Stone describes the choice rationale as a kind of "black box" filled with "influences that cannot be identified or disentangled" -- "a mystified catch-all of explanations." Among the professional women she studied, choice rhetoric "often had the effect of obscuring or rendering invisible to them the constraints they faced." Because women's full humanity -- and our social and biological role in human reproduction -- was never factored into to original accounts of who deserves rights and liberties in free societies, I propose that when women talk about work and family in terms of personal preference and "choice" -- a word that denotes agency, superiority, action, power, entitlement, self-determination, and an abundance of desirable options -- we're actually talking about the negative or opposite of choice: powerlessness, exclusion, subordination, self-denial, and limited, inferior options. Even though the discourse of maternal choice is presented as self-validating and empowering, it's ultimately a passive discourse because it accepts the status quo as just, fair and inevitable, and conceals the urgent need for fundamental change.
As Jean Baker Miller, the late author of Toward a New Psychology for Women, observes, "To create a society that would provide much fuller lives for women, men, and children would not be so difficult:"
What is difficult is to convince the culture to do it. We are often locked into forced and false choices without recognizing it, likely because we are so accustomed to thinking this way. These appear to be the only options, but we can easily think of many others. While major change in societal arrangements will take much hard work, many benefits follow from refusing false choices…When forced to choose between only two options -- being a fulltime parent or full-time worker -- we run the risk of feeling like failures. This is because neither one of the options is good enough.
How do we move from the rhetoric of choice to a discourse of change? We need to pry apart the black box and look inside. It won't be pleasant. But perhaps instead of talking about mothers and their choices, we can begin by talking about the dynamic elements that shape mothers' public and intimate lives and the unacceptable "choices" we're forced to make. I'm not suggesting we should attempt to eradicate "choice" from our vocabulary or conceptual arsenal, but that we need to qualify it in a different way. And we need to become aware that whenever we talk about women and choices, we're not talking just about rights and liberty, or the quality of life -- we're also talking about privilege and power.
The important thing to know is that despite pronouncements by anti-feminist pundits and at-home mom antagonists, mothers don't chose between equality and inequality, either at home or in the workplace. Women's equality was never on the bargaining table, because protection from discrimination (which woman have gained over the last forty years) has not displaced ingrained sexism, or guaranteed access to equal opportunity and rewards. In terms of self-determination, women's current option is to decide what kind of inequality and personal risk is more tolerable given the particular realities of our lives. This is not a "trade off." It's evidence of our culture's failure to accept women as equally human, or to recognize and support caregiving as a critical component of our social and economic infrastructure.
We need to strip away the choice mystique and get back to basics. When mothers talk about work, family, and the pressures of everyday life, we almost always talk about the same set of material concerns: love, care, time, work, money, opportunity, men & women, what children need, and difference. We also talk about a range of social states related to self-awareness and autonomy, such as identity, embodiment, spaces, mobility, visibility, community and integration of growth & change. And while the average mother may not use precisely these words, we use many metaphors, catch phrases, and narratives that center on the interaction of these elements in our daily lives, and we can use them to develop articulations of women, work and family that acknowledge differences in the social and economic consequences of maternity across race and class. Finally, if we want to move the conversation from a passive approach -- which accepts the way things are and prescribes individual solutions, such as making better choices -- to an active response which challenges the way things are and describes the way they ought to be, we need to re-introduce the critical frameworks of fairness and progress, not only in terms of equality of opportunity and responsibility for men and women, but also equality of outcomes.
Despite the obvious economic risks and occupational penalties associated with maternity, it's likely that most women will continue to desire, and to "choose," motherhood, and that mothers will continue to prefer -- and whenever possible, "opt" for -- work arrangements which are favorable to caring for families. Under the circumstances, this behavior can easily be construed as irrational or self-defeating (or as Linda Hirshman famously claimed, bad for women, bad for mothers, and bad for society). Or we can make the connection between loving, caring, and happiness, and consider that perhaps mothers are getting it right.
mmo: september/october 2007