SEPTEMBER 9, 2019
WE WANTED TO EMBRACE Jenny Brown’s new book, Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work, but her arguments left us with a number of reservations and more questions than her analysis and research could answer. We read the book together and intend to critique it in the context of our appreciation for her achievement: Brown draws upon the critical terms of labor and exploitation to create a dynamic picture of American family policy. Her critique of US conservatism and family policy is excellent: she shows how “small government, big family” policies drive the exploitation of the labor of women, and lead to the long-term devaluation of women’s work. She argues compellingly that there is a concerted effort on the part of the political right to increase fertility and put the financial and psychic cost of raising children onto families in general, and mothers in particular. “Why,” she asks, “when it is so hard to afford children and arrange for their care, is our government making it harder for us to control whether we have them?” Far from a contradiction, Brown argues that anti-social services, pro-natalist conservative policies are actually in harmony: social and fiscal conservatives want women to reproduce new consumers and workers on the cheap.
Brown uses this powerful historical backdrop to frame the decline in global birth rates in industrialized countries. She calls this decline a “global birth strike” that has been waged, until now, in an unofficial and inconsistent manner. She wants her book to inspire American women, who have maintained relatively high birth rates, to realize the “potential of our bargaining position” and organize themselves for a “birth strike.” In our view, this seems farfetched. We recognize that declining birth rates may damage economic growth, and the collective refusal of fertility might allow women to improve our bargaining position with the government, but we don’t consider this a possible rallying point of left politics.
The three of us have known each other for a long time, and discussing child care and motherhood deepened our bonds: one of us has a son in college, the second is childless, the third has a son in daycare. Brown’s book includes a “consciousness-raising” exercise at the end, like an appendix. We followed her instructions and answered the questions she raised there. The exercise was affectively rewarding, but not politically mobilizing. Despite the richness of our discussion inspired by Brown’s prompts, we question the value of such exercises for building mass political movements.
As Alexandra B. Stanczyk has shown, people who have children experience a radical drop in economic status immediately after the child is born. In the neoliberal era, American families have become dependent on women’s wages to maintain a modicum of economic stability: the dramatic hit that a mother’s earning power takes after the birth of a child has enormous effects on the well-being of her entire family. Refusal of fertility on a mass scale is, then, in the language of neoliberalism, also a rational choice and an appropriate apolitical response to the punishing conditions of parenthood in the contemporary United States.
The very idea of a birth strike is premised on individuation and naturalizes the scarcity mindset of neoliberalism, while also leaving the fundamental systems of privatization unchecked and unchallenged. Moreover, the birth-centric paradigm of birth strike uses the same logic as the pro-life agenda. Birth isn’t really the problem; it is the paucity of resources for life after birth that has created punishing economic and collective conditions for working- and middle-class families and women.
By labeling the declining birth rate in the United States the beginnings of a “strike,” Brown overdetermines a structural change with the logic of choice. She is not the first to do so: social theorists of the 1930s, for example, argued that the so-called Great Migration — the relocation of millions of African Americans from the South to the Midwest and Northeast — was the means by which they withheld their labor from racist Southern landowners and bosses. But birth rate, like regional employment rate, is an individuated metric: to fully explore the potential of Brown’s call to action necessitates the examination of the social and economic conditions of raising children as a collective concern.
While Brown does devote two of her 16 consciousness-raising questions to the structural conditions of parenting — one about child-rearing as an individual, family, or societal responsibility, and one about the provisions and shortcomings of the current health-care system — her polemics could have been integrated into calls for solidarity with men and more socialized resources for the lives of children and families beyond maternity and childbirth. Instead, Brown confuses the immiserating conditions of contemporary child care with the atomization of care that creates them.
For example, the cult of the Supermom, visible in any advertisement for a minivan or cleaning solution, reflects the successful normalization of atomized care solutions: parenting “failure” is deemed a result of individual lack, which perpetuates the ongoing commodification of parenthood. The issue here is that parenthood is defined in isolation from the facts that rising income inequality, institutionalized racism, and a patriarchal social structure result in different parenting practices and expectations in divergent communities. By focusing on a flat statistic like general birth rate, is Brown remarking on the fact that even upper-middle/managerial-class parents are now having a hard time making ends meet? And in doing so, does she flatten difference for the sake of creating solidarity?
