Choice Feminism Part II

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I mentioned in Part I of Choice Feminism that I try to make choices that minimize my complicity in systems of oppression. As a black, African woman, I reject white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia, because to not do so would be to be complicit in my own oppression. However, I believe that my responsibility does not stop there. As someone who does have certain forms of privilege, like cis privilege, and a degree of class privilege (I’m part of what economist Guy Standing calls “the precariat”, that is, someone who doesn’t have job security, but I am still well-educated and have a job for the time being), hetero privilege and other forms of privilege I may not even know about yet, I also see it as my responsibility stand up for the rights of other people who don’t have those forms of privilege.

To that end, I try to make choices that  minimize my participation in white supremacy; capitalism, and patriarchy to the best of my ability. Still, I make choices all the time that support oppressive systems. I buy products made and sold by corporations. I have an iPhone and I’m typing this on a computer, even though I know that people — black people — die in wars to control access to cobalt. I fly, even while knowing the effect that planes have on the environment. I do these things not only to be a society (it would be difficult to hold down a job in development without at least using a phone, computer, or ever traveling at all) but also for my own enjoyment. I like watching Netflix and keeping in touch with my friends all over the globe. I like to see different countries. I go to Japan to see my family.

I think, though, that one difference between capitalism and patriarchy is that while capitalism and requires people to be obsessed with consuming, a capitalist economy can exist alongside a socialist welfare system. In Switzerland, where I work, for example, salaries tend to be high to allow people a decent living standard (although this happens alongside their complicity in eroding women’s rights around the world by providing tax havens to allow the 1% to avoid paying their taxes).Patriarchy, on the other hand, cannot exist alongside gender equality.

I recognize that people, particularly those who are not white, male, and straight,  are conditioned into rejecting, suppressing, or hating parts of themselves or their whole identities thanks to the society we live in, regardless of where we are.  And we’re rewarded for doing so, even as we’re slowly killing our authentic selves. We receive access to employment opportunities when we destroy our natural hair, it’s easier to find a partner, and it’s just generally easier to navigate the world when we capitulate than when we resist. But it’s still reductive to ignore the fact that these choices help support our oppression and that of others who share some or all of our identities. Saying that feminism is about choice is not entirely erroneous, but it’s too simplistic to leave it at that without further unpacking why we make the choices we do.

The overwhelming majority of married women I know, for example, were thrilled to take their husbands names and give their children their husbands names, because the erasure of their lineage is something to be proud of. At least, that’s how it looks to me, although no one has ever said that to me in so many words. That’s a choice they are “allowed” to make, no question. But many of them posted social media statuses and articles about how it was a feminist choice, because feminism is about choice. And while it is a choice, it is certainly not a feminist one.

I often (read: constantly) run into other people who are not the beneficiaries of these systems, and are much victims of them, trying to railroad other people into participating in them. On a personal level, I constantly have people disrespecting my choices and identity, and trying to alternately to persuade, mock, or bully me into participating in patriarchal heteronormative relationships, have a child which I don’t want, cut off my locs and straighten my hair, wear makeup, get my nails done, wear dresses, and stop lifting weights, to name a few patriarchy- and white supremacy-approved behaviors.

If you are a woman who experiences patriarchy on a daily basis — policing of your appearance, nonstop attempts to legislate your reproductive organs, a wage gap, being kept out of employment because a man in power either thinks you’re too pretty and he will get “tempted” or alternatively that you’re “too ugly” and what’s the point?, sexual harassment and assault — and you run into a woman who has decided that none of that is for her, why is it so important to you that other women choose to actively participate in the system(s) that harm both of you? 

Like Sway, I don’t have the all the answers. But I don’t think that means it’s invalid for me to ask the questions in the name of “respecting people’s choices”.  Do I go up to random strangers and berate them about their unfeminist choices? Of course not. But it is clear to me, that at the very least, making choices that are true to your identity (living with a same-sex partner, not wearing high heels or dresses, transitioning to a different gender, being childfree, being atheist or having a subaltern sexuality) is different from making a choice that is the result of patriarchal conditioning.

