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What Do Women Want?
Not to be told we all want the same thing -- an essay on desire and childbearing
One issue there just wasn’t room for in a 1400-word Times piece was a deeper dive into the question of desire. You may have read — mostly from folks who are relatively conservative on family issues, and want women to have more children — that women aren’t having as many children as they’d like. This puts a feminist gloss on fertility declines; sure, it’s a problem for any nation’s economic future, but feminists should worry about declining birth rates because women are largely saying that they aren’t able to create the families they want.
That’s not quite true.
The folks who believe lower fertility is a problem that needs fixing point to what they call a fertility gap between women’s stated desires and the families women actually have. But the way they measure “desire” is questionable at best, and doesn’t begin to capture the fact that desires often change over the course of one’s life.
One commonly-used measure of desired family size is the General Social Survey, which asks girls and women from ages 15 to 50, “What is the ideal number of children for a family to have?” (Gallup asks the same question). Note that “what is the ideal number of children for a family to have” is different than “what is the ideal number of children for my family to have.” And ask yourself: How would you have answered that question at 15? Does that answer reflect where you are now?
Or: How might a woman answer that question at 50, when she’s not thinking about her own fertility, but perhaps about her ideal number of future grandchildren?
There are a lot of things in life we believe are ideal in the abstract, but that we don’t choose for ourselves because, well, we don’t live in abstraction. These polls don’t take into account that what a woman wants and who she is at 19 might radically change by the time she’s 29 or 39 or 49. And yet we see them used, over and over again, to support claims that women are having fewer children than they actually desire.
There are other polls that ask how many children women intend to have, and those are also used to make the case that women are having fewer kids than they want. But the “women” who are asked about their intentions aren’t women at all — they’re 15-year-old girls. This is framed as a useful metric because it evaluates what “women” want when they are just beginning their childbearing years, and to the extent that most 15-year-olds are capable of getting pregnant, that’s accurate. But it seems frankly bizarre to use what a teenage girl says is her intended fertility as the benchmark for assessing whether women are actually having the families they want by the time their fertile years end.
Part of the problem is that desire is not a static thing. For a great many people, having a child remains a basic marker of adult life, an assumed thing that one simply does, and not much of a choice at all. For many others, having a kid is technically a choice, but the desire is so strong and persistent and clear that there was never a question of whether to become a parent, but rather one of when to begin the journey. And for others, it’s a hard no: Nope, never, don’t want kids.
For a still small but growing number of women, though, it’s much more complicated. While the determinedly child-free have thankfully carved out space for women and men to say having kids is a hard no, we still lack the language for people (and especially women) who are ambivalent about children, or who see their desires shift as their lives do. There are so many factors that go into the decision to have a kid, or to have another kid — and actually, it’s saying no to having another kid that seems to be driving birth rates down; more women are mothers than in previous years, it’s just that women are having children later in life, and are much more likely to have just one or two instead of three or four.
For many women, having a child is heavily context-dependent. Lots of women I know would love to have a kid in theory, but aren’t willing to do it alone, and don’t want to settle for Mr. Good Enough. If you don’t meet a person you want to marry before your childbearing years wind down, yes, you will have fewer children than you intended; but perhaps you also have the best version of your life that was possible, given everything that was out of your hands and how you chose among the pieces that were within your control. Lots of women make different choices, marrying men who aren’t the great loves of their lives but are perfectly decent because they prioritize having a family; lots of women leave the man behind and raise kids on their own. Lots of women find themselves in familial setups they didn’t envision and didn’t choose at all, with partners who leave or partners who die or partners who change, and are making the rest of their decisions from a place they never intended to be. Welcome to adult life in a world where few people ever get everything they want.
The same concept applies to the fact that many women end up having fewer children than they perhaps would tell a researcher they believed is ideal. You may think a family with three children sounds best, only to have one and recognize that the tradeoffs were more significant than you expected — maybe having a kid put more strain on your marriage than you anticipated, or made a bigger impact on your career, or drained your bank account, or was simply more difficult than you imagined. Maybe two felt complete, like enough. Maybe two didn’t feel like enough, but there simply wasn’t more of you to go around, and you felt like you wouldn’t be able to continue parenting your existing children well if you added another. Maybe someone got sick or lost a job or left you or died and that changed the idea of the ideal.
For a lot of women — and particularly for very luckiest women with the widest range of choices and the most expansive opportunities — becoming a mother is one version of a good life. I’ve also written about this in the context of regret: that for some parents, “the jury is still out on whether having kids when they did, or at all, was the right call. That’s not regret in the sense of ‘I wish my child had never been born.’ It’s regret in the sense of looking at the phantom life you’re not living and wondering if it might be better on the ghost ship.”