If Brown had connected her analysis of generalized birth-rate numbers to the class status and future class mobility of growing families, then her argument would grow stronger and encompass the cost of raising children. For instance, in her introduction, she includes a graph of fertility by race between 1990 and 2016. But according to data available from Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), the undulating rates of children at near and below the federal poverty threshold appears to map onto the data she presents. In 1990, as the effects of 1980s economic policy took effect, the percentage of American children in poverty peaked, and birth rates declined. As poverty rates decreased in the 1990s, birth rates rose across all groups, most dramatically around 2007, after the percentage of children near or below poverty had been decreasing for three years. Bearing and raising children do not necessarily make a parent or family poor, but without pro-natalist funding, as Brown points out, it makes it far less likely that parent or family will improve their socio-economic condition.
From the 2008 financial crisis to 2013, across all races, the majority of poor children were in single-mother households (45 percent), but single-father households saw the next highest rate of poverty (29 percent), underscoring that the complex burden Brown draws out is significant for all working parents. In other words, her argument is relevant to wider groups of Americans than college-educated, professional-class women who view childbirth as a “choice” and who are positioned as her most important interlocutors. According to the latest CDC studies, college-educated women already delay motherhood and have lower fertility rates than their non-college-educated counterparts. We do not think that Brown’s arguments for a birth strike can successfully persuade the segments of the US population with the highest fertility rates — non-college-educated Latina women — to have fewer children. (Latina and African-American women without a college education have more children and have them earlier than white, college-educated women.)
US fertility rates are at an all-time low. Are we asking working-class women of color to imitate their more privileged counterparts in organizing a birth strike? We do not find that a viable form of political activism. An analysis that connects ethnicity, race, and economic status to the living and working conditions of child-care workers — a disproportionate number of whom are underpaid women of color — could potentially build effective alliances. If we really want to build a social movement we need to address the historic blind-spots of feminism and avoid the strictly affective forms of thought that have fueled the atomization of parenting.
We hoped that Brown would conclude her book with a call to all workers, including caregivers, to organize for a family wage. Such a family wage might be a combination of paid parental leave, subsidized child care and elder care, universal health care, and other forms of support that, in the past, have helped families raise their living standards and build wealth over generations. Brown acknowledges that wealthy industrialists, such as the Koch Brothers, have always derived wealth from the “uncompensated reproductive labor” of women, but a class analysis does not follow.
Save for the conclusion, we felt that a discussion of the parenting commodity marketplace is largely missing from Brown’s book. One of us is raising a young child in Los Angeles and is constantly subjected to marketing for material goods like diapers, clothes, and educational Montessori/Waldorf School–style toys, but also information about child development. Her social media is full of articles promising the secrets to raising a future CEO or entrepreneur; the effects of “tiger parenting”; routine short-cuts for “busy moms”; how to parent like an Inuit person so your child never has a tantrum; and a trending diagnostic term for middle-class parents’ failures: snowplow parenting. Why is there money in generating this content?
We are constantly being sold individual solutions to our individual failures at working while parenting, parenting while psychologically vulnerable, parenting without enough money or time or energy. One of us who just sent her son to college lives with the perpetual regret of having only one child: when her son was born, however, she was the primary breadwinner in the family and her husband was finishing his PhD. The economic stress of those years has marked her forever. In the department where she got tenure at the University of Minnesota, she was the first full-time faculty member to give birth. Despite Minneapolis’s reputation as a progressive city, the university was not a family-friendly employer. Her Chair told her that she should call him the moment she went into labor so that he could start her six weeks of maternity leave. Without family nearby or inherited wealth, she and her husband struggled with child care, skyrocketing real estate costs, her career, and her husband’s job search. We are all convinced that structural reforms are necessary for children and their caretakers. In a way, all three of us have practiced an ad hoc birth strike, but we do not feel that our “resistance” is politically effective.
Capitalism, in its neoliberal incarnation, devalues care and the deep bonds of intersubjectivity that are difficult to maintain for the most vulnerable among us. A birth strike might worry capitalists and evangelical Christians alike, but the lack of children in our lives would encourage us to dismiss dependency, weakness, unpredictability, and mutual responsibility. Perhaps the wealthiest and most privileged women in the professional-managerial and capitalist classes will not be supportive of a stronger infrastructure of care, but the rest of us should be. Gender solidarity has severe limits, but a new class solidarity can lay claim to a vision of a transformed world in which the work of care takes center stage and those who perform it, the caretakers, are taken care of and generously rewarded.
Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Author of two academic monographs, Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton and American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique, she has also published a novel called Oriental Girls Desire Romance. She is working on a memoir, titled Panda Gifts.