Monday, September 2, 2013

More Than Choice Words

How “Freedom of Choice” Advocacy Has Failed Us and Why We Are Still Powerful

We first-world, privileged, white moms love talking about personal choices—our own and those made by other parents. We talk about good choices, bad choices, and the all-importance of choice in general. But is this focus on individual freedom of choice serving us well, or are we missing the point?

We are in an impossible position right now. We place so much pressure on ourselves and each other to solve the world’s problems by individual choice. We’re self-sacrificing to the extreme and judgmental of other parents who do things differently. But this constant analysis of every possible choice is actually a distraction from clear-headed self-reflection and mindful, intentional living. It takes so much mental energy to agonize over minutiae that we lose sight of the big picture, how things outside of our control—genes, history, culture, politics, environment, mental and emotional and physical health, etc.—influence the whole framework of our lives, the field of options available to us, and even our competence to make choices.

A woman carrying a child often feels that she has a whole world inside her belly. There is truth in that feeling, but it is also true that each one of us exists within the belly of the world. The context we live in, the world outside of our own bodies and households, outside the realm of our personal choices, determines the fate of our families far beyond any day-to-day decision we make. No mother is an island; we cannot escape the injustices, dangers, and oppressions of the world through individual choices alone. Our power as mothers, as women, and as human beings is relational. When we stop obsessing over individual choice and envision the big picture, we can achieve systemic change and true empowerment.  

When we think about the world around us, we often think solely about how we can change it with our personal lifestyle choices—the pounds we can lose to reduce health care costs, the number of incandescent lightbulbs we can switch with compact fluorescents to slow global warming, the fair trade products we can buy to fight poverty. Making those little changes can be beneficial as part of an activist lifestyle. But trying to solve macro-level problems through personal choices alone is like trying to drive a gigantic truck with a tiny, manually powered steering wheel. You don’t have enough torque, and it’s putting yourself and others at risk.

Sometimes the very idea of choice is used by capitalistic and patriarchal interests as a blinder to manipulate women into giving up on true empowerment. Consider the old “giving choices” trick many of us moms use to get our toddlers to cooperate. In situations where it is not possible, appropriate, fair, or safe to let a toddler truly run the shots (which is, ofcourse, most of the time), we give our children a simple, limited “choice” to distract them from the real power dynamic. When my daughter doesn’t want to get dressed, I ask her, “Would you like to wear blue jeans or corduroy pants?” When she doesn’t want to leave the playground, I ask her, “Would you like to leave now or in five minutes?” This technique gives children a little taste of independence and freedom—just the right amount for a toddler—allowing them to feel powerful while actually keeping them in line. 

Now step back, take a look at your place in the fabric of your national economy and political structure, and ask yourself: Are you the mom, or are you the toddler? A recent opinion piece on Al Jazeera revealed the view of many people outside of the United States—that we Americans are a lot like toddlers—naïve, gullible, narcissistic, and fixated on doing things “by myself.” And it’s not just people outside of our nation but our own media corporations that operate on those assumptions and help keep us locked into our own cultural toddlerhood.

And unfortunately, unlike a loving mother, the corporate world often has interests that conflict with consumers’ needs. Even well-meaning businesses and nonprofits that seek to satisfy and serve their clients may use the concept of free choice as leverage to manipulate disadvantaged populations and to justify offering dangerous, unethical, or addictive products and services, hiding behind the adage that “the customer is always right.”

The very concept of “freedom of choice,” in the broadest sense, has failed women and parents as a true means of empowerment. In the most egregious examples, it has not only failed to save us, it has been used against us.

How has choice failed American mothers?

Advocating for choice alone has sometimes been an essential first step toward real empowerment, sometimes a distraction from real empowerment, and sometimes a mortal impediment to real empowerment. Adding options within a bad framework cannot achieve a real solution. The “choice” to jump from the pot into the fire is not all we need. If we accept that defeat is inevitable, then snatching defeat from the jaws of victory may be a face-saving gesture that at least preserves some dignity. But we need more than the ability to make gestures. We need true empowerment—real power to change the framework of our lives so that we are not constantly forced into choosing the least of an array of evils.


The “A” Word

In the case of abortion rights, the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy has been an essential component of women’s liberation. But it is inadequate as an only step. The legal right to an abortion means nothing to a woman who cannot access an abortion. Even today, there are many obstacles to abortion access, such as poverty, lack of transportation, lack of practitioners in an area who will perform the procedure, domestic violence, and social shame. Wealthy, powerful women have never had much trouble obtaining safe abortions, legal or not, and poor, disenfranchised women still have trouble obtaining safe abortions, legal or not.

