To Birth or Not to Birth, That is the Question

It is July and I promised that this month I would provide some examples of how other cultures are dealing with the work/family balance. In doing so, I promise to postulate some, what I would like to think are, workable hypotheses for how we might change our approach in this country to benefit mothers in a more efficient way.

There is a general consensus in the anthropological literature that it is intrinsically difficult for women to combine income-producing activities (ie: work) with the domestic responsibilities of child care and housework that almost universally fall primarily on the shoulders of women. The ease or difficulty in which women navigate this has a lot to do with the cultural realities in which they function. In other words, societal and material factors can either help or hinder a woman's efforts to provide an income for herself and family. This extends not just to income production, but the production of children as well. The number of children that a family HAS is often at odds with the number of children a family WANTS depending on the cultural and material context in which they live. In addition this can change historically over time.

Reading C.H. Browner's article, "The Politics of Reproduction in a Mexican Village" the women of a small municipio (township) were caught between the pressures of the Mexican government to restrict births and local pressure that was seeking to maintain and promote population in the area to avoid loss of autonomy. Browner found that the women were succumbing to village pressure to raise more children than they felt they could comfortably afford or care for because of the prevailing pro-natalist mentality that was characteristic within the specific area. Most women, because of economic and domestic pressures desired few children, but feared public censure for any attempt to curb fertility.

So, these women were having more children than they desired because of societal pressures.

Then there is the U.S. In some ways we are the opposite from that village in Mexico. I know many women in my circle of friends who have made the comment, "Oh we would have loved to have more children, but I just knew there was no way we could afford it." Our culture has it set up so that the resources required to care for, provide for and educate each child mean you have to have access to a fairly high income if you wish to have a larger family and avoid a daily struggle to eke out a living. I have even seen passing references in newspaper articles that have likened a large family in America to a status symbol, much like a big house, fancy car or expensive vacation. By that same token, I know women who want so badly to have a meaningful career that they would never risk it by having a family. The unspoken, but often acknowledged fact is that many women, through the mere act of procreation, are signing the death warrants on their employment future.

Just like the women in Browner's municipio, who should not be forced by society to have more children than they want, the U.S. should invest in families more so that women don't have to unwillingly restrict or forgo fertility.