There’s a video trend doing the rounds on social media where mothers put a sarcastic spin on an irritating question. “If you didn’t want to experience , why did you choose to have children”?
In the videos, mothers role-play the same question being posed to chefs, footballers, dog owners, teachers. As in, “If you didn’t want difficult customers and long hours, why did you become a taxi driver?”
It makes light of the default mindset about motherhood under capitalism. It frames the decision to become a parent as an entirely private, personal one—and not one shaped, and benefited from, by society. It’s pernicious, and invalidates women’s right to question or rationalise the many more difficult parts of parenting.
The Parenthood Dilemma—Decisions in our Age of Uncertainty by Gina Rushton is a beautifully written reflection as she enters her early 30s and grapples with having children. As a journalist, writing on abortion rights has been central to Rushton’s career.
The book is wide-ranging. She begins with an insightful chapter examining the way the right to an abortion has been a hard-won choice for some, and a form of population control for others. Elsewhere, she debunks far right arguments that to control population is to fight climate change. The chapter on climate change is especially visceral given that Rushton is Australian, where climate change is very much in the here and now.
In another chapter Rushton discusses “mental load”, the way women in heterosexual relationships often carry a double burden of emotional labour. They play confidante and therapist to men who do not, because of gender expectations, talk easily about their feelings.
At the same time, women carry not only the majority of household tasks but simultaneously a “mental list” of household management. This is a reality further entrenched when women become mothers. It is important to consider such subtleties. Women’s oppression manifests itself from who pushes the pram, to who manages nappy bags and sleep schedules or cares for the emotional wellbeing of the whole family.
The chapter on reproductive justice looks at abortion rights through the lens of colonialism and racial discrimination. Rushton examines higher rates of maternal death for black women, historic and ongoing systems that take black children into care, domestic servitude and enforced sterilisation.
Here, either white individuals like the author, or a white supremacist patriarchy, are the root. Rushton is influenced by debates around white privilege that sprang up around Black Lives Matter. “It is white privilege to be able to ignore the role of race in my reproductive choices and in motherhood,” she says.
To slightly paraphrase the black author Gary Younge, privilege is a good place to start, but not a good place to end. It’s important to understand how sexism and racism mean women and men or white women and black women have different experiences. We can see this in various forms of discrimination in society, such as access to health care or childcare or reproductive choices.
But, to uproot that oppression, we have to go beyond its surface manifestations. And those different experiences and discrimination aren’t down to all white people or all men who benefit from oppression.
The real beneficiaries are the ruling class, who profit from a system interwoven with oppression and then use sexism and racism to divide and rule. That divide and rule is detrimental to all working class people.
But, without such an understanding, Rushton is led to quite divisive and individualised conclusions that don’t address the systematic nature of oppression. “We should look at the privileges we have… that rest on the disempowerment of other women,” she writes.
Class for Rushton is just another category of discrimination, rather than an important tool for understanding the roots of oppression. Typical for new works of feminism, it reads as a litany of oppression, without a holistic analysis of what generates it.
But it’s important to explain how the issues Rushton raises fit into the historic oppression of women under capitalism. Consider the material conditions of parenting today—hyper-individualised, hyper-segregated. Those without children often have limited exposure to children. But society benefits from other people’s decisions to become parents who raise the next generation of labour.
Women’s oppression is rooted in capitalism and class society. Frederick Engels identified the importance of privatised reproduction in the family—the atomised way class society organises the difficult, labour-intensive and all-consuming process of parenthood—that came with the rise of class societies.
The burdens fall squarely on women’s shoulders in particular. And the family doesn’t just play an economic role under capitalism but an ideological one too, shaping how women are viewed and the expectations placed on them.
Even 100 years ago, many working people lived in more closely knit communities that would form support networks and there was better welfare state provision. In our age of austerity, the only people with a village of support are those who can pay nurseries, nannies, cleaners and the rest to alleviate pressure from the system.
Today women are expected to do domestic labour as the welfare state is hacked back—while working as well. While working class women pick up a bigger tab than working class men, it’s the ruling class that are the winners out of this process.
The book is fabulously written and thoughtful to the point of poetic. But the very survival of humanity rests not just in overcoming personal dilemmas around reproduction. It relies on us breaking down what divides us to end the chokehold that capitalism places on our choices.