Sunday, April 8, 2012
Who Represents Us - Them or Us?
One of my favorite television shows in the 1990s was Ally McBeal. I really loved that quirky show. So recently, when hubby and I ditched cable t.v. and switched to streaming, I was excited to see that my old favorite was available for viewing, commercial-free.
So, I've been chipping away at the episodes and it's fun because I don't remember much of them, so it's like watching a brand new series. I'm on Season 2 right now. Anyway, an interesting thing came up in an episode called "The Dance". The character, attorney Nell Porter revealed (to the horror of her male colleagues) that she doesn't want children. Yes, a vocal childfree-by-choice character on a hit television show! I was very excited (for a few moments).
This revelation came up because she was defending a law firm client against charges of discrimination against mothers in the workplace (i.e. non-moms get made partner, moms don't). Outside the courtroom, when Nell's male colleagues begin talking in stereotypical ways about women - that it is every woman's destiny and desire to have children - Nell fearlessly reveals that she does not want children and gives a compelling speech that would make my readers proud. She lays it all out. Not all women want children. Motherhood is an honorable choice, as is the choice not to have children. Women who go from working 14 hour days (before kids) to 8 hour days (after kids) should not expect the same promotions as women who continue to put in 14 hour days, plowing tirelessly down the partner track. Moms should not be given special treatment in the workplace, because that would result in discrimination against those who choose not to have kids.
Wow. Impressive so far.
But then, as it always happens, the childfree stereotypes quickly rear their ugly heads and it all goes off the rails.
First, let's start with the producer's choice to make Nell, a character who is so notoriously cold and buttoned up that her nickname is "Subzero Nell", the childfree character. Stereotype #1: the childfree person as cold.
Second, Nell's argument about moms versus non-moms in the workplace, while noble and on-point in some important ways, centers mostly on the idea that women who choose not to have children do so solely because they are career-hungry and getting ahead in their careers is more important to them than family. Childfree stereotype #2.
Third: The plaintiff mom wins the case and the jury finds that the defendant law firm discriminated against moms by not giving them the same promotions as the non-moms.
Fourth, and the final nail in the coffin: As the episode unfolds, Nell admits to her colleagues, in a moment of emotional honesty, that she is a child of divorce and it is the pain she suffered as a child - feeling torn between two parents - that resulted in her desire to not have children. At the end of the episode, she is shown sitting by her hope chest, clutching two teddy bears against her (one from each of her parent's homes) and weeping. Sigh. The stereotype of the childfree as damaged goods. Picture complete.
As a childfree woman, it is incredibly disheartening that despite the fact that 40% of U.S. women reach the age of 40 without bearing children, there are so few representations of us in the media. When a representation of a childfree woman does appear, as in this Ally episode, it is always comprised of tired stereotypes that bear little resemblance to the childfree women I know.
Ultimately, this drives home this important point. Real childfree people, like you and me, have a very important responsibility. We must be our own representations to the world, and we must also be the role models for others coming up behind us. People struggling with the decision to be childfree need role models, so they can see a truthful representation of what it really means to live a life free of children instead of the tired, negative stereotypes that paint a bleak and unappealing picture of the childfree life. At 46 years old, I know with certainty that my childfree identity is not one of coldness, emptiness, loneliness and selfishness but rather one of thoughtfulness, intelligence, warmth, fearlessness, engagement, spaciousness, freedom and opportunity, yet I had to discover this for myself because I did not have a single role model to represent this to me.
If you are a childfree person who is happy and comfortable with your decision, do yourself and the generation behind you a favor. Don't lie about your choice. Don't downplay your decision. Don't take the cowardly route and say you are infertile or that you will have kids someday just to get people off your back. Stand proud and be honest about your decision for the bigger good. Be someone that others can look to and see that it's great to be childfree by choice - that you are happy, fulfilled and even normal. Be visible and counted so others will not feel so odd and alone. If we want the tired old stereotypes about us to be stamped out, we need to be the instruments in writing the new narrative about who and what we really are.