 

 

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

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I Regret Everything: Mothers Speaking Out About Their Parenting Experiences

neonbrand-395901-unsplashI’m part of a growing movement of vocally childfree people who eschew the idea that parenthood is a requirement to inhabit the planet. Another parallel movement is that of regretful mothers. Perhaps most famously, Corinne Maier, a now 54-year old French woman, wrote No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not to Have Children in 2008.

The backlash against women who are vocal about their regret has been vitriolic. In a Maclean’s article from earlier this year, women report receiving threats of sexual assault and death, as well as being told that their children deserve a better mother. The article’s author, Anne Kingston, argues that “Parents now raise children in a far more difficult, competitive world and are pressured to do more with far less.” One of her interviewees, Andrea O’Reilly, a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies says that “Expectations have been ramped up to such a point that standards are impossible to achieve.”

While it’s true, that life, which includes parenting, has become far more performative, thanks in large part to social media, and that materialism and erosion of benefits from the state certainly haven’t made things easier, I don’t know if I’d agree that parenting has become more difficult, at least not from the women in high-income countries featured in the article and who are writing these books.After all, we have levels of infrastructure that our peers living years ago may not have even been able to fathom: running water inside our houses, cars, public transportation, slow-cookers and stores filled with (unethical) cheap fast fashion to cut down on the amount of time it takes to adult.

(Perhaps) unsurprisingly, the article features no experiences from women in developing countries in Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Perhaps because that wasn’t Kingston’s focus, but maybe also because none of these women have the room to express regret, even to themselves.

In low- and middle-income countries, it’s still the norm to live in extended family units, especially outside of urban centers, thus giving parents — mothers, more specifically, since they tend to be the primary caregivers — a built-in support network. For me, personally, though, this would not be a viable solution, even I wanted to become a mother. Right now, I live in Europe, where people don’t live with their extended families after marriage, and I wouldn’t want to move back to Ghana to raise kids (that is, if I weren’t childfree). While it’s true that I would have logistical support, allowing me to continue to pursue my career, I simply wouldn’t wouldn’t want my children raised by my extended family. Parental influence can only do so much, and I wouldn’t want my offspring to be raised in a house and culture where they were told that Christianity is the only acceptable belief system, that personal boundaries and consent are nonexistent, especially for girls, that the sex that you are assigned at birth means you must adhere to certain oppressive behaviors and that there is no room for experimentation or deviation, and that your life has to follow a specifically laid-out script that was determined by colonial powers who left decades ago.

And it wouldn’t be tenable here either: I live in a tiny studio where there isn’t even enough space for me, let alone a human I am meant to be raising, my salary by local standards is… shall we say uncompetitive?, I have no benefits (like a pension or parental leave) and childcare, when available is extortionate. I simply have no room in my life to be a mother, logistically, emotionally, or developmentally.

In The Myth of Mothering Joy, Sarah Fischer, describes being a mother as “incontinence, boredom, weight gain, saggy breasts, depression, the end of romance, lack of sleep, dumbing down, career downturn, loss of sex drive, poverty, exhaustion and lack of fulfillment.”

For someone who wants to be a mother, all of that might be worth it. Clearly, for some of them, it wasn’t. I’m certain that that’s a path I will never tread.

What was it that Robert Frost said?

 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

Challenging Assumptions, Changing Lives: An Interview with Nina Steele

Nina Steele

Today’s interview is with Nina Steele, the 42-year old founder of nonparents.com.

Can you tell me about yourself?

I am originally from the Ivory Coast, now a British citizen. In short, I am a British Ivorian.

In terms of which ethnic groups, I would rather be known as Ivorian as opposed to a specific ethnic group. This is because ethnicity in Africa, and the Ivory Coast , has  become a highly divisive issue. People have lost their lives because of it, so I prefer the more inclusive approach of identifying myself as an Ivorian.

What do you do for work?

I work full time running nonparents.com. It’s a global community for people without children either by choice or circumstance. The site’s overriding aim is to promote a positive image of people without children. For far too long, the narrative has been that we are all destined to be parents, and that those without children are somehow missing out. The site debunks that myth by showing how fulfilling being a non-parent can be. From having more money to spare, to the freedom of doing all those things that parents often have to wait until the children have left home to start doing, the advantages of being a non-parent are endless.

