I Said Something

Pronatalism in Politics

The carefully orchestrated campaign material came in the form of a gut punching drizzle.  

First, a leaflet listing the candidate’s attributes – mom, community leader and South Shore native.  Yes, in that order.  Then a greeting card layout splattered with pictures of her children that introduced them to us – ready or not!  Followed by a brochure featuring her and her children who were holding up a handmade “Mama for Congress” sign (which they clearly did not fashion themselves).  Of the five pictures inside, two featured her children, one of which was her campaigning with one of them.  Some people may view this as going above and beyond, as an obstacle to overcome.  I view it as an opportunity I and so many like me will never have.

Two slightly more informative brochures followed.  One donned with her lifting her son out of a car seat on the cover.  With the last, a dash of hope things were heading to the realm of more substantive and relevant.  Until I flipped it over to be greeted by her speaking in front of a group while cradling her son on her hip.

I wanted to support her, I wanted to help remove the incumbent in my congressional district, but through all the parenthood drool how was I supposed to determine if she’s a good candidate? 

And then I remembered, those who haven’t had my experiences or similar tend to assume that parenthood and good personhood are synonymous.  Those of us who wanted to be parents but couldn’t carry this busted myth in the forefront of our beings.  Such campaign material is not going to work on 15 – 20 % of the population here in the US.

Plus, it’s wrong.  The campaign material was both triggering and exclusionary, and was done, like everything else it seems, with the childless population nowhere on the radar.  It’s wrong in the sense you just can’t get your gut right with it, no matter the rationalization.  Wrong to the point of “I just don’t think I can fill in that circle under her name” even though she stands for the things I believe in.  What to do?  

A few weeks later, I was contacted via text by a campaign volunteer.  Would I be voting for her on election day?  Hmmm.  Now things are getting real.  I hesitated as I turned the endless angles involved in such a thing over and over and over.  

More women in politics is a good thing.  When it has to be coupled with such an aggressive onslaught of mommy mania, I think it does just as much harm as it does good.  We are not advancing the cause of women any when the children that we have no control over whether we can conceive and bare are designated as some form of self – worth.  

And just what is it exactly that bothers me so about her campaign material?  Though not as triggering as it would have been a few years ago, when something incites a visceral reaction, it takes extra effort to use your words and keep your head on straight.  And there are so many crucial issues facing this country right now – should I even bring this up at all?  

I’m sure, as a woman, the candidate faces pressure from the other side of things that judges women unfairly for “taking time away” from their young children to campaign.  That questions her ability to focus as the mother of young children.  I don’t support that sexist shit either.  We need people from all walks of life in government and women are capable of making their own decisions regarding what is right for them, their lives and loved ones in it.  By speaking up do I then become part of the faction that harshly judges women from all angles?  I want to address an issue, not contribute to an existing one.

After giving it much thought, I texted the campaign volunteer back to express my reservations.  I stated that before I voted for the candidate I needed to know that she is aware of my demographic or at least willing to learn about it.  I tossed out the usual infertility and childless not by choice numbers.  I shared my concern about the heavily pronatalist tenor of her campaign and that relying on motherhood as a campaign tool implies one’s status as a parent elevates their ability to serve above that of non parents.  I made sure to mention that I also didn’t think someone’s fitness to serve should be questioned based on the fact are a mother either.  I let the campaign volunteer know exactly how the campaign materials had affected me, and lended my blogging perspective by also letting her know they would affect so many others who are childless not by choice in a similar way.  I requested that she please pass this on to the powers that be who shaped the campaign messages, and closed with “17% of the population is a lot to omit from our larger narrative.”


Lo and behold, the campaign volunteer who we’ll call Beth, responded, and I have to say I really enjoyed our back and forth in spite of the intensity and complexity of the subject matter.  Turned out she had done IVF herself, which at least in her case produced a baby, and was very sensitive and thorough in her response.

With my conscience more clear after having spoken up, and trusting that our point of view would at least be relayed to the campaign, I was satisfied.  Beth circled back a few days later however, with the campaign’s actual response to my concern.  Though I understand they were chasing my vote, impressive just the same.  My stomach did do a few flips.  But the follow up was deeply appreciated.

