that pressure on people.

Aniston is not alone in dealing with these sorts of questions. Many adult women, famous and not, field them. If we’re unmarried, we’re asked if we aren’t worried about the “biological clock.” If we’re married, we’re asked when there are going to be kids.

It’s a common question to ask, but it’s a subject so deeply personal and intrusive that I’m amazed so many people still think it’s appropriate to ask about. What are the potential answers there? “Yes, I want children, but I haven’t met someone that I could have them with?” “Yes, I want children, but it’s medically impossible for me?” “Yes, I want children, but I can’t afford it?” “Yes, I want children, and I’m trying to conceive?” “No, I don’t want children?”

The latter is true for some women, but if we say it directly, we just open ourselves up to more questions. “Why not?” “How could a woman not want children?” “But what will your husband say?” “So what are you going to do with your life?” “Why are you so selfish?”

But those who do want children and say so must then reveal either intimate details about their sex lives (“We’re trying”) or other personal information that they shouldn’t feel obligated to disclose (“I can’t conceive” or “My finances aren’t really conducive to that right now”).

It’s not surprising, then, that celebrity women often have to tiptoe around this question. For instance, Aniston didn’t say in her interview whether or not she wants children or wished she’d had them.

What she did say, though, cleverly subverted the intent of the original question while framing it as unfair to ask. Aniston noted that she hasn’t “failed” at being a woman by not having children and that she’s created many other things—perhaps instead of having children. And while the trope of the woman who compensates for not having children by putting everything into her career is pervasive and negative, it’s important to note that different things are fulfilling for different people. From her wording, it’s clear that the things Aniston has spent her life doing have been meaningful.

Read the rest here.

