Thursday, August 03, 2017

A modest proposal about the public treatment of mothers

Quiz at the SCT Summer School
During a discussion of large families and (inevitably) of Natural Family Planning, on Facebook, one of my FB friends remarked:

We suffer both extremes, those who feel the need to take it upon themselves to make such invasive and snarky comments, that think NFP is there to make sure you only have a respectable number of kids, or, as I call them, NFP crusaders; and on the other hand certain trads that think all NFP is evil and even if you are dying you have to keep popping out kids (even though permission for NFP goes back to Bl. Pius IX).

I don't think this is simply a Catholic problem arising out of the debate about Catholic teaching. It is, rather, a Catholic version of a wider phenomenon. Another commentator had started off the discussion by pointing out, of parents, and particularly of mothers, with more than two children:

Everywhere they go they are mocked, scorned and insulted. They are accustomed the most unpleasant and intrusive commentary on the most intimate part of their life: being asked whether they haven't yet found out where babies come from, or why they don't get a television to assist them limit their family size, is a regular and frequent occurrence. They are attacked on public transport, in shops, in their own homes by visiting engineers and delivery men...

The ideology of 'population control' and worries about child abuse have their place in this attitude, but it also has a lot to do with prurient curiosity, and a delight in finding fault with others. The delivery men, passers by and fellow public transport users who made snarky comments about large broods seem to feel they have the right to ask every kind of intimate question even when they are, as they imagine, just being pleasant to a single baby or a visibly pregnant woman. One form this takes which is quite astonishing in England, given the English concern for personal space, is the idea which seems to have taken hold that mere acquaintances and even strangers have the right to touch a pregnant mother's 'bump'. 

So let's not think that Catholics are worse than others on this: what is going on in the Catholic debate about NFP is best understood as an intensified version of something very strange which has taken hold in the wider culture: the idea that pregnant mothers, and mothers with small children, are public property. It would seem that their decisions about their fertility and their sex lives, the most intimate and private matters of anyone's life, have public significance, and people who know nothing about them are permitted to make assumptions or, even worse, demand explanations and justifications.

It reminds me of stories about young men being accosted in the street during the First World War about why they had not volunteered for the army, or presented with the white feathers of cowardice. The imperative of the war had made it everyone's business, and people made accusations first and enquiries later: the enquiries themsevles being a violation of privacy, as if people had a duty to parade their health problems. The war made possible an orgy of self-righteousness, which seems to be the most pleasurable of all the emotions.

It is only a small extension of this attitude to mothers for strangers to interrogate their approach to disciplining their children, or diet, or the exact distance they allow their children to wander off in the park. To say that the necessary context for a sensible evaluation of such matters is lacking after watching a fellow bus-passenger, or whatever, for two minutes, would be an understatement.

Within the Catholic debate this cultural attitude has had the effect that some mothers feel that they need to defend themselves, sometimes pre-emptively, with the aid of the most private information imaginable in the midst of social media discussions. While they have the right to make that information public (by contrast to their interlocutors, who have absolutely no right to demand to know it), this unfortunately feeds the idea that such revelations are necessary or appropriate. Above all, it feeds voyeurism.

I have an alternative suggestion: that parents respond consistently to intrusive enquiries and suggestions from strangers about the number, health, or habits of their children, or their own parenting approach, with a clear and simple 


Unless, of course, they can think of something less polite.

If we all make this response consistently we can, I believe, begin to change attitudes, first within conservative and traddy Catholic social media circles and then more widely. Once this happens, we could actually have a debate about family size, and indeed about feeding and disciplining children and all the other issues, which does not immediately become personal.

Who's up for it?

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  1. Perhaps it's envy.

    1. Envy, tinged with guilt, is certainly part of it.

  2. Many acquaintances were not particularly scathing about our brood (only five strong) and some were somewhat wistful; occasionally I did however give the odd snarky one a comment along the lines of "well WE are fertile" ... leaving him to draw conclusions as to his sterility. Naughty, but nice.

    Tony McGough

  3. If someone ever said anything like this to me, I would embarrass the hell out of them, pronto. They would never EVER say anything like that to anyone again, and they would have to get their brain bleached after the fact.

  4. A wife cannot serve two masters. If her husband is a traditional Catholic, one who rejects the values of modern society and does not flinch at the shame it tries to pour on him, then she must accept that he is her judge. He: not her friends, not her family, not the TV, not social media.

    If she cares very deeply about their judgment, that’s a problem, because it WILL be contrary to her husband’s judgment and she should have known that signing up. It may indicate a hidden reserving of intent to divorce. (Why else would it matter what they think?) No man wants his wife exposed to public shame but she will have to choose between shame in their eyes and shame in his and God’s eyes someday, and she’d better be ready, and he’d better prepare her.

    1. I'm not sure this idea of "your husband is your judge" is conducive to a happy married life. Women are more communal than men; we naturally rely on friendships with other women to help us through our lives. (Note that scholars recognise outcast status of the "woman at the well" because--strangely--she was alone there.) In better times, women kept our husbands on the "straight and narrow" (and in church--Protestant church attendance in the UK between 1900 and 1963, for example, was due to women dragging their husbands along) through our wish to appear "respectable" to our other Christian neighbours.

      The husband you describe sounds more like a slave-owner than a husband. The thought of a husband greeting his wife's tears with "Why do you care about the judgement of ANYONE BUT ME?" fills me with horror--and reminds me of why women need emotional ties with other women. Such a husband has the emotional IQ of a carrot.

    2. The wife assuming spiritual leadership is a perversion. Yes, it’s good for women to have friends, but those friendships are subject to her husband’s judgment too, since they can easily be more harmful than good, pouring divorce poison in her ear, or immodest habits. In your example, the husband lacks only gentleness. He should teach her this gently. That is the difference from the slave-owner.

    3. I don't. Other women are nice enough but the only one who matters to me is my husband.