In the text, the candidate’s qualifications as well as the issues she was running on were more clearly iterated. And it contained a response from the candidate’s representative who was said to have consulted with the candidate herself, which included that they were sorry for my struggle to have children and that I felt alienated by the campaign materials.  There was also this: The candidate “talks about her motherhood and children not because it makes her qualified, but because it is who she is.”

Overall I was grateful for the follow up.  I try to keep my expectations set in relation to where society is now, not where I know it needs to be.  I would have liked to have seen an acknowledgement of the childless not by choice demographic as a whole, beyond myself, and a commitment to have us on the radar when designing future campaign materials (which I requested in a following text) would have also been nice.  But change doesn’t happen all at once.  

I was taken back by the assertion that her motherhood is “who she is”.  Ouch.  I view motherhood is an (often) unearned opportunity through which to express who one is, but it isn’t WHO she is any more than infertility and involuntary childlessness is WHO I am.  But I get that not everyone has been thrust into the position where they are forced to see things this way.  I decided to leave the supposed existentialism of parenthood and non parenthood topic for another time.

This particular candidate had lobbied to get her childcare covered as a campaign expense and won, and I pointed out in one of my texts that I felt that was a good thing and I appreciated it as it would encourage people from different walks of life to enter the political arena.  That is one thing that’s so hard about speaking up, at least for me, initially.  It requires you to enter the realm of that which you lost and validate it when reasonable, for the sake of the big picture.  All while taking the risk that those you are communicating with will not validate you.  In this case, I’m glad that didn’t happen.  

I would also hope that a childless person caring for an aging parent or a handicapped sibling could get similar compensation, but I decided to save that one for later as well.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say.

Towards the end of my text exchange, I asked my husband to give the campaign materials a look.  Upon rescanning them, it hit me again how exclusionary they were.  

“Just give me a gut response, you don’t need to over think it.  How does this strike you?”

“Well, I thought politicians were supposed to represent and work for all of us, not just people who get to be parents” was what came up for him.

I really don’t know what the moral of this story is, to be honest.  I’m pretty certain we won’t end up on anyone’s radar unless we put ourselves there.  I’d like to think I wasn’t the only one in my congressional district who spoke up on this issue, but knowing the diligence it took to come up with a semblance of worthy thoughts that someone else would want to hear, I’m not so sure.

I’m not too much of a hope monger these days (NO!!!), but I would like to believe that any action taken on the childless not by choice front plays some small part in creating what will hopefully become a new, or at least an expanded way of being for us all. 

15 thoughts on “I Said Something

  • Your initiative will help more of us take the steps to be the voice of our “constituents”. I love how you speak about how parenthood and non-parenthood ultimately do not make us “who we are” at the core of it all. Because of our “misfortune” to not be able to be parents, we have been sometimes forced to think about these deeper things, but I believe we will be a voice to help not just those who have never been parents but also those who lose their children or also those whose children have grown up and now they need to reinvent and connect to who they “are” now. I am so grateful for those of you brave souls who have spoken up and continue to brave the current of society to bring awareness to those who can still be triggered by the neonatalism rhetoric to hopefully spark more awareness to those who are different in other ways as well. I will continue to educate as much as you are willing to inspire us 🙂

    • Deal! Love your idea of being a voice beyond our involuntarily childless inner circle. And that spreading awareness can extend to shedding light on other differences within our human population – so true.

  • Every sentence of this I read, your response was identical to mine (especially the WHO SHE IS) as were our husbands. I’m sure the candidate’s actual response was something like “it’s ONLY 17% and hey, why doesn’t she just adopt?”

    I remember the story about that particular candidate and childcare expenses, it made the national news. On a related note, I saw an article on LinkedIn recently talking about how employers are focusing on adding more “pro-family” benefits like paying for lactation consultants and offering perks called “baby bucks” and I had to call out the fact that the majority of employers don’t cover fertility treatment (and those who do don’t cover donors which not only excludes the egg-challenged such as myself but also same-sex couples) nor do they provide an adoption benefit…not to mention the fact that any of us who don’t have kids (voluntarily or involuntarily) know what it’s like to work in offices where parents are constantly dashing off early to take care of “kid commitments” while the rest of us pick up the slack (and aren’t offered equal flexibility for non-kid obligations). Sigh…

    They tell us as infertiles that there are so many other things in our life we should celebrate and we shouldn’t define ourselves by our infertility…then you see the exact opposite in our society amongst those who have kids, just like the candidate listing herself by her procreation status…not by something she accomplished without biology. Kind of like those cosmetics ads that pretend to celebrate age diversity – then push products to make us look younger. Fuck ’em.

