Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The old switcharoo

Somewhere in our now-epic-length discussions of law, religion, babies and anti-baby precautionary measures, Rita mentioned something about how women still seek out marriage more than men do. This I don't doubt. But it's also clear that women actively seek out birth control and premarital sexual involvement, at times even in cases where there's no chance of or hope for marriage down the line. And it's not that some women are Version A and others Version B; the same women experience both these desires. What exactly is going on?

While the Planned Parenthood and social-conservative ideologies do not overlap, and will never be argued for together in the same op-ed, they enjoy a lively coexistence in the hearts and minds of American women. Almost all of us receive both messages. It's the rare woman whose entire family, friend group, and media consumption point her towards just one value system or just the other. So on some level, we believe both. Both that we should have the same opportunities career-wise as men, which in many professions means not starting our own families at 18. We believe women should be able to have sex without facing risks any greater than do men. We also believe we should get married. We want two contradictory lifestyles, those advocated by two opposing advocacy groups.

To find out how the 'best' among us, the most envied, at any rate, reconcile this contradiction, look to the NYT Weddings pages, as so many have done before us. One would guess that all these successful, super-educated women marrying at 30 were not virgin brides, and that the grooms would for the most part be unnerved if this were the case. Yet they are indeed marrying. It's not that these upper-middle-class, mostly-NY-area (and thus liberal) success stories have rejected old ideals, or that they consider babies equivalent to disease. Believe me as a Park Slope resident, they adore babies. Rather, there's a conventional approach to each age range. It's still frowned upon to be unmarried at 35 (at which point women's chances are seen as quite slim), but the catch is that it's also considered bad news, low class, who knows, for women to be married at 25. The dilemma is not how to 'have it all,' but how to make the switch at the right time.

A less glamorous version of "Sex and the City" is what results when women buy into what we tell one another at age 20, that we value our freedom and want many different experiences, only to reach an age at which the rules have changed, the relationship equivalent of holding onto the belief that peers with good jobs are sell-outs into one's 40s.

1 comment:

Miss Self-Important said...

In terms of what educated, upper-class women actually do think about marriage and family, I think that's pretty accurate. I would add the caveat that many such women think that their employers need to be more accommodating of their dual urges to have careers and families, and they believe that some of the anxiety about "having it all" stems from this failure of employers to accommodate women as baby-havers. Not a wholly unwarranted position, I think. High-powered women having babies serves the long-term interests of employers as much as it serves the immediate desires of the women.

In general though, I think it might be worthwhile if you want to think about this more broadly to look into this ethic of control that keeps coming up. Both with birth control and with what you call the problem of "making the switch at the right time" between uncommitted sex/pursuit of career ambition to marriage/domestic obligation, the central problem seems to be the unreliability of our mechanisms of controlling these outcomes. Sometimes birth control fails, and our baby-having schedules are ruined by unexpected pregnancies (or unexpected infertility). Or, our detailed plans about when and how we will hop off the career track and onto the mommy track get derailed by circumstances. Then we stress, and we look to solutions--usually technological, though sometimes political--that will guarantee us more control. This applies too to our plans once we do succeed in marriage, career, and the timing of our baby-making. Then we can control the outcomes of the baby-making by selecting the baby's traits beforehand to make sure our future plans for our children don't get ruined by unfortunate genetic outcomes. But when our efforts at control fail, we are more inclined to think of it as injustice than if we never had expectations of controlling such things in the first place.

(Think here of the wrongful birth lawsuits in which families sue doctors who failed to accurately diagnose their children's serious birth defects in utero on the grounds that they would've aborted had they known. It only makes sense to think of this as an injustice if you believe that knowing such things about your baby in advance and being able to act on them is justice.)

Is this a realistic or good principle around which to organize women's (and men's too, really) lives? Or is there some value in thinking of public policy as something which should provide for unexpected events rather than more evenly distribute the means of control?

Maybe this is not such a clear statement of what I'm trying to say. I'll try to find something more well-written on this topic. In the meantime, more fodder for the never-ending debate.