Another myth the site has continuously challenged is the assumption that anyone without children will automatically suffer loneliness in old age, implying that parents always have their children around in old age to look after them. Well, I worked for an old people’s charity for eight years, and I can put that myth to bed. In my former job, the majority of elderly people who complained of being lonely had children. Being lonely in old age can strike anyone, regardless of whether they have children or not.

How long have you been childfree? Have you always known that you wouldn’t have children?

After trying to conceive for 9 years, my husband and I chose to accept that having children was never meant to be. Once we made the decision to stop trying, we never looked back. That was in 2013. In retrospect, I can see clearly that the only reason why I kept trying was because I had bought into the narrative that having children is a must for every couple. Not only that, coming from an African culture where having children is viewed as a person’s greatest achievement contributed to warping my view about what constitutes a life well lived. But of course, I became enlightened and realized how misleading all this message about parenthood is. For example, many of my relatives in the Ivory Coast have children they cannot afford. Some of the children are left to fend for themselves. And of course, many of us know of children in Nigeria and other parts of Africa being abandoned for being witches. I mean, the utter hypocrisy of it!

How have your family and friends reacted to you being childfree?

There was resistance at first. Some of my relatives had assumed that we would end up adopting. Now that everyone can see how happy we are as a couple, the subject of children is seldom mentioned.

You mentioned your husband. How does your partner feel about you being childfree?

My husband was never keen on having children to begin with. It was me who wanted them at first because of all the societal pressures and cultural issues I mentioned before. He is as happy to be childfree as I am.

Do you feel that society is accepting of your decision?

My relatives have certainly accepted our choice to be childfree. As for society, overpopulation (and all the issues that come with it) is forcing people to reassess their views on children. It is now obvious that finite resources cannot sustain an ever growing population. Not only that, increased pollution and damage to the environment are linked to overpopulation. These are issues that will affect all of us.

Do you think your advocacy is contributing to changing ideas about being childfree in general and for black people in particular?

My website is translated in 30 languages and so reaches people in all corners of the globe. I feel strongly about educating people about the benefits and advantages of being childfree. For too long, the narrative has been negative around this issue. But thankfully, people are now waking up to the reality that parenthood is far from the ideal we have been made to believe that it is.

As for black people in particular, I  believe that social media and the Internet in general are helping many see that parenthood is not the only way. Many people from Africa have reached out to me through social media to tell me how much finding my website has changed their lives. A woman from Nigeria whose husband left her because she could not conceive went from being totally depressed to being empowered, thanks to nonparents.com. She is one of many, and that’s just the beginning. As the site continues to grow, I anticipate that many more lives will be impacted positively, wherever people happen to be in the world.

Photo credit: Nina Steele

No, You DO Want to Date! Single-Shaming and the Childfree African

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I came to party on my own

Four years ago, I made the decision, after an awful date (not entirely unlike Grace’s encounter with Aziz Ansari), to stop dating men.

I’m not going to go into details, about what happened, but it was an awful date. I did what people screaming on the internet about how Grace should’ve said no and was ridiculous to expect Aziz Ansari to be a mind reader (I’m not going to give any of those garbage takes clicks, but you can find them if you Google.) I said the word “No” explicitly and repeatedly, and dude didn’t give a shit.

I deleted him from Facebook, and he sent me a message saying “Oh! I see we’re not friends on Facebook anymore!” A month later, he sent me a message cussing me out for not fucking him. For context, this is a man that my roommate at the time set me up with, so I had gone into it expecting to not have to be on guard for rapey behavior.