    PS – My husband’s particular fuming these days?? Blogs where women use “mommy” in the name as if they have no other identity besides what their uterus was able to do – I think “mommypotamus” is possibly the worst one…

    • Thanks for pointing out the “it’s ok to identify with mom hood but not infertility/childlessness” hypocrisy. I’m actually proud that I’ve allowed myself to be shaped and altered by my experiences. If we want to live a meaningful, connected life, what choice do we have really?

      Your imagined response from the candidate reminds me of the lack of trust so many of us have rightfully developed in the outer world – it took a good three rounds of texting for me to commit to voting for her. We know all too well that people can seem like they’ve heard you and then go right back to their inconsiderate, pronatalist behavior. I said in one of my texts that any indication from the candidate that she has a superior stake in the future because she’s a parent would be a total deal breaker.

      Mommypotamus is pretty ridiculous……but then again, as Infertility Honesty, who am I to talk??

  • Bravo! I am glad you spoke out; I am sure you made at least a few people in that campaign office think. (And if we don’t stand up for ourselves… who will?) It sounds to me like you made your points calmly & respectfully… you made it clear that you agree with her on many points (including her campaign to have child care expenses covered). You just wanted to ensure she would represent YOUR concerns as a childless woman as well as she’s clearly going to represent the concerns of parents. Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

  • Fabulous blog, Sarah, with so many excellent points.

    I, too, was taken aback by the candidate’s response that being a mother is “who she is”. Did she not exist before she was a mother? Will she disappear once her children have left the house? Or, does she see herself as globally “maternal”, looking out for her constituents in a caring way? Let’s hope it’s the latter (although clearly an undeveloped thought for her until your “intervention”). If that is the case, there are better ways to express this than posing ad infinitum with children and reinforcing age-old stereotypes that fail to separate womanhood from motherhood.

    Whatever it is, you clearly had an impact on that campaign. Thank you for continuing to speak out. Well-done.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marni. As far as the candidate’s/campaign’s response, from their full response I gathered it’s the latter. I’m with you regarding the feeling that’s preferable, but that the expression is far from ideal. It seems parenthood provides a layer of illusion to its recipients. I often notice my peers attributing their feelings and reactions towards things to their parenthood when to me, their feelings and reactions to things come from being human first, which just happens to be expressed through the lens of parenthood in their case. I see so many qualities within myself and our tribe that are typically associated with motherhood, a pretty direct hint those positive characteristics aren’t born from, and can’t be shaped only by parenthood!

  • Wow I don’t think you could have handled this any better. You spoke up, gave an excellent argument and were polite when you could have been nasty. You are absolutely correct that running for political office no matter which side the person is involve the usage of being a parent is always part of the image.

    I understand that being a parent especially when young children is a big part of their lives but it’s just one part it’s not everything they are. If who they are is just a parent then we can not expect them to care or speak up for non parents. That person would not receive my vote nor would they be someone I could consider an ally in representing constituents like myself in government.

    • Thanks Greg! It is very challenging to keep disenfranchisement in check when choosing my words, that’s for sure. The text from the campaign volunteer did outline ways that the candidate would serve childless adults as well, but in a more appropriate world, I wouldn’t have had to wonder in the first place.

  • So proud of you, Sarah! As many have already said here, your thoughtful engagement and rational thinking is what we need more of going forward. The emotional gymnastics that we have to master *before* the complex process of educating others — fully ignorant of our experience — isn’t easy. Glad to see that (with time and healing) there’s a contingent of forming to follow your lead. We’ll done! xo

    • I so appreciate, as always, your acknowledgement of the healing process and painstaking honing of skill sets we never knew existed. It literally takes years, as you full well know, and, at least in my experience so far, is ongoing. Here’s to getting to a place where rage doesn’t take over everything!!

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