Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Children in the Public Sphere

So this is  my looooong overdue follow-up post to my query regarding "cultural differences" in the appropriateness of babies in the public sphere.

So the context - I was at a workshop for board members of nonprofit organizations, working the registration table.  One of the women - who I will assume was a board member of her nonprofit organization - came with her infant who looked to be just under the age of one.  She brought him in a stroller, had a bottle to feed him with (that of course is a whole different discussion, but just making the point that this was an objection to the presence of an infant, not anything like :::gasp::: nursing in public), some snack foods and some quiet toys.  When she registered and entered the room the child was quiet.  There were several other folks working the registration table with me, some who had children, others who did not. Their unanimous opinion was that the very existence of the baby in this public space was inappropriate. 

Ultimately the mom decided she was not able to keep the baby happy enough that she felt comfortable staying.  I held the little guy while she used the bathroom before she left and she mentioned that she was not the original board member who was planning to come, but that she had been asked to fill in at the last minute and then was not able to find childcare. Non of which is particularly relevant except that it is a story so many women (or men) who act as the primary caregivers of their children can tell - childcare is unavailable or unusable because of a non-separating child.

So here is where I am going to go with this post - I think that this type of attitude acts as a form of political oppression, usually for women (but again also for men who act as the primary caregivers).  We have all heard/read the statistics about number of women who are active in public or political life - many fewer than men.  We also see the examples of women who do "make it" - often women who are childless or have one or two children and utilize non-family care for their children (or the extremely rare situations where a second parent is the "stay-at-home" home parent, but I honestly cannot think of a single public example of that situation.  If you can please share!).  In other words, women who are relieved of their role as "mother".  

European Parliament member Licia Ronzulli of the Group of the European People's Party has her baby in a wraparound baby carrier as she participates in a voting during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, 11/29/10

Now before anyone assigns motivation that I do not have, I am *not* arguing for biological determinism.  I do however feel that available scientific evidence indicates that there are specific biological roles that mothers can play during infancy that are extremely difficult if not impossible to reproduce and I believe that by pretending otherwise we are thumbing our noses at everything we know about natural evolution and adaptation. I also believe (as evidenced by the premise of this blog) that raising children, particularly infants and toddlers, in large institutional group settings is a grand cultural experiment with what appear to be less than promising preliminary results.  

But let's just talk about women and choices.  I've tried writing this paragraph a dozen different ways and I cannot put it together without sounding like a list of judgments, so bear with me and assume I'm making a literary point somewhat clumsily.... Can women be happy and fulfilled without having children - of course!  Is a woman less of a woman or a mother because she would choose to have someone else do the majority of the primary care of her children (partner, other family member, paid help, whatever) - of course not!  And is it okay for women to have children (avoiding for the moment any arguments about over population, anchor babies, families who receive public assistance, and the like) - I'm guessing most would also say yes.  And if a woman wants to be the primary caretaker of her children is it okay that she make that choice (again avoiding the wedge issue political arguments) - again I think most would say yes (ignoring the Linda Hirshmans of the world).
Roselle Park Councilwoman Larissa Chen-Hoerning, with her newborn son, Enzo, discusses an ordinance with Councilman Modesto Miranda at a council meeting earlier this month. 3/14/10
So why is only one half of this group (women without children or women who are not primary caretakers) considered to have any value to public discourse?  Does that act of care taking render parents unable to make intelligent contributions? Is the sensibilities of the rest of society so fragile that they would find it impossible to comport themselves normally if a child were in their midst? What are the consequences when we tell women (parents) that they have to choose between the care of their children and our willingness to allow them to contribute to the world beyond their family walls.  In this sense it is not the act of care taking which is marginalizing, but the attitudes towards care taking. Do the women pictured above look incapable of carrying out their duties? Do you know how hard it is to find pictures of women (or men) with babies in public forums? 

It is notable that in many other countries women play a much larger role in governing.  There are all sorts of differences that come into play - greater government support for both family care taking and non-family care takers, closer family and community ties and political seats set-aside for women representation.  But I also have to wonder about the fact that in many other parts of world children are expected to actually be part of the world.  They are contributing in substantial ways (unfortunately sometimes to the determent of the child), but often they are just doing the things that children do.  And their presence is not considered unusual or problematic. How freeing is that to the women in those places - if children do not have to be isolated then women (as the most usual primary caretaker) do not have to be isolated either.  How would that change things here?

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