Over the weekend, a brouhaha erupted over an opinion piece that ran in The New York Times by columnist Elizabeth Bruenig. Bruenig is unlike most of her generation: She considers herself a religious Catholic, married her high school sweetheart and had her first baby at 25 years old. While many may scoff at her self-identification as a “young mother” (many women have children before 25!) within her social circles of highly-educated journalists and academics, she sadly is.
In her piece, which ran on Mother’s Day, Bruenig extolled the beauty of her “young motherhood” and of motherhood in general. With characteristically moving prose, she wrote:
“What I didn’t understand — couldn’t have, at the time — was that deserting yourself for another person really is a relief. My days began to unfold according to her schedule, that weird rhythm of newborns, and the worries I entertained were better than the ones that came before: more concrete, more vital, less tethered to the claustrophobic confines of my own skull. For this member of a generation famously beset by anxiety, it was a welcome liberation.”
It was a beautiful piece about Bruenig’s own satisfaction with her countercultural choices among her peers. And those ideological allies, her compatriots on the far left, opened fire.
The same group who proclaims the importance of a woman’s right to choose ultimately don’t want women to have a choice; no, they want women to make the same choices they deem acceptable — motherhood in one’s 30s and 40s, if at all, and capped responsibly at one or two children, at most.
Digging deeper, their hypocritical outrage can be succinctly described in one word: projection. With the release of the latest fertility numbers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which I discussed here), it’s clear that those of Bruenig’s generation (especially within her socioeconomic and educational demographic) are having fewer babies and having them later, if they’re giving birth at all.
Within many of these women there’s a little voice wondering, “Am I doing the right thing? Will I regret these child-free choices that I’m making?” It’s that voice that leads some of these radical “feminists” to want to hear stories of women who regret motherhood, as we saw in a tweet by Jill Filipovic, who wrote that she would love to read more essays from parents who bemoan having had children.
I would really love to read more essays and op/eds from women (and men, too) who regret having children as early as they did, regret having as many as they did, or regret having children at all. There's not much about motherhood that remains publicly unexplored, but that does.— Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) May 8, 2021
They don’t want to hear stories of women like themselves who have made the choice to dive into motherhood and who relish in their decision. Voices like Bruenig’s are the ones deep inside of them that seed doubt about their decision to lead a child-free life, and they desperately want them silenced, and seek to silence Bruenig as a result.
Within her column, Bruenig attributed the decision by many women like her to put off childbearing due to the costs of modern life and motherhood. She explained:
“As a rule, having and raising children is never easy; this is especially true in the United States, where, compared with similarly developed countries, parents enjoy relatively little support. And while recent conservative caterwauling over the push for subsidized child care suggests America won’t be joining the ranks of the Nordic countries in terms of parental benefits any time soon, the loss may be as much theirs as anyone’s — it is, after all, the right that frets most vocally about the nation’s declining birthrates.”
But that’s not the whole story if one looks at the data among educated women worldwide. There have been no successful programs, government-sponsored or otherwise, that have cajoled upper-class and highly educated women into motherhood any earlier or with any more frequency. Despite attempts worldwide to entice women like Bruenig into motherhood by governments eager to reverse negative birth trends, none have taken hold. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be helping more young families, or that we can’t get creative to make childrearing easier, but that these efforts alone won’t fill labor and delivery wards.
What first needs to change is how we write about and talk about motherhood, which is what makes columns like Bruenig’s so important. We need to hear from more women like her that motherhood is a worthwhile and empowering decision. Internet culture desperately wants to silence Bruenig; they recognize a threat to their anti-child and anti-motherhood narrative when they see it. Which is what makes her voice that much more important in the wider intellectual world.