I don’t believe any authority has the right to ask this question; after all, pundits don’t sound off about the proper role for fathers, which is more or less left to the individual father to decide.
I found a most cogent discussion of the role of mothers in Rebecca Solnit’s recent article in Harper’s, from which I’ve stolen my title, “The Mother of All Questions.”
Solnit found when she gave a talk on Virginia Woolf that the question most interesting to her audience was “whether Woolf should have had children.”
She suggested that Woolf’s choice to remain childless was logical for a number of reasons, prime among them that “she wanted to be a writer and to give her life over to her art, which she did with extraordinary success.”
The question is presumptuous—who has the right to pass on a woman’s personal decision, particularly a woman long dead?—and singularly narrow-minded. As Solnit observed, “Many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies.”
Since Solnit has often encountered this question when discussing women writers, she concludes, “Maybe part of the problem is that we have learned to ask the wrong things of ourselves. Our culture is steeped in the kind of pop psychology whose obsessive question is, Are you happy?”—leading to the dubious conclusion that children are the source of that happiness, which any woman who has had one knows is drastically beside the point.
But the underlying assumption remains, to the great benefit of a system that limits women’s opportunities.
The Wall Street Journal’s September 30th article, “When Women Get Stuck, Corporate America Gets Stuck,” lays out the price we all pay when women are denied access to the top jobs in corporations. In spite of establishing programs and benchmarks, women continue to be discriminated against by impossible working hours, lack of access to mentors, and what Sheryl Sandberg, author of this article and founder of Leanin.Org, calls “our culture’s discomfort with female leadership.” Many of us remember being jeered at when we were girls for being “bossy”; in my case, my attempts to develop and express my own point of view led me to being called “Miss Priss”—still painful for me to write.
These two articles are connected at the root. If our basic belief about the role of women is that we must have children—despite a world groaning under overpopulation—women will never be able to crawl out from under the definition to achieve what calls for single-minded devotion: the arts, or possibly, the demands of running a large corporation.
The two are not equal in my mind in terms of value, but they are possibly equal in terms of demands on our time and energy. Surely the leadership skills both require are essential to the growth of our society—if growth can even be imagined as a goal.