So I quit dating. Prior to this, my entire dating experience had been with men, and to say that it had been awful would be an understatement. For some reason, any time people find out that I am no longer dating, I have experienced the whole range of disrespectful behaviors that childfree people are usually subjected to, only this time for a different reason.  From people asking me “What would you do if you met someone you really liked?” (Does “I don’t date” sound like “I’d be willing to date someone if I met someone I really liked”?), “Are you seeing anyone?” (What part of “I don’t date” makes you think I’d be seeing someone?), arguing with me nonstop (some nonsensical version of “You have to go out with guys”), giving me unsolicited sexist advice on dating men (“you see, men want a woman who will play hard to get” — how the fuck is that relevant? I don’t give a shit what men want) and even going as far as to bringing other people into the discussion to get them to gang up on me.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, my entire life, I assumed that I’d meet someone one day, because I had bought into the bullshit cultural narrative that “There’s someone for everyone!” (There is literally no evidence to back up this claim, but it’s often repeated as though it’s some kind of a universal truth.) I did once get engaged to someone, but that relationship didn’t work out. I  eventually came to terms with the fact that there is a huge disconnect with what I want from a relationship and what men actually do. Yet, people  find it extremely important to blatantly disrespect me and try to force their amatonormative  values on me, and try to argue me into continuing to put myself in harm’s way. As we’ve found out, even a man who’s made a name and tons of money off of marketing himself as a feminist ally, going as far as to write a book about modern romance, isn’t a safe person for a woman to be around. (There were already hints of this in his first stand-up, but I wrongly believed he had learned and evolved his ideas on women.)

So yeah, there might be a handful of good guys out there, but is it a good use of my time to keep putting myself in physical and emotional danger just on the off chance that I happen to meet one of the good ones, who also happens to be available, who I am attracted to and who is also attracted to me, and is also childfree?

Obviously, it’s not. I just can’t wrap my head around why people (and especially when it comes to women) find it so important that I devote my life to doing something that makes me absolutely miserable. I’ve taken a hard line on this: if you choose to treat me this way, I no longer have room for you in my life.

When I was in Ghana — mind you, I hadn’t even stopped dating then — the extremely religious, heteropatriarchal culture meant that all my family members and acquaintances had plenty of unsolicited commands about what I was meant to do with my life and my body — shit about me being single (like I’m just supposed to go to the boyfriend store and buy a boyfriend?), me not “giving a chance” to guys I was not at all interested in, not going out with every guy who demanded I do so simply because he demanded it, and not having children. These people didn’t know I was childfree. They just demanded that I “have kids now”, just because they said so.

People can choose to live their lives in a number of ways, and none of them require making themselves miserable just because other people say they need to. The amatonormative, natalist shit just needs to stop.  I live my life on my terms, not yours. The significance that people place on culture is disproportionate. People create culture, and people can change it.

Photo by Mpumelelo Macu on Unsplash

Childfree and Loving It: A Guest Post by Sean Mzwandile Sibanda, a Zimbabwean Student

childfree & loving itI am currently a final year student at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe. I’m studying for a Bachelor’s degree in tourism and hospitality management, majoring in food and beverage management. I hope to get into restaurant management shortly after I complete my program in June this year.

I’m from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, but I will be relocating to South Africa later this year. I am Northern Ndebele, which is the second largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe after Shona.

I have been childfree for five months now. I recently discovered that parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I have always had a fear of getting a girl pregnant. I dread hearing the words “I am pregnant” from a woman I’m dating. I just think that it’s too big of a decision to make. I have seen people’s lives altered by a child in ways that aren’t good. I personally believe that much of the poverty in Africa is caused by unplanned pregnancies and people abandoning those kids afterwards in orphanages, or worse, the streets. I know personally of relatives who secretly whisper about other people “they would have been better off in life if they hadn’t had kids”, and that just makes me shudder. I think parenthood should be something that one is excited and enthusiastic about when entering, because if one is not, then life can be very difficult.

I also think that kids are very expensive, and for me there are so many better satisfying and personally fulfilling endeavors worth channeling my time and resources into. I don’t really subscribe to the notion of working hard at school so my potential kids can have a better life. I have worked hard my entire life simply because of the way I want to live my own life, that is, in a comfortable and stress-free manner. When I was 17, I found myself suddenly obsessed with getting a vasectomy. What I found fascinating was the fact that it was permanent, but I always talked myself out of it since I was “supposed” to have kids like everyone else in society.

But realizing that you are childfree is so liberating and relieving to the point where I just can’t imagine living my life any other way.

