No Kidding: How We Talk About Choice and Intentionally Small Families

Brittany Shoot
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One of the most interesting blogs I've been introduced to this year is the Worldwatch Institute's Transforming Cultures. The authors often write about the psychology behind the choices we make, especially as it relates to global poverty, population, and sustainability.

The friend who turned me onto the blog is having a baby later this year. She and her partner are staunch environmentalists, personally and professionally. (She works for the government's environmental ministry; he works for one of the world's largest environmental NGOs.) She's always been quick to point out that often, choices conflict with one another; in fact, that's part of her day job, to analyze data about why people make the choices that they do, even when presented with compelling evidence in favor of different options. Her own personal example is front and center right now: For all she knows about overpopulation and environmental issues, she's long wanted to be a mother. She remains conflicted and brings those contradictions to the table every time—more prominently lately, as her bump is getting quite large. Moreover, she's frustrated by the ways society forces a specific prescription for motherhood upon her.

"I don't know why we can't talk about intentionally small families," she once told me as she referred to a Transforming Cultures post about intentional families of three. "I want to have one child. What's wrong with that?" Noticing that she's pregnant, people often immediately ask when she'll have more children. That's not necessarily in the cards for her, but how do you have that discussion without alienating people, while holding everyone's choices as valid?

The Transforming Cultures post about intentionally small families—as well as another very interesting post, with illuminating comments, about population, religious choices, and the environment—explores the same issues that I did in my previous post about multi-child families on television. In part, the TC post says,

There is strong evidence that TV normalizes behavior and in developing countries has even been intentionally used to shift family planning norms to make smaller families more acceptable. [Links to PDF] Has anyone stopped to consider that celebrating a family with seven children (or in resource terms, more like 63 children, as the average American child uses the resources of 9 low-income country children) may be, in subtle ways, ratcheting up the normal family size in the United States?

So here's my pitch for a new reality show that will educate as well as entertain: find an attractive couple that is about to have their first—and only—child and plans to raise this child super sustainably: wearing cloth diapers and used clothing, playing with hand-me-down toys, eating homemade baby food (mostly vegetarian of course), and growing up in a small home in a walkable neighborhood (why is it assumed that having a child mandates having a car in this country, even in a well-planned city?).

What I was referring to in my previous post was the sometimes very flawed idea of "choice feminism," the idea that any choice a woman makes is valid and above moral or ethical scrutiny. I'm not necessarily here to debate the merits of honoring every single choice—that's impossible, and it's something that doesn't exist without contradiction anyway, because we're all full of inherent bias against various lifestyles, religious beliefs, and so on—but I do think it's important to say that television shows that giddily depict families with many, many children are part of a larger system that makes it difficult to have analytical discussions about choosing to not have children. We don't have the luxury of making decisions in a vacuum, without social pressure—hence my questions about the influence of TV shows about enormous families. How does that seep into our subconscious? What does it mean if we don't see childfree role models, or small families modeled in the media? How can we think critically about these types of issues without personalizing them, without feeling so emotionally invested in what other people do?

It seems obvious, but often, when we honor one choice, we often shove another to the sidelines. Many of us live in a world where parenthood, where mothering, is valued very highly, sometimes above all other roles or labels that can be applied to or taken by a woman. To more than a few of us, that can be really frustrating as we'd like to see other choices held up as equally valid. However, there probably won't be a batch of shows about raising only children—let alone no children at all—on TV any time soon.

As someone who writes about choosing to not have children, what I seek are equitable conversations about honoring and giving space to all sorts of reproductive options—in a way, I suppose I want "choice feminism" to extend to us all. In the end, I simply want Bill McKibben's Maybe One to have a shot at being even half as popular as What To Expect When You're Expecting. (I know, a pipe dream, but a gal can hope.) I want every option put on the rhetorical table, for every issue to be given equal consideration when we set out to make decisions about how we live. Just because people claim to not have a bias against something doesn't mean room is made at the table to share those ideas or validate opinions. How can we talk about private, personal decisions related to fertility, childbearing, adoption, family, and love without squashing each other's values and opinions? How do we navigate this rocky terrain?

Further reading:

Homeward Bound, Linda Hirshman, The American Prospect

Today, Some Feminists Hate the Word 'Choice', Patricia Cohen, The New York Times,

Feminism Objectifies Women, amandaw, FWD/Forward

I choose my choice!, part 673, Lisa Jervis, Bitch

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Thanks for the post! this is

Thanks for the post! this is a very interesting topic indeed, and one that I think about a lot as I am thinking over the idea of having children or not. I wasn't aware of the Worldwatch Transforming Cultures blog before now. I checked it out and was a little disappointed to see that in the newest post here: the first issue to address for Millenium Consumption Goals is obesity. It totally villianizes obesity because it states that fat people are basically causing an "overconsumption of food". The other viewpoints were well thought out, but this stereotypical way of thinking right at the beginning is such a bummer. What about the health studies that prove the opposite of that?

Anyhow, I know this is pretty off-topic, and thanks again for the post, I was just so disappointed when I thought I just found a really cool new site.

Hell, the pressure to have

Hell, the pressure to have more than one child even manifests itself in families with same-sex parents! Our son used to be our nephew. He came to us quite suddenly after a family crisis and we adopted him. We weren't even seriously entertaining the thought of children at the time, but of course now we wouldn't trade him for the world. :)

Even the friends who know the circumstances that led to our adopting our son keep asking us when we're going to have another. They seem oblivious to the fact that a) maybe we don't want any more kids and b) we can't just crank 'em out like many hetero couples can!

Though I personally think it

Though I personally think it would be interesting to watch a show about a couple living sustainably, I wonder if the general public and televisions networks aren't interested because it doesn't have that "freakshow" aspect to it like shows about very large families do. If you're watching a show about a small family living successfully, there isn't much left by which to judge them and lord knows viewers like to judge the reality stars they watch. With the show the Transforming Cultures post proposed, there isn't as much of a "Look how different they are than the rest of us! That crazy family!" vibe they can play up for ratings. I think to garner the type of ratings like the Duggers, the couple would have to go beyond super sustainable into "crazy hippies" territory. After all, reality TV is all manipulating "reality" to get more ratings, not about actually showing the real lives of people.

Another angle

Interesting post...However, in regards to the issues related to the environment and family size, I wonder if the conversation might have some holes. Instead of focusing on how many children are too many, perhaps the discussion could be shifted (at least temporarily) to how much families consume, ie looking at the carbon footprint of each family. Maybe the relationship in the between carbon footprint and American family size is not a simple and direct relationship.

Could it be possible that there are families in our country with two children that consume significantly more than some families with five children? Probably. Could a couple without children have the same carbon footprint as a family of four? It doesn't seem impossible. Maybe more attention chould be paid to the consumption of American families, not just family size.

My reservation to promoting

My reservation to promoting small families is that it will only be promoted among communities of color as a form of eugenics, which has happened in the past.

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