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

~~~

*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

More On Depression Origins and Parenting

Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.

“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.

“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”

And here’s what I said:

Hey there,

Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:

Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?

Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.

Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.

Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.

If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!

Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?

No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:

Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?

She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.

If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.

What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.

Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.

Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?

These things matter.

Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.

I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.

Public Breastfeeding Should Not Be a Big Deal

Something’s wrong with our culture if this is appropriate in public, but breastfeeding is not.

Breastfeeding has been somewhat of a hot topic lately. On one hand, mothers’ decision to breastfeed or not has been subject to intense moralizing and even actual regulation, which is creepy.

On the other hand, public breastfeeding has been under attack, too. Facebook disables/deletes accounts of people who post photos of themselves breastfeeding. Mothers lose their jobs and get kicked out of public places because of it. This spring, people were actually debating whether or not mothers in the military should breastfeed while in uniform.

Every time, the justification is that breastfeeding constitutes “indecent exposure” (or even pedophilia, depending on who’s doing the breastfeeding). The protest “There are children here!” gets thrown around a lot, which is ironic given that what’s at stake is the fact that infants need to be fed, and pretty often at that. But no, what matters more is that women’s breasts are presumed to be sexual, whether women themselves see them that way or not.

This cartoon summarizes my thoughts on the issue:

The reality is that breasts are everywhere in our public spaces. They’re used to advertise not just bras, but vegetable oil, men’s cologne, french fries, and TV shows. Beaches and swimming pools, which are always full of children, are also full of women in bikinis. And no matter where you go in the U.S., aside from perhaps certain parts of Brooklyn, you’re going to see women in low-cut shirts.

And yet, breastfeeding in public remains controversial. Why?

First of all, it seems that our culture has decided–somewhat arbitrarily–that the only “indecent” parts of the breast are the areola and nipple. Although those are the most sensitive parts, this nevertheless seems strange to me. People who find breasts attractive and arousing aren’t just attracted to their areolas and nipples. To say that those are the only “indecent” parts would be like saying that women should be free to walk around with their labia showing, but not their clitoris or vagina. What?! (But of course, vaginas and clitorises are much easier to hide.)

Besides, when a mother nurses an infant, you can’t see anything that you don’t see in all those ads and at the beach, except for that brief moment when she’s first taking her breast out (or “whipping” it out, as the hand-wringers love to say, in total defiance of human anatomy). All this fuss for a few seconds during which someone might possibly see a nipple?

What’s perhaps more to the point is that our culture has decided that breasts are always inherently sexual, no matter what they’re being used for. They are always sexual, and in a different way than, say, a man’s beautifully toned pectoral muscles–which can be displayed in virtually any public setting even without cries of “There are children here!”–even though there’s no infant depending upon them for survival.

The reason I say that “our culture” has decided that breasts are sexual is because there are other cultures that haven’t. Even a cursory glance through a National Geographic magazine will show you that many people around the world think that naked breasts are no big deal. Women walk around topless and life goes on. Even in Europe, topless sunbathing is normal, and the children there grow up just fine, without being traumatized by the sight of boobs.

(And, on the flip side, some cultures sexualize things that we would never think of sexually, such as hair.)

But regardless, we’ve created a culture in which breasts are sexual. Now what?

Well, now we ask ourselves what’s more important–mothers’ need to feed their infants quickly and easily, or children growing up without ever seeing naked breasts. Since I’ve yet to see any evidence for the latter being harmful, I think we should prioritize the former.

What’s ironic is that when breasts are on display for the purpose of advertising or enhancing women’s sex appeal, that’s okay. But when they’re on display for a clearly nonsexual purpose, such as providing sustenance for an infant, then it’s suddenly “inappropriate,” and won’t anybody think of the children.

Right now, we have ourselves a dilemma. Women are being commanded by doctors and politicians to breastfeed rather than use formula. And yet, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that provides no guaranteed maternity leave. There’s no government-sponsored daycare, either, and funding for childcare subsidies is being cut left and right. This leaves many mothers with few options other than breastfeeding their babies, often in public.

But we wring our hands over how “indecent” and “sexual” this basic human act is.

When Tough Love Becomes Abusive

Okay, so, I realize I’m showing up rather late to the laptop-shooting party, but I didn’t want to let this bit of news pass by without writing about my reaction to it–not only to the incident itself, but to the various responses I’ve seen to it from the public.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this:

In short–for those who don’t want to waste their time–girl rants about her parents on Facebook. Daddy decides that the correct course of action is not to, say, sit down and have a chat with his daughter, revoke her computer privileges, have her deactivate/delete her Facebook, or otherwise utilize actual parenting skills. No. Instead, Daddy posts a video rant about his daughter on the Internet (sound like anyone else in the family?) in which he shoots her laptop with a gun.

Okay. A few things:

  1. This father’s actions are abusive. I’m sorry if you don’t like that. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit with your view of “traditional” parent-child relationships. According to modern definitions of domestic violence, destroying someone’s property in order to hurt or manipulate them constitutes abuse. (It’s in there, look it up.)
  2. And that’s only regarding the actual shooting of the laptop. As regards posting the video online, well, I hope it’s pretty obvious why I have a huge problem with parents exploiting their children for their fifteen seconds of fame. Especially when this involves violence.
  3. This girl does seem quite bratty and entitled. However, there is nothing a person can do–especially not if that person is a child–that justifies abusing them.
