Dispatches from the present
In a recent entry for Forms of Life, Becca Rothfeld criticizes cultural conservatives—Matthew Schmitz, Pedro Gonzalez and Helen Andrews, by name—for arguing, as she takes it, that women who dedicate their lives to their careers instead of having children are doomed to regret their choices. It’s all too easy, Rothfeld suggests, to claim that women who do not do interesting work, or who work out of necessity, might come to question prioritizing career over motherhood. But this is not the condition of all women, and it is certainly not Rothfeld’s, whose work as a writer and critic is “an exercise of ardor.” As for the others—all those women who have to wake up each morning and do “futile, unfulfilling tasks”—the problem isn’t that they are childless, it’s that they don’t have access to less soul-crushing opportunities. Transform the economy so that everyone can find purpose and meaning in their work, or have the time to seek it elsewhere, and the conservative argument for the urgency of child-rearing breaks down.
It’s true that Andrews, Schmitz and Gonzalez do not entertain remaking the economy to prioritize the kind of passionate work Rothfeld does, but, in their defense, I take their focus to be rather elsewhere. Gonzalez argues that corporations that breathlessly support abortion rights are simply heeding their bottom line, while Schmitz argues that the same productivity-driven attitude motivates pro-choice sentiments more widely. Both seem to have a point: in support of his claim, Schmitz quotes the dissenting justices on the Dobbs ruling, who argued that abortion availability is important because it has “large effects on women’s education, labor force participation, occupations, and earnings.” As for Andrews, she more or less assumes many women still want to have kids, somehow, someday: her main concern is that this abstract desire is not compatible with the career paths they are widely encouraged to aspire to.
Alright, alright: they may not explicitly say that women who do not subjugate work to motherhood will come to regret their choices, but they sure think it, don’t they? Probably, yes. Or maybe liberal and progressive women worry about such a prospect themselves. Either way, Rothfeld’s critique seems apt and important: Rothfeld claims that what makes work feel tedious, meaningless and lame, at least when compared to the lost prospect of having a child, has to do with our particular economic system, capitalism. (“The problem is not women working: the problem is work as it is currently configured.”) And it is certainly true that many jobs are onerous not only because of hazardous work conditions or degrading schemes of remuneration, but also because capitalism warps the kinds of activities people can engage in in order to live and try to prosper.
But is it really true that everyone could enjoy the sense of purpose and passion that Rothfeld finds in her own reading, thinking and writing if only we “reconfigured work”? After the revolution no less than now, food will have to be grown, produced, prepared. Everything—from our clothes to our homes, our workplaces and the halls where we gather to deliberate and rejoice, even that infernal gathering of, let’s call it, “debris” in urban sewers referred to as the fatberg (the fatberg!)—all of it must be cleaned, day in and day out. The robots will have to be maintained; the young, the old and the infirm will have to be cared for. People may well perform many of these tasks passionately and with a sense of purpose, fatberg notwithstanding. Nor is it impossible to imagine a world in which these activities are well rewarded, performed with pride and confer dignity upon those who do them. But it isn’t just capitalism’s fault that our toil is sometimes dull, or painful, or not in itself capable of fulfilling a person’s highest aspirations. Even under perfectly equitable conditions, is it not probable that many people would not find ultimate satisfaction in raising a tomato?
Now, of course, for some, as a matter of personal preference, some jobs could really offer a sense of highest satisfaction, perhaps as Rothfeld’s does to her. And, even objectively speaking, Rothfeld is not wrong to remind us of Socrates’s suggestion in the Symposium that the propagation of the species might be of a lower order than the propagation of ideas, though one must not forget to ask what the latter would look like without the former. But if the conservatives ever had a real point, it was never that under current conditions, women should seek to do the one good thing still available to them—namely, have children. The deeper claim is that having children is a real good: maybe not for all, but for many women and men, to affirm the gift of life that they themselves have received by allowing someone else to enjoy it really is an integral part of what it means, not merely subjectively but in truth, to live a fulfilling human life. It’s because it is a good of such a kind that even under the exploitative trap and spiritual desert that is late capitalism, it isn’t just good in comparison to available alternatives, but remains good.
And the problem with Andrews’s argument is not simply that she assumes all jobs can’t be as satisfying as giving and nurturing human life. Nor is she mistaken that it is challenging to combine raising children with a career—the day really does have 24 hours, and, if you ever plan to see your kids after they are born, something is going to have to give. The problem is that, for reasons she does not go into, Andrews refuses so much as to consider the possibility that the responsibilities and burdens of raising children could be shared. “Once you lead women down the primrose path of thinking they can have a career just like a man and also the family that they want,” Andrews writes archly, “then millions of women are going to try and do that.” But in a world that recognizes the value of children, no one should be able to have a career “just like a man,” in the sense Andrews means it.
Twenty months into raising my daughter, I am well aware of the many ways in which early parenting duties fall more heavily on the shoulders of the people who give birth to the babies. But I have also learned, to my amazement and not without horror, that in most ordinary cases, pregnancy and delivery—as taxing as they are—remain the easy part. Things are complicated by the choice to breastfeed, but that too does not last forever. Beyond this, gender has very little predictive power as to who is more capable of functioning on what amount of sleep, who is less likely to find themselves bored out of their minds spending the requisite hours with their infants and toddlers, who is more adept at the endless research and purchase of the material goods allegedly necessary to ensure survival and thriving, or the Sudoku-like rigging of schedules. And gender, if ever it could, can no longer predict who would be happy to take time off work and who would miss it so much that at the end of a two-week “vacation” with their child she would find a day of grading (grading!) to be restorative.
In the end, Rothfeld is right that conservatives either cannot recognize or are pretending not to see her, or me, or themselves in Andrews’s case—an ambitious and successful author, magazine editor and political commentator who has hardly let young motherhood slow her down. But the point cannot be just that intellectually ambitious women might have better things to do with their time than have children; it’s that spiritual thriving and intellectual ambition, no less than the nurturing of new life, are what make us not men or women, but human beings.