Desire operates much the same way: Many of us have competing and mutually exclusive visions of what our adult lives might look like. Often — and especially for the disproportionately highly-educated and career-focused women who have children significantly later than average — the decision to go for it is less an overwhelming wave of desire and more one drop added to a teetering scale, tipping it just a little more toward to “yes” than “no.” Some women wind up tipping the other way. Often, this is a decision made under the duress of aging ovaries and a narrowing window of possibility.
I imagine both groups — the women who saw the potential timeline for childbearing coming to and end and said yes, and those who said or fell into no — can picture their ghost lives, those they would have lived had they taken a different path when the road forked. Are the good parts of the imagined life best understood as desires unmet? Sometimes, of course. But often, the abstract wants we don’t get are more accurately understood as things that got voluntarily ceded in the larger negotiation of one’s life.
These are hard issues to talk about, in part because women are simply expected to both have and want children. For the many of who wonder what that “want” even feels like, the “wants children” / “childfree” binary can feel destabilizing and isolating. There is also the reality that women who say they don’t want children, or aren’t sure they want children, or only want one child, will be scrutinized as selfish, delusional, too career-oriented, or whatever else people hang on us. And so many of us have a hard time fully explaining the complications and tradeoffs, including the simple gut-level confusion, and we respond by pointing to the tangible barriers.
For a lot of women, listing some acceptable reason for delaying or declining parenthood is a kind of social and psychological salve: Pointing to financial constraints, childcare challenges, or a planet overburdened by human exploitation and indifference are all decidedly acceptable and un-selfish reasons to put off parenthood. Sometimes they’re true; almost always, there is some truth in them. But I suspect they aren’t usually entirely true, or don’t entirely capture a woman’s actual motivations. But saying, “I like my life as it is and I suspect having a child would make it worse” or “having one kid was harder than I thought and I do not want a second” triggers intense reproach, and not just from other people — for many women, it calls into question our own ideas about ourselves, and our past selves’ visions for our futures.
I don’t want to downplay the fact that there are lots of women who are not able to create the families they want. It is clearly and undeniably true that some women — indeed, many women — are having fewer children than they desire. It is clearly and undeniably true that a great many women experience infertility, and that some go to great lengths to try to become pregnant, and that some of those women are unsuccessful. It is clearly and undeniably true that our cruel “pro-family” conservative party hasn’t done squat to make fertility treatments fully covered under insurance programs, including Medicaid, which means that there are a great many families who would love to have more children, but can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do so. It’s also the case that there are a lot of ways to build a family outside of physically carrying and bearing children, and that finances are also a separating line between who has more of an opportunity to make the family they want, and who doesn’t.
It’s also clearly true that some number of women might have children earlier, or might have more, if there were better systems in place: Fair wages, parental leave, affordable childcare, paid sick and vacation days, predictable work schedules. But there’s little evidence that even the best pro-family policies drive childbearing rates significantly up. They help. But the best policies in the world are unlikely to return the US to the norm of a three-child family. If that’s why we’re putting them into place, we’re going to find ourselves sorely disappointed.
Better social welfare policies, though, for parents and non-parents like, would expand options and opportunities for all of us. I’m not talking about anything crazily utopian. I’m thinking a 35-hour work week with consistent hours from week to week that pays enough to cover rent and healthy groceries and transport in the city the job is in, plus some extra for a little fun; I’m thinking paid sick and vacation days, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and good and safe schools; I’m thinking decent unemployment benefits and a universal health care system where access to care doesn’t attach to your job, but attaches to your person. Imagine what people could create if they weren’t constantly stressed by changing hours, not enough money, too-high rents; imagine what we’d make if we had more consistent free time and the kind of safety net that would let more of us take risks.
Maybe more people would create a child. And maybe many more would create a new company, or art, or music, or food, or whole communities. Maybe a lot of folks wouldn’t create anything at all, but would be healthier, better-fed, more physically active, more connected with their loved ones, and better-rested. It’s almost guaranteed that our day-to-day actions, and the decisions we make about how to organize our lives, would change if we had more options and opportunities, and a softer landing pad should we jump and not reach our hoped-for destination.
And what’s what’s so often missing in the conversation about fertility rates and what women want. Human beings vary wildly, and a system that offers women a singular and largely compulsory position of importance and influence is not a system that is going to serve most women well. We are not yet at a place where women are free enough to fully choose what we want; I don’t think we have any idea what true freedom looks like, not yet.
What we do know is that the women who have the greatest range of opportunities and options also seem to have the greatest range of childbearing outcomes. That’s a pretty good hint that there’s no single answer to the question of “what women want,” other than fewer fences and more resources as we walk our way into the wild.
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