Even if a woman does have access to a safe abortion, how empowering is that choice if the woman would have liked to carry her pregnancy to term but does not get to choose the option of carrying, bearing, and raising a healthy child due to conditions outside of her personal control? What if her fetus has a gross developmental defect because the she lives in a polluted environment? What if she is so poor that she fears her other children will starve if she produces another mouth to feed? What if the “woman” is a child victim of domestic violence or incest? In these cases, abortion may be an escape from a worse fate, but it is not a solution to the problems that have degraded the woman’s whole field of options.  

A popular and brutal response to this issue is to bring it all back to individual choice and blame the victim. It is no wonder that a society focused intently on individual choices might immediately question whether a woman in any bad position—poverty, teen pregnancy, abuse, or whatever the case may be—might have brought herself there from her own bad choices: the choice to have unprotected sex, to not fight harder against her rapist, to not have found a way to become wealthy or healthy, etc. But all that personal blame, especially on a playing field that is far from even, just entrenches patterns of injustice, inequality, prejudice, and disempowerment. Decades after Roe, we are still having these misogynistic conversations and listening to appalling dramas in our government chambers about women’s agency over their reproductive and sexual capacities.

Women of color voiced the need for a shift away from personal choice, starting with the abortion issue, about 20 years ago. A grassroots coalition called SisterSong coined the term “reproductive justice” in 1994, a framework that includes but is much broader than abortion rights. Women of color (and men of color, and people of any disenfranchised minority) know that there are many more constraints on people’s power to live freely than the legality of personal choice alone. People need more than the legal right to choose; they need their cultural, political, and economic shackles and crosses and burdens lifted. And they need connections to other people, to their families and churches and township boards and local economies and governments and all who represent them and make possible a humane standard of living. Adding choices is so much easier, but so much less effective, than dismantling the existing social constraints that unfairly limit people’s power.

Reproductive justice is about making possible a better menu of choices, not just a longer menu. It is about the quality of the choices over the quantity. A Sophie’s Choice is not empowerment. It’s torture. SisterSong had this figured out long ago, and white women and men are now catching up and bringing their powers of privilege on board.


The “B” Word

About the same time as the struggle for the right of a woman to end a pregnancy, advocacy for a woman’s right to complete a pregnancy and birth on her own terms arose. This concept is trending lately, as a means to “empower” pregnant women by providing them with abundant choices about how, when, where, and with whom to give birth. The results of the “natural birth” and “birth choice” movements have been mixed at best. Women who successfully give birth outside of a hospital setting (a minority within women who would like to do so) report greater comfort and more positive feelings about their births (really, who feels more comfortable and happy in a hospital setting ever?), yet successful birth rates and infant death and disability rates are significantly worse outside of U.S. hospitals. And within “birth choice” campaigns, the interests of upper class white women, poor women, women of color, and birth care providers are confused and pitted against each other. Some efforts to promote “birth choice” are in conflict with the real needs of pregnant women and infants because they have been conflated with business interests.

This issue has some parallels and some important differences with the abortion issue. There are cultural, physical, and economic constraints on how a woman can give birth, but on the level of individual choice, there are no legal constraints. The primary obstacles to a woman’s ideal birth experience are usually related to her (or her child’s) health or anatomy. There are also social constraints—a woman’s family or peer group may have strong opinions about where and how she gives birth—and for financial or geographic reasons, a woman may not have access to the care provider or birth location of her choice.

There is a parallel here in that before Roe v. Wade, most women did not have access to safe abortion services. Choice activists fought for legally regulated abortion care services so that women could be free to make safe choices—not to support back alley abortionists in carrying on their business as usual.

Yet “birth choice” activism campaigns sometimes take the side of freedom for service providers, not consumers. One real problem with birth in the United States is that not all women have access to safe, high quality obstetric care. The quality of labor and delivery care in United States hospitals is inconsistent, and midwife care is not as common as in many other nations with high standards of living.

Another unique characteristic of the United States’ birth landscape is that our advocates for midwifery often frame midwife care as antithetical to medical care, not complementary, and as a practice that should not be regulated. Activist campaigns for “birth choice” sometimes do not advocate for a birthing woman’s right to choose; instead, they advocate for various businesses’ and entrepreneurs’ rights to legally sell pregnancy and birth services without regulation, disclosure, or any other consumer protections that are enjoyed in other nations with high quality midwife care.

