What to expect when you’re expected to be expecting: The microaggressive world of being a woman with the “choice” to have kids
I’m guessing I am not the only woman who has had an awkward experience with someone close to myself (frequently a family member) who means well but has nevertheless asserted a hasty assumption about my life choices based on their implicit biases about women:
(sitting at the dinner table with a grandfather figure) “I can’t wait until we have little ones running around the house again.” (slaps me on the back, grinning and winking)
(sitting in the room with this mother figure) “I’m saving your cousin’s old box of dolls for when [not if, but when] I have grandchildren. They won’t be going to anyone else.”
Here’s a newsflash to well-meaning maternal and paternal figures everywhere: A woman’s body is not yours to control, and it is not your source of entertainment. She deserves way more respect than that. She will not tap dance while playing the xylophone and popping out babies for you. This huge life decision is not a choice for you to make, and is consequently not a choice for you to microaggressively or overtly impose on her. It is not about what you want, but about what she needs. If you have a problem with that, it’s not her problem.
Microaggressions? What are you talking about, Janes?
“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” (Derald Wing Sue, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010)
These microaggressions are communicated based on race, gender, ethnicity, ability, class, religion, education, sexual orientation, among others. They reveal biases at the societal scale as well as at the smaller relationship levels between friends, family, and individuals. Microaggressions often go unacknowledged by the people receiving and giving them, arguably making them more harmful than forms of overt prejudice because they almost always go unchallenged. The person receiving these microaggressions might walk away from the experience barely detecting it, but still thinking to themselves, “Something didn’t feel right about what they said.”
Phrases and experiences like the two examples at the beginning of this post have microaggressive elements because the people initiating them are subtly communicating harmful expectations based on oppressive biases about women conforming to gender roles: that women are expected to raise children and to deal with the outcomes whether they want/need to or not. And/Or that women’s lives are meaningless if they don’t raise children, or women must raise children to make family members accept who they are as people. Despite whether someone intended to be understood this way or not, these expectations demean the woman’s identity, attempt to rob her of her autonomy, and disregard her life purpose and goals as a human being.
So what are you trying to say? That we all have to be super sensitive now? They didn’t mean to be hurtful, you’re just making it a bigger deal than it actually is.
The choice to bear and/or raise children is super personal and is actually a big f**king deal. Practically speaking, who has to carry this fragile being for nine months and fulfill its needs 24 hours a day? That’s right, she does. Even though gender roles continue to change over the years and slowly become less rigid and sexist, our mainstream social norms continue to expect the mother to bear a majority of the responsibility caring for the child. This means she has to be physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared for consistently meeting the needs of her child. This means she has to go through irreversible physical, mental, and emotional changes while caring for her child. While these changes can be positive they can also be deeply negative, particularly if she is not prepared for the responsibility or not given much of a choice in the situation.
This is a life-changing experience for her that will ripple out to so many other people and connections she shares, and that comes with a huge responsibility that does not get enough consideration in our society. To fundamentally change the symbiotic flux of energy we all share with everything by introducing a new entity to it is a deal so large we can’t even fathom the infinite number and level of impacts stemming from it.
And too many parents make this choice accidentally or purposefully without being adequately prepared for it financially, physically, or mentally. On emotional and physical levels, unprepared parents can unwittingly (and purposefully) damage their children in irreversible ways. Parents will often try to fulfill their emotional needs that weren’t met by their own parents when they were children by relying on their own kids to meet these needs. This is a real and prolific form of child abuse that is often exacerbated by that parent exhibiting symptoms of untreated mental illnesses, such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, substance and alcohol abuse, codependency, and other forms of mental illness.
These parents continue to re-create repressed traumas from their own childhoods in their children’s lives, continuing the vicious cycle of emotional and physical abuse for multiple generations. They either aren’t aware of their mental illnesses or never seek therapy to work through them because they either can’t afford therapy, their family is too afraid of them to offer therapy to them, they flat out refuse to go through therapy, or other reasons. As a result, these parents continue to traumatize and abuse their own children in tragically pervasive yet socially acceptable ways, and never feel fulfilled.
I can attempt to understand people’s desires to have grandchildren or other little family members. Kids are so special, and it can be exciting to take care of them and to watch them grow in so many wonderful and unique ways. It gives people the chance to see their family change and grow in uniquely special ways. However, no one has the right to impose this desire on a woman, for they cannot do so without imposing oppressive expectations on her identity or disregarding her as a human being. When it comes to making decisions about bearing/raising children or other responsibilities associated with women and gender roles (some of which have been used as traditional tools for oppressing women), it will always ultimately be the woman’s choice even after talking about this decision with her partner and family.
Wow, guess you don’t like kids very much. So, baby-hater, what do you propose we do instead?
I want to make myself abundantly clear: I am not saying that I don’t like kids. I think kids are awesome, and as an educator I love giving them opportunities to recognize their best selves. Kids are also some of the most marginalized groups of people in the world, and being raised by unprepared adults in abusive environments is one of the prolific ways in which they face daily oppression. I’m also not saying that women should never have kids, or that the woman’s partner and family are not allowed any input on the matter of bearing and raising children. What I am saying is that we need to give women an actual choice in the matter and not impose on them the biased assumption that they want to have kids because we think they do or should.
We need to work towards being more aware of our biases and privileges, and really pay attention to what we’re saying to the women in our lives, as well as all women and all people, really. This often means listening more and talking less. This means acknowledging that the decision to have children is a woman’s personal choice to make, and not anybody else’s. This requires understanding that we have no business telling women what to do with their bodies or what life decisions to make.
If we get called out for saying or doing something that was microaggressive to someone, we must strive to look beyond that stubborn defensive wall and to listen with compassion and understanding. We must strive to reflect with respect before reacting out of misunderstanding and hurt feelings, and to acknowledge that it’s okay to mess up sometimes because we’re human. Our mistakes don’t necessarily make us bad people, but how we choose to think and communicate to others about them can either stunt our growth or help us flourish. We must work towards understanding how identity is layered, and that all of those layers in all beings deserve thoughtful respect and love. This is one of the ways in which we can embark on a life journey striving for true respect and compassion, and show how we truly care for the people in our family and other relationship circles in our lives.
The purpose of this post isn’t to make people feel guilty about interacting with women in microaggressive ways. The point here is to gain greater understanding and to strengthen connections we have with each other and all things. For that is what it means to be human.