  4. That said, I’m not entirely sure that the girl’s Facebook rant was entirely unjustified. Immature and ill-advised, sure. But based on her father’s reaction, I wouldn’t say that her parents treat her fairly.

According to the ABC article I linked to, the police and Child Protective Services promptly paid the man a visit, but apparently they didn’t find anything wrong with the scenario. In fact, they told him, “Kudos, sir.”

There are plenty of tragic things about this incident. One is the fact that a girl is being abused. Another is the fact that her abuse is now captured for posterity on the internet. Another is that things are only going to get worse from here, both in terms of her relationship with her parents and in terms of her emotional health. Another is that her father seems to genuinely believe that he did the right thing by “teaching her a lesson.” And another is that the only “lesson” this girl has been taught is that guns are an appropriate way to express your anger at people.

One more issue, however, stands out as particularly sad, and that is the public reaction to the father’s video.

I am ashamed to say that I saw this video posted by my friends in my Facebook newsfeed with comments like “hilarious” and “what a hero.” I’m not proud to have friends who apparently condone domestic abuse as long as it’s amusing to them. If you watched this video and you laughed, I really urge you to reconsider your personal definition of humor, and I hope that you’ll take abuse out of that definition.

A hero is a parent who raises a difficult child with compassion. A hero is a parent with the strength to not take children’s bad behavior as a personal insult, but rather as a sign that more growth is needed.

This father is not a hero. He’s an abuser. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Gender-free Parenting

Maybe in the future.

So a couple in Toronto has decided to keep their newborn baby’s sex a secret from friends and family in order to help the child develop free of gender roles. I have so much difficulty deciding what to think of this. Because first of all, it’s nice to see someone trying to raise their children in a way that allows them to express themselves and be free of this typical “boys must not cry” and “girls must be pretty” bullshit.

However, people need to be realistic. As this Thought Catalog post wisely points out, kids in elementary school segregate themselves by gender and choose their friends accordingly. Who will be friends with little Storm?

Furthermore, Storm’s parents aren’t simply allowing him/her/zer to choose an identity–they’re imposing one. It’s one thing to allow your child to experiment and choose how to act, what to wear, and so on. But it’s entirely another to try to force a child to grow up without a gender at all. The idea should be that regardless of what’s in your pants, you should be allowed to express yourself. Hiding basic biological truths from a child’s friends and family is, in my opinion, going overboard.

There’s also the uncomfortable sense that Storm’s parents might be a bit more concerned with making grand political statements than seeing that their child grows up happy. The email they sent to friends and family said, “We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime…”

But the thing is, what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime just isn’t what it is right now. A responsible parent raises children with a healthy balance of realism and idealism–not one rather than the other. For instance, I’m sure my parents wish that someday I could walk down the street alone at night in a miniskirt and face no threat of sexual assault. But right now, I can’t do that. So they see to it that I don’t go out dressed like that. I’m sure they also wish that I could freely disclose my diagnosis of depression to whoever I want and face no stigma or prejudice, but that’s not how things are right now. So they tell me to be careful about whom I tell. (Granted, I choose to blog about it anyway, but that’s a choice I’ve consciously made.)

Back to the point. If the intention of Storm’s parents in keeping their child’s biological sex a secret was simply to prevent friends and family from making gendered remarks (and giving gendered presents)…well, I’d like to think that they respect their friends and family enough to be able to ask them politely to refrain. They could ask for non-gendered gifts. They could suggest ways to play with or compliment their child that don’t include references to gender (for instance, saying “Good job” instead of “Good boy/girl”). Sure, that would be a bit more difficult than simply keeping Storm’s sex a secret, but it would be less ridiculously dramatic, that’s for sure.

I’m not sure I see anything good coming of this. Raising a child who flaunts societal norms is a great thing, but that child should be old enough to understand the consequences that, unfortunately and inevitably, arise. A teenager who decides to (for example) dress androgynously knows that others will inevitably react in a negative way. But a little kid can’t possibly understand that. The thought of Storm coming home every day crying because all the other kids make fun of him/her/zer for no apparent reason makes me really sad, and it makes me wonder why these parents are putting their political beliefs before their child’s happiness.

For another (great) post on this topic that I completely agree with, see “A Child is Not a Billboard” by Clarissa.

Think of the Children

Being a 20-year-old college student, I don’t often write about issues relating to children. However, not only do I plan on having kids someday, but I also think that how our society relates to children is often a fascinating subject to study. Furthermore, some things just piss me off.

The subject of this post is both fascinating and infuriating. A blog I follow called Free Range Kids had a post several days ago describing a new law in the works in New Jersey:

We’re getting to the point where ANYTHING having to do with children is so fraught with inflated fears that we are going absolutely crazy. Consider this bill just introduced in the New Jersey state assembly: It would outlaw the photographing or videotaping of kids in situations in which “a reasonable parent or guardian would not expect his child to be the subject of such reproduction.”

According to the post, the reason for this new law is that last summer, a 63-year-old man was caught taking photos of (fully-clothed) girls because, according to him, he finds prepubescent girls “sexy.” While this is, of course, culturally unacceptable (not to mention pretty gross), does it really harm anyone? Is it really that much worse than a camera-less old man simply watching those girls and discreetly masturbating?

Furthermore, as the post mentions, this law would criminalize anyone who takes pictures of their kids in a sports game or at a birthday party, or anyone who takes artistic photographs in public places, which may include children. Since I’m basically my family’s unofficial photographer, I can definitely imagine how frustrating that would be.

I think the question these lawmakers need to ask is, how would this law make children safer? It does nothing to prevent pedophilia or childhood sexual abuse. Someone who has a strong enough sexual urge towards kids to do something like this is unlikely to be restrained by any law, especially when it’s so easy to take photos on the sly.

Ultimately, law-making is about balance. Laws should not cause way more trouble for law-abiding citizens than they’re worth, and this one definitely does.