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Fertility Impasse: Do Women Still Have To Choose Between Career And Kids?

Kitchenware and cleaning stuff are the most usual gifts from society to young girls apart from dolls. Beyond those, they are given bottle feeders, pacifiers and plastic food: everything a perfect mother supposedly needs. Girls are taught how they are supposed to behave as women in our society. At the very moment of their birth, their ears are frequently pierced and graced with golden earrings, and their parents buy them pink little skirts and T-shirts with sayings like “Mommy’s princess”. When they hit the ripe age of 30, questions about marriage and motherhood start being asked. Despite being three decades apart, the message that is passed through is the same: femininity and motherhood are intrinsic to women.

With their insertion in the job market, the speech continues, but it is transformed. Is it tiring? Seeing your kid developing pays off. Do you feel overloaded? “The beauties of having a baby are much more rewarding” –  to romanticize became a necessary factor inside the patriarchy game. They can work, of course, but with a lot of costs in all instances of their life, once neither the State nor the companies –  nor even society –  support those who desire a professional life and, at the same time, have to take care of another human being – or another(s), if you consider that, most of the time, women are also responsible for the chores, and, as a consequence, look after their partners too.

Woman with chin-length hair and a black turtleneck sits on a couch with her laptop and papers.
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

Cila Santos, journalist, mother of a boy and admin of the blog @militanciamaterna, in which she reflects on motherhood based on feminist theories, says that she always “felt” that the job market could be an obstacle if you want to experience certain phases of raising a child.

“I always had a type of work [crisis management in large companies] which demanded that I travel a lot. I  resigned from a place where  I used to start working  at seven AM and  did not  have time to leave. On weekends,  I was ‘held hostage’ to what was happening in the constructive process. Later, I started to go to a more cooperative area but always inside this market that demanded a lot of daily hours and availability.  As the time passed, I  started to feel that this was incompatible with my goals and needs when I thought about having a baby, because I wanted to go through the experience of raising a child, which I did. However, I have full awareness that this required me to make a choice: leave my job at that time.”

When women are not given the option to make this decision or want to go back to their jobs, the reality is a five-month-old baby staying in a nursery full day, since time is a demand from the capitalist world –  preferably all of it –  in order to survive and keep positions inside the market.

When talking about the economic system, another huge factor to take into consideration  about motherhood is the  social class. According to Santos, “It is not that middle class women and upper-middle class women do not need support from the State or the companies, but they can remunerate and outsource this network [particularly nurseries, babysitters and maids] and hove more flexibility in their own work. Although  it is a bad position, at least they will have this possibility of negotiation. The base, the mass, is the woman of the supermarket. You will never see a company giving nurseries to those working ‘on the factory floor.'”

girls play with blocks with babies
Marisa Howenstine

There is, though, one problem that helps permeate the desire of being a mother in a patriarchal and capitalist society: women romanticizing their own difficulties. In front of all these conflicts, why is there still a speech diffused by themselves about what motherhood is like? The answer resides in History. Not a long time ago, women were used by their fathers to seal pacts and marriages usually did not depend on their wishes. Having kids was just another rule to follow, so this idealization did not need to exist since they were already performing their social role: reproduce. With the market necessity to increase labor,  women were inserted in this universe  and, with the feminist movement, some things changed. For instance, now they have the right to ask for a divorce and have some sexual independence since the invention of the contraceptive pill. However, it is still very limited, as their whole existence as women.

“So, when women started to have a say on these decisions, the system started to think of other mechanisms in order to put them in the exact same place as before. We have a cultural, symbolic and really strong idealization machine – of not only motherhood, but straight romantic relationships as well – that makes women, instead of being sold to marriage, voluntarily offer themselves in marriage. Instead of being obligated to have children because they do not  have a pill to take, they want kids because it is ‘the dream of  their lives’. At the end of the day, we are doing the same things that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did“, Santos concludes.

Also, this idealization may come from a place of self-defense. When mothers see that they cannot change their overloaded situations, because we are talking about a structural system – the culture, the laws and the public politics, not only willpower –, they disseminate this speech of “I can deal with all” or “It was the best thing that has ever happened to me”, since they are speaking from a place of impotence and inability to transform their own realities.

On the other hand, society benefits hugely from this political strategy: there is an active advertising of motherhood and family. A concrete example was an international event called “Dome of Demographics” (free translation), which occurred in 2019, in Hungary, and had its polemics for being “anti-UN”, and gathering a lot of representatives from far right countries. The conclusion they reached, at the end, was that the importance of that reunion was to reinforce the values of the straight, traditional, patriarchal and christian family –  an emphasis in a kind of family that is set  and organized around women’s free work and reproduction.

Aline Rossi, mother of a boy, immigrant in Portugal, graduated in Literature and author of the blog “feminismo com classe”,  in which she does translations and works with feminist theory, emphasizes the existence of this system, saying that: “Women have to choose between children and career, not between motherhood and career, because where maternity is not an option, it is not a choice as well –  it is compulsory, since women are conditioned to desire this as a life goal and taught to measure their personal achievements based on that. Talking about structure, the State does not invest in nurseries, contraceptives, legalized abortion and family planning in a way we can say that women effectively decide on it.”

array of contraceptives
Photo by Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition from Unsplash

Besides that, talking about the support that the State gives to women, she continues: “Before the pandemic, this support was never enough. In the last five years there has been a huge precariousness, in a general way, that firstly affects mothers. For example, the most affected people with the flexibility of labor rights were women, since they are in more precarious positions; they are the majority in informal jobs and the first to leave the labor market when we have a crisis situation.  Therefore, if there were institutional politics to mothers, we would not see this huge evasion of mothers from the labor market.”

Now, in a pandemic context, according to data from PNAD Contínua, made by IBGE – Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics -, more than eight million women left the job market during the health crisis and 26% of them said it was a need because they had to take care of children, other relatives and homeworks. Less than 2% of men claimed they did not look for a job due to the same reason. This situation, along with the lack of public politics, led to the smallest participation of women inside the market in the last thirty years.

So, taking  these numbers into consideration, Santos declares that yes, women still have to choose between a career and having kids: “If I said the opposite, it would be a lie. The job market requires you to choose. If we did not to choose, women would not lose their jobs when they say they have kids nor would they have to answer questions such as “if your son gets sick, what will you do?”, because for the company, this is a problem. And if it is a problem for the company when women need to leave work to take care of their children, women are choosing between motherhood and career. A man will never hear something like that because it is already assumed that someone – probably his wife –  is doing it for him. Obviously a lot of women juggle between the two, but they will never have a men’s career. A man does not have to choose between fatherhood and career, because he is a dad, a professional and someone is taking care of his child. Motherhood is not the same as  fatherhood, because the first is given to women as a daily exercise of taking care of someone and the second only means that you have a child, written somewhere.”

Despite the weight of the choice between maternity and career, the main challenge resides in “explaining the world. We try to create a critical consciousness in our kids and, in order to do that, you have to explain the world. And this is a really difficult world to explain. How can you explain to a boy that guys ‘suck’? How can you explain to a girl what it is like to be a woman in our society and not make her terrified?”, concluded Santos.


The article above was edited by Carolina Rodrigues.

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Maria Edhuarda Castro

Casper Libero '21

Journalism student In love with words, dance and all kinds of beauty
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