There is a similarity in some campaigns that advocate for the legalization of raw milk. “More natural” and “less processed” is viewed as inherently better—and in many cases, it does have real benefits. But some communities, such as Pittsburgh, enjoy legally sold raw milk that is regulated for safety, while other communities, such as rural Michigan towns, fight for the right of vendors to sell raw milk without safety regulations, which results in more cases of dangerous infection. Pittsburgh residents are free to make dairy choices without the constraint of the threat of serious illness, while Michigan residents are not. This is one of many examples of how freedom of choice for sellers does not equate to, or necessarily result in, freedom of choice for buyers.

This is an important distinction because although allowing a wider variety of practitioners to serve pregnant women could potentially benefit those women, ultimately it is a conflict of interest for them to fight consumer protections. If there is no regulation ensuring safety standards, pregnant women are simply thrust into a bewildering morass of choices that includes unlabeled booby traps—practitioners who are unskilled, incompetent, irresponsible, or even unscrupulous. And a woman or family who suffers injury or fatality in the hands of such a provider has little or no legal recourse; it is simply judged after the fact that the woman must have made a poor individual choice.

To draw focus back to the big picture, pregnant mothers in the United States start out with greater challenges than pregnant women in other first world nations. Pregnant women in the U.S. have many more serious health problems before they go into labor, and there are measurable differences in the treatment of American birthing women based on race, class, weight, and income. These problems of wellness and inequality are more difficult to address than adding all kinds of “birth choice” options and thrusting a greater burden of responsibility to “educate yourselves” and “make the right choice” onto the most disenfranchised populations, but those larger contextual problems are the real obstacles that stand in the way of birthing women’s true power and freedom.


The ABCs of Vaccination

Abortion choice is an important but incomplete step toward justice. Birth choice has been, in some cases, subverted by capitalistic interests. But the entire issue of the choice to opt out of vaccinations is based solely the fraud of one criminal. It has resulted in epidemic disasters affecting innocent children and other vulnerable people who cannot protect themselves with individual choice. Well-meaning women like you and me—hyper-conscious, educated, white moms—have unwittingly set up their own families and vaccine-optional Waldorf schools as the epicenters for deadly plagues.

Like celebrity advocates of out-of-hospital birth, anti-vax promoters prey upon first-world mothers’ fears—real threats against our families—and educational gaps—our privileged position of never having had to face the diseases that plagued our ancestors and still torment our neighbors around the developing world. Our children today are struggling with many new diagnoses such as autism, autoimmune disorders, and developmental disorders that were unknown in previous generations and are still not fully understood. It’s scary to deal with such life-consuming problems of dubious origin, and so it is attractive to buy into any conspiracy theory that promises we can solve these problems with simple, individual choices. Add into the mix true stories from the past, when early vaccines were sometimes more dangerous or harmful than they were worth, and millions of moms are sold.

This is the same tactic con artists use to draw women away from medical care in childbirth: telling horror stories of the past, such as previous centuries’ hospital birth practices, ignoring the fact that things are dramatically different—in hospitals and with midwives—today. First-world women who have never seen a friend die in childbirth or a baby die from whooping cough find it easy to ignore those real risks of avoiding modern medicine and instead turn their focus on dangers made up, but vividly illustrated, by scammers.

The choice of whether to vaccinate is strictly a first-world problem. Only privileged mothers can reasonably consider the choice to opt out or even amend their children’s vaccination schedules. Ironically, it is only because of previous generations’ commitment to vaccination that we can even entertain the fantasy that opting out without a medical reason may be the best choice for our families. Tragically, that privileged choice does nothing to combat the real health problems we see in our children. It only leaves our families, and others around us without the privilege of choice, vulnerable to a host of additional illnesses.

Less Talk, More Action

The root problems that oppress mothers, women, children, and all vulnerable populations in the United States are systemic issues of inequality and injustice. Personal choices are neither primarily responsible for them nor able to solve them. It is easier for us privileged mothers to hide our heads in the sand and obsess over individual choices than to own and wield our privilege for social change. It’s tempting to believe that we don’t have the responsibility to solve others’ problems, but we can avoid our own children’s autism, deadly allergies, and behavioral disorders with personal choices. It’s easier to turn down a shot than to tackle environmental toxins, modern diet and lifestyle challenges, and disorders without known causes.

