(Im)morality and (non)motherhood  

NPR Boston, the news radio station I generally listen to, ran a story on Thursday about candidates from the Millennial generation (people born in the 1980s to 1990s) running for seats in Congress. Steve Inskeep, the interviewer, spoke with Marlinda Garcia (R-NH) and Jim Mowrer (D-IA) about their views and their campaigns; both spoke with confidence and insight about current issues like student loans and the contentious political climate as well as their experiences as young people seeking to take on a leadership role in our country.

Particularly interesting to me were Garcia’s comments about the reactions of voters to her candidacy. She said that if they were opposed to her run for office, they would say, “’Oh well, you don’t have enough experience,’ you know, ‘you don’t have children,’ in my case.” Inskeep laughed, surprised, and Garcia continued, “It’s basically, how can you make decisions, you know, about these different issues if you haven’t experienced them?”

The interview continued on but I felt stuck on this point. Young political candidates also inspire in me some uncertainty, and I wonder about their values, their ability to make decisions for people of all ages across the country as new(er) adults…and so I accept that my next comment may seem hypocritical. What really troubled me was the fact that Garcia was specifically told by voters that because she was not a mother, they felt uncomfortable with her ability to make decisions about the rest of America.

I’ve heard similar things in other contexts before, regarding the notion of a person’s – especially a woman’s – moral compass being connected to her experience as a parent. The common sense argument would go like this: “If you’ve had children, you’ve made sacrifices for them, taken responsibility for their well-being and personal (read: moral) development, and contributed to your community and society as a whole through these choices.” As with all commonsensical statements, you want to nod your head and say, “Sure, that sounds about right.”

But is it? Why would having a child enrich your moral growth, exactly? A secondary component to the argument is this: “You give up your selfishness as a nonparent the day you have children.” Strong words, but I’m guessing plenty of people out there have heard this at family functions or in other social contexts. We could think critically about this, asking questions about unplanned pregnancy, single parenthood (single motherhood is often considered a less moral social position than married motherhood), or other complicating aspects of parenthood that take such assumptions to task. And let’s not forget the people who would like to have children but can’t, either biologically or because they struggle to find a partner with whom they are compatible.

What is virtuous? What is moral? Is being a parent always more moral? I have to wonder, considering the various societal/global arguments for not having children, including “education, health care, employment, agriculture, community growth and design, and the availability and distribution of resources” (see “Think Before You Breed” for a well-balanced philosophical discussion on the topic at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/17/think-before-you-breed/). And on an individual level, are we equating the biological drive to procreate with the assumption that following this imperative to its conclusion of having children is moral (as long as this is done within the context of marriage, that is)?

I guess my point is this: I don’t accept that the condition of my moral maturity is a result from being childless any more than I believe my sister’s results from her having children. I believe that our individual morality derives not only from tradition, given beliefs in a specific family context, or social patterns to be followed, but also from choices and our rational efforts to live alongside others in a shared public environment. And if I decide to adopt a child in 5 years, or get married in two and have a baby, I highly doubt that my moral turkey thermometer is going to tell me I’m done.

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