Relationships as a Childfree Man

I haven’t told my immediate family of my decision. This is because I have read the typical responses others get when they “come out the closet” and I imagine the same responses coming out of my parents’ mouths. But to be honest I just don’t want to be talked out of it or to be pressure to conform to my parents’ values, especially while I’m still economically dependent on them. I have decided to tell them maybe in my 30s or later. But honestly, it’s my body. I’m adult who can make decisions, and also choose how, where, why and to whom I disclose these decisions.

I have told some of my friends and in the process, I hoped that they would rethink parenthood. Very few of them are supportive, to some they just respond with “you’re too young”, “you will never meet a woman like that”, “you’re just saying that because you can’t afford them now”, or “Don’t you want to leave a legacy?”

But I am confident that I will remain steadfast this my decision for the rest of my life. No, I won’t change my mind.

I’ve been single for two months now. My ex-girlfriend and I dated for 3 weeks. One of the reasons we broke up was because she couldn’t understand why I wanted to be childfree, and why I was so insistent on getting sterilized as soon as possible, when she had planned to get pregnant in a year’s time and even raise kid(s) singlehandedly. One of the reasons why I’m single is because I’m realizing that, as a childfree man, there’s no use dating a woman who has plans to have kids at any given point in their life. I might meet someone who doesn’t want kids right now, but doesn’t identify as childfree, and will, in a few months, or years decide that she’s ready for children. For that reason, I have resolved to remain single until I meet a childfree woman. It’s pointless dating when you know the outcome will eventually tear you both apart.

It sucks, but I have to be true to myself and to every potential mate I meet. We both have to want the same thing, and for me, that’s a childfree romance.

My Cultural Context

As a young man in Zimbabwe, people don’t really nag me about not having children (unless I’ve told them that I’m childfree). I think it’s because at this point, as a 23-year-old guy, society doesn’t expect me to have kids yet. I think that the most annoying and, the situation in which I’m the most limited, is access to sterilization. I mean, asking for a vasectomy is challenging because I’m regarded as still “too young”. It’s inappropriate when doctors use their morals to dictate how and what you should do with your body. I’m still trying get a vasectomy in my home country, but the healthcare system in Zimbabwe is lacking resources, so I’ve decided to postpone it for another year. So until then, it’s celibacy and abstinence.

As an African childfree man, I would like to change the way people view parenthood. I would like to advise my peers, the younger generation, and even the men and women born a decade or two before me that it’s ok not to want kids. Being a parent is a choice, not an obligation. You can still find fulfillment in life if you don’t have kids. Personally, I would like to travel to countries all around the world, as travelling is something that I has always interested me. I don’t think that’s possible with kids. Plus, I love my career. I got big plans, I don’t have time to play daddy.

I wish the medical profession were more open to men and women taking control of their reproductive choices. Specifically, I wish they were more open to sterilization because at the end of the day, it’s our bodies, and therefore it’s our choice. And I also wish childfree women were treated with more respect and compassion. They have more difficulty than us childfree men. Yes, some women don’t want to have kids and that’s ok too. That doesn’t make them evil, or any less feminine, valuable or important than women with children.

People should know that just as we respect their decisions to have kids, we want them respect ours as well. We can all live in peace and harmony when we remove the tunnel vision.

Final Thoughts

Being childfree is awesome. I have freedom in every sense of the word. Physically, emotionally, financially, psychologically, mentally. I get to sleep whenever I want and eat whatever and whenever I want. If you are reading this and you are having serious doubts about having a child or children, I suggest you really take time to think about it like seriously. Weigh all the pros and cons of parenthood, and be sure that it’s something you won’t regret.

I think that having kids is like gambling. They could turn out to be great and upstanding individuals, but they could turn out to be awful people. For me, it’s better to regret not having kids than to regret having kids. You can’t change the latter.

I don’t gamble. Ever.

 

 

 

Choice Feminism

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Photo by Xan Griffin (via Unsplash)

“Feminism is about choice! It’s my choice to [decidedly unfeminist thing]!”