White people have long been bogged down in our own concepts of individualism. Have you ever slogged through the mire of anxiety over personal choices that is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground? How about the central question in Kant’s categorical imperative for all ethics, focused on the individual: “What if everyone in the world made the same choice?” The obsession with personal choice is a classic darling of patriarchal Western thought. Its corollaries include victim-blaming and self-hatred. It is associated with characteristically Western forms of psychological issues related to control, such as eating disorders, drug addictions, hoarding, gambling, and paranoid delusions. Our compulsions send us even further out of control. And our beloved long lists of choices fuel our unhappiness.

But when we take off our blinders and accept that our individual choices cannot quick-fix macro-level problems, we also let ourselves off the hook. We privileged mothers are not the cause of all our problems, but at the same time, we hold real power to effect change in our own lives and in the world. It’s not always intuitive, but hearts must open before minds can open. A hateful or fearful mind, no matter how intelligent, is impervious to reason. The passage of laws can smooth the way for attitude changes. For example, legally enforced school desegregation led to an immediate social attitude shift in favor of desegregation. Sometimes focusing too much on education, intellect, and debate is putting the cart before the horse. It doesn’t have to be this hard.

It’s time we cut ourselves some slack. Let’s stop incessantly “educating ourselves” with a smorgasbord of true and untrue and misleading information. Let’s lift our heads out of the sand, out of our petty and mommy-war-mongering magazines and celebrity advice manuals. Educated people are no less susceptible to conspiracy theories, and smart people are no more likely to be emotionally stable and capable of always making good choices. Arguments and debates are ineffective tools for change. Real justice starts with the ears, heart, and hands. We women of privilege must listen to the voices of people with different struggles than ours and reach out to help.

This is not simple altruism, either; it is the only way to effectively heal and improve ourselves. When we recognize differences in privilege and reach out to those who are different from us, strangely enough we often uncover our own prejudices for the first time, of which we have been unaware, and we really begin to learn how similar and intertwined our lives and desires and needs truly are with the lives and needs and desires of our diverse neighbors.

It is important to remain connected—not just with the media but with living, breathing human beings who come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. It is vital to feed our spirits by sharing our struggles and our powers and our accomplishments with broad social networks—not just on social media but in person—that can dissipate our pains and multiply our joys. Our individual choices do matter in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to care about our broader social context. For example, a mother’s attitude about her own body is the biggest factor in her daughter’s self-image. But at the same time, a mother’s positive attitude about her own body cannot completely protect her child against harm from media influences, and it certainly won’t protect all her daughter’s classmates and friends.

Taking a stand in the public sphere sends a strong message that complements and enhances the personal benefits of positive individual choices. Being an active part of something larger than ourselves, in whatever way feeds our unique spirits—as political activists, philanthropists, hands-on volunteers, or so-called altruists in any other way—gives us, the givers,health and happiness benefits that may even be greater than for those whom weare serving.

Mothers, as women and as creators and nurturers of human life, hold the world in our weary, strong, and gentle hands. As voters, women outnumber men, and parents outnumber the childless. As primary consumers, mothers fuel the economy. As caregivers of the young and the old and the disabled and the downtrodden, women are the glue of all social fabric. Mothers’ strength and power is found not in the rugged individualism of a Wild West cowboy but in the act of reaching out and linking hands with other women—sharing lives, energies, wisdom, gifts, talents, kindness, resources, time, and whatever each one of us has in abundance. Our true power lies not in the micromanagement of personal choices but in the social structures we build and shore up within our families, our neighborhoods, our culture, our mother nation, and our mother earth.

Instead of telling others how to make their own decisions, let us commit to showing our support for each other by breaking down the real, existing barriers to freedom and empowerment.

If public policy change and lawmaking excite you, get involved with a political action network. Don’t just forward alerts and click to sign petitions; reap the personal benefits and multiply your effectiveness by attending events, joining campaign drives, and meeting with legislators.

If politics makes you sick, don’t worry. Your spirit is most useful where it is called to serve. Tap into your personal inspirations and gifts and join a nonprofit that nurtures empowerment. Tutor a child, distribute food, or greet clients in the front office.

The personal choice to connect with a greater force for good, to reach out and make a difference in someone else’s life, is a personal choice that truly means something.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Proud MotherVoter!

