Feminism, Children, and What Women Are Supposed to Talk About

Over at Slate, Katie Roiphe has an article called Get Your Kid Off Your Facebook Page, subtitled “Why do women hide behind their children?” In it, she takes a subject I’m sure we’re all familiar with (sometimes previously interesting friends get obsessed over a new topic and turn into boring drones), applies it to a certain topic guaranteed to rile people up (children), and then slaps an insulting feminist rant down on top of it. I’m not amused.

The article starts out talking about women who use photos of their children as their own Facebook profile picture. I’m vaguely on board at this point, not because I mind pictures of children in general but because I prefer people’s icons to not be cartoon characters, movie stars, and other people-who-are-not-them, which includes their children. Roiphe says these women have other interests – careers, books, causes – but they choose their children as their image, which we’re supposed to derive some greater critique from. She asks, “Where have all these women gone?”

At this point, I took a quick glance at my own Facebook friends’ choices of icons. I found photos of people’s artwork, graphic icons for projects the person was involved in, religious symbols, movie stars, food, plants, animals, and other random objects, including one of a stapler. Has my artist friend who displays his artwork in his icon “gone” somewhere? Or is he simply displaying something that’s relevant to his life, that he’s proud of, that he’s interested in, that he thinks looks cool…? And is that any different from someone who displays a photo of their child? If a woman in question displayed photos related to the examples Roiphe gives of her other presumed interests – her favorite author, for example – will that mean she has “gone” somewhere?

Moving away from Facebook, Roiphe criticizes a hypothetical friend who rambles all through the dinner party about her children:

Think about how throughout the entire dinner party, from olives to chocolate mousse, she talks about nothing but her kids. You waited, and because you love this woman, you want her to talk about…what?…a book? A movie? A news story? True, her talk about her children is very detailed, very impressive in the rigor and analytical depth she brings to the subject; she could, you couldn’t help but think, be writing an entire dissertation on the precise effect of a certain teacher’s pedagogical style on her 4-year-old. But still. You notice at another, livelier corner of the table that the men are not talking about models of strollers.

The examples given here and the switch at the end are very telling. You want to talk about a book or a movie, perhaps, which arguably wouldn’t be that detailed or nuanced a conversation in itself. Your friend wants to talk about pedagogical styles. You notice that the men aren’t talking about strollers. Wait a minute. Your friend wasn’t talking about strollers, either. She was talking about teaching strategies with, by your judgment, dissertation level detail. Yet you reduce the characterization of that to the level of importance of stroller models. This sounds an awful lot like because it’s a woman talking and because it’s about children, it’s apparently trivial and not nearly as important as what the men are talking about.

This sounds like the opposite of feminism, which is odd, since the article makes fun of the hypothetical friend’s dusty feminist cred. The woman has read femininist theory and knows about different waves of feminism. She went to college, dammit! Yet somehow, her current conversational interests don’t stack up with Roiphe’s image of what a middle-aged feminist should look like.

I’ll toss in a disclaimer of sorts: I think it is relevant from a feminist perspective to talk about trends in women’s behavior and what they mean sociologically. Are more women more focused on their children these days than in years past? Are women as a group abandoning other interests in favor of their children when they might prefer to do otherwise? What kinds of social pressures are in place that lead women towards focusing on childcare-related topics and away from other topics? These – and a gazillion others – might be good questions to ask and answer. But those questions are different than attacking and belittling the actions of individual women. Roiphe mocks a real-life, non-hypothetical friend who lets her daughter wear annoyingly squeaky shoes because the daughter likes them. Huh? What does that have to do with whether or not your friend read The Feminine Mystique in college? How does that promote a cause or advance feminist theory? It doesn’t. It’s just petty.

In my experience, the people who talk on and on about their kids have young children. This means that the period of time where they’re “obsessed” is a few years long. Is it strange for a person to fall in love with or begin spending time on something new and then talk about it a lot for months or years? I don’t think so. Friends of mine who are in college talk about college a lot. The people who garden or sew talk about gardening or sewing a lot. Some people talk about their jobs in infinite detail. Some of my friends mix DJ sets, and I’m astounded at how much they manage to talk about this. It’s much, much rarer to hear anyone complain about these one-note-tunes, though. Somehow when the topic is children – which usually means the speaker is a woman – there’s a special hatred attached to the topic. If I have a hypothetical friend on Facebook who has a flame-effect as their user icon, talks about Burning Man and regional BM events a lot, talks about the money they’re saving for the event, the costumes they’re making, the art they’re working on, etc, should I be concerned about where my friend’s identity has “gone” and what it means to society? Should I start pointing and laughing and muster up confusion as to why my friend isn’t talking about the same things ou talked about 10 years ago? Is ou “hiding behind Burning Man on Facebook”? No? Then why would that be anymore true when the topic is children?

Also, there looms the giant possibility that if you think your friend’s chatter about her children is inane babble, you’re not listening. Sure, sometimes she is talking about stroller models, which will probably bore anyone else who hasn’t been in the market for a stroller lately. But she’s probably also talking about say, pedagogical models, or how politics affect her ability to find decent childcare, the effects of advertising in her home, or the research on the benefits of organic foods in the lunch box. Your smart friend is still probably your smart friend.

If her topics do lack overarching social importance, they’re still the details of her actual life – the things she finds funny, the things she finds gross, the stuff that delights her or bothers her or wears her out or makes her day. If you thought she was such a wonderful person before having kids – a wonderful feminist, even – maybe you should listen instead of rolling your eyes. Maybe there’s something important in there. At the very least, it’s important to her, and believing her when she says so is itself a powerful feminist act.