The cultural debate over having kids vs. not having kids continues strong, with impassioned think pieces, statistics and the word "selfish" bandied about in both directions (even the Pope has weighed in!). I used to read these articles with some interest, as if they might hold answers for my own profound ambivalence on the matter, but I do so less these days. It turns out, of course, the answer isn't there, and the whole discussion begins to feel a little bit noisy after a while. It's all more personal than this giant public display.
There are a lot of complicated decisions in our lives, ones that take a really long time to make and matter a great deal. Then there are the narratives spinning around us as we do. This happens in a very particular sort of way for women, with a lot of judgement and rules. Our real life decisions and roles are complicated and full of paradox and our popular culture ought to reflect that, rather than simplify or dictate.
The photographer Sally Mann's recent essay in The New York Times got me thinking about all the rules women must follow, both those shouted loudly from the rooftops and those sneakily, silently believed in the darkest parts of our hearts. We believe mothers embody certain characteristics or they ought to. They are either meant to be earth mamas knitting booties on a loom or harried soccer moms in ads for laundry detergent. They are barren witches or asexual caretakers with no desires of their own. They take naturally to the role of mother as they should or they are stricken by disconnect and a failure of their biology and femininity.
In Mann's essay, she eloquently, and somewhat defensively, discusses being both an artist and a mother, how the critiques of the former intersected with those of the latter. She famously photographed her young children on their Virginia farm, which caused some serious hoopla over what some deemed the indecent and pornographic quality of the images. Mann's essay describes the controversy with insight and clarity for the most part, but the claims of those branding her a bad mother clearly rile her. And we do seem particularly ready, as a collective, to label mothers one thing or another, too much of this or not enough of that.