This election season, Mama Elle has been reading 19th century novels to put politics in perspective. Many people are feeling frustrated and let down about American politics this week, but not Mama Elle! I am so happy and proud to go to the polls tomorrow, with my little daughter in tow, who just learned the word "vote" on Sesame Street. (Big Bird, we've got your back.)

Two hundred years ago, people fought just as foolishly over partisan issues as they do today. But the front lines of those battles took place at very different places along the arc of justice than they do now. Even just one hundred years ago, American families were still dying in the streets to protest child slave labor and fight for women's right to vote. In the 19th century, white politicians squabbled over what do do about "Negro freemen." Now, our President is a man of mixed race. A hundred years ago, my grandmother's grandmother was not allowed to vote. Now, women are voting for equal rights in the workplace and the doctor's office. Sure, there is some really offensive misogynist talk going on in the legislature around women's health care, but in prior centuries a woman's lady business was not even fit conversation inside of the home, let alone an area worthy of protection under the law. In centuries past, homosexuals could be locked up and tortured in sanatoriums just because of their sexuality, and the youth of today is building an America where people of all sexual orientations and gender identities can live freely and openly, with full civil rights.

The fact that there are still some people in America who haven't caught on, who aren't ready for progress, is no reason to despair. I am grateful for how far we have come and exhilarated to live in a period of time when things are changing so much and so fast. Progress can seem frustratingly slow, but on the scale of human history, we are on the frontier of a rapidly blossoming future, a time like no other that has ever come before.

I am proud to be educated on my local candidates, the nonpartisan section of my ballot, and my state proposals. And I am proud to support my President. In just the past four years, President Obama has:

  1. made it easier for my husband to find a new job when he lost his old one by supporting small businesses;
  2. saved the health and lives of many of my daughter's age cohorts by providing health coverage to them; 
  3. supported my access to prenatal and postpartum care; 
  4. made it less likely for any more of my acquaintances to die from war; 
  5. given me hope that I can afford to send my daughter to college; 
  6. helped revitalize struggling cities like mine; 
  7. prevented the zombie apocalypse (err, auto industry total collapse) from originating in Detroit, which is too close for comfort; 
  8. put a few thousand extra bucks in my bank account in tax credits; 
  9. forced my student loan creditors to lower their interest rates and my credit card companies to more clearly disclose their rules; 
  10. legislated cleaner air for my generation and my daughter's; 
  11. signed the Lily Ledbetter Act to ensure that my daughter and I can get fair pay; and 
  12. publicly supported the loving commitments and civil rights of my queer friends. 

Anybody who says President Obama "couldn't get anything done" is tuned into the wrong station. I am voting confidently, proudly, and happily tomorrow for a candidate who has done right by my family and my country. Tomorrow, my daughter will see her mother and father vote proudly, grateful to take part in the great, messy, still progressing dance of democracy.

Friday, September 14, 2012

USA: 25th Best Country for Mothers

Did you notice the appeal to mothers in both Michelle Obama's speech and Ann Romney's speech at the National Conventions? The voting power of American mothers is huge, and so is our need to use it wisely this election season.

The United States of America ranks 25th among developed nations in the latest State of the World's Mothers Report. This is hopeful news--we ranked 31st last year--and also a challenge for us to call on our elected officials to do better for our nation's families. Some of our biggest deficits are in the areas of maternal and infant health, parental leave, and wage fairness for women--especially mothers.

We are mothers, at the most basic levels, because we bear children and then provide for them. As voting time approaches, consider researching your candidates' positions on the things that most impact our ability to bear, raise, and provide for healthy and successful children:
  • complete, affordable health care access for women and children (including full reproductive and prenatal care)
  • paid maternity leave
  • paid sick days
  • nutritional programs for children and mothers
  • protection against toxins in consumer products, food, water, and air
  • support for K-12 schools, colleges, and universities
  • affordable childcare options
  • scholarships for mothers in higher education

Don't forget to make sure you are registered to vote. Voter suppression threats affect women more than any other demographic group. If you have recently gotten married or divorced, changed your name for any other reason, or moved, or if you don't have a driver's license, you may be barred from voting unless you come prepared.

Before casting your vote, you can also send a message to your candidates or their campaigns telling them what you value. has a form letter that you can send, with or without a personalized message, in just a few seconds. Click here to add your name and prime the pump on political action for mothers before Election Day.