This is a common idea and refrain in feminist circles. It’s usually invoked as a defense by a self-identified feminist, after another self-identifying feminist has questioned a choice that the former has made.

“Choice feminism”, while without an official dictionary definition, basically boils down to a woman deciding that any choice she makes is supported by feminism. Clearly, women should be allowed to make choices about how to live their lives.

Regarding choice feminism, Fem Magazine points out, however,

The argument… seems to ignore the results of socialization, which mediate every decision humans make within a given culture. We are socialized to uphold a power structure in which women are valued based on their adherence to strict Eurocentric beauty standards. Deviating from norms can result in social rejection or at the very least, endless questions on why you are not simply conforming to certain standards. Our fear of these consequences subsequently influences how we navigate our own behavior and social interactions.

So sure, a woman may choose to wear makeup and that can be a feminist method of self-expression, but often times the “choice” women make to wear it is rooted in the desire to conform to patriarchal beauty standards. The same goes for shaving and most other beauty rituals, which all serve to reinforce the same narrow and oppressive idea of femininity.

Feminism can’t always be invoked as a woman’s justification of her choices, otherwise it begins to lose all meaning. (Reminder: feminism is a political ideology that is concerned with the economic, political, social, and cultural equality of all genders.)

I, for one, have made the choice to not have children, romantic relationships, to live alone (for now, anyway), not to wear earrings, makeup or dress in a “feminine” manner.  These choices go against patriarchal conditioning and norms that state that a woman is to enter a cishet marriage, change her name to the man’s name (this varies depending on culture), be responsible for all emotional labor while being being the submissive partner in the relationship (see: changing her name to her husband’s name), have children who also take that man’s name, because, well, women are men’s property, and women exist to create more property for men. Don’t @ me.

Sure, everyone has a right to make choices, as long as these choices don’t harm others. Still, I would also argue that not everyone has to agree with everyone’s choices, particularly those that are made as a result of, and thus support, systems of oppression. Even while typing, I recognize what a slippery slope it is to say that not everyone has to like everyone’s choices. This is, after all, the argument used by bigots to justify their homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. What’s the difference between saying “I don’t agree with the homosexual ‘lifestyle’” and saying “I don’t believe that children should automatically be given their father’s surname”? The difference is obvious to me: one of these is a choice made out of being is conditioned in an oppressive system, and the other…. well, isn’t.

No one’s choices are made in a vacuum, and no one’s choices are above critique. This includes mine. I’ve chosen a field of work whose goal is to loosen the grip of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy around the world’s throat. So then, why do I choose to be an active participant in a capitalist society when I could move to the woods and live off the grid when I know that capitalism is an oppressive system that enriches very few while undermining the rights of many? While I try to make the most ethical choices possible, I no doubt fail to live up to all of my ideals, probably on a daily basis.

Where I start to find it difficult to reconcile things, is when women make choices that are clearly rooted in patriarchy, choices that help to fundamentally sustain women’s oppression in both overt and insidious ways, and pressuring other women to do so. As I’ve written about before on this blog and elsewhere, women constantly hassle me about my choice not to have children, demanding what I would do if I found a man who wanted them, telling me that I’ll change my mind, or alternately just pretending as though they don’t know that I’m not having children (despite me having been explicitly clear on the subject. I have this blog, for fuck’s sake). Women constantly hassle me about my choice to not engage in romantic or sexual relationships, when plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates that hetero relationships require far more work on the part of the female partner. The stories being told by women (and some men) right now also suggest that the safest thing a woman can do is to stay away from men, both socially and professionally.

People actively choosing to participate in their own oppression extends beyond gender and applies to other systems, and is manifested in myriad ways. It’s gay or poor people voting Republican in the United States. It’s black people having complete and utter disdain for their phenotypical characteristics to the point of using damaging chemicals on our hair and skin to change them.  It’s British people voting to Brexit when they didn’t really want to leave the European Union.

Maybe instead of yelling that “feminism is about choice”, when making unfeminist choices, women should own that their choices run counter to the goals of feminism, but that they’re choosing them anyway.

I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any answers. But these are issues that I’ve been grappling with for quite some time, and it seems they won’t be going away any time soon.