Doing whatever I want doesn’t automatically make me a feminist. I’m a feminist because I advocate for a world in which every woman has the freedom and resources to do the same.
When my partner and I started talking about having a baby—how it would change our lives, what we would need to do to make it possible—I said something that surprised me: “I want to stay home and do the majority of the child care.”
It had never occurred to me that I felt that way. My mother was a stay-at-home mom when I was young, and I respected that decision, but I always assumed I would make a different choice. As I imagined myself as a parent, however, I was startled to realize that I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps. When I picture having a child, I picture doing all the things she did—library trips and doctor’s appointments, school plays and gymnastics meets, being around for the daily ups and downs of my baby’s life.
Unlike my mother, I plan to continue working; being a freelance writer means I won’t have to put my career aspirations on hold in order to make peanut butter sandwiches and take my child to the playground. I’m not totally unrealistic: I do understand that my productivity and, thus, my finances will take a hit, but any decrease in income will be balanced out by not having to pay for child care. Day care is murderously expensive even if you can afford it, and most of the day cares in my area have a year-long waiting list.
My partner has a thriving career, and no interest in staying home with the baby beyond a few months, despite being the one to give birth. I, meanwhile, have hated every job I’ve ever had except writing and being a nanny in college. Office jobs leave me miserable, anxious, and exhausted—not a recipe for a good partner or a good parent. So being a work-from-home mom seems like the best case scenario for my family and me.
I suppose that means I’ve chosen a side in the so-called “mommy wars”—are we still calling it that or has everyone moved on and gotten hobbies?—but I’m not planning to defend this decision to the death or anything. Just because I think it will work out for me doesn’t mean my choice is above reproach.
There’s an offshoot of feminism these days that argues that anything a woman decides to do, as long as it makes her happy, is automatically feminist. But I don’t think that’s true. Women should absolutely be encouraged to live their lives as authentically as possible, to pursue their own fulfillment rather than following someone else’s script. Still, we have a responsibility to consider our choices in context. As a feminist, I need to ask myself not just “What would make me happy?” but “Am I pursuing my happiness at the expense of someone else’s?”
Does my decision to stay home subtly reinforce the patriarchy? I think the fact that my partner is the one actually giving birth helps to subvert the heteronormative nuclear family narrative. Still, I’m the more-feminine person in our relationship, and there is a part of me that wonders if somewhere along the way I internalized the idea that masculinity = climbing the corporate ladder and femininity = staying home and baking cookies. If so, I don’t want to pass it on to our children, so it will be important to expose them to lots of different kinds of families and make it clear that gender presentation does not determine your path in life. It’s one thing to make the best choice for myself; it’s another to present that choice as the only correct or acceptable one.
It’s also crucial to remember that I have more choices available to me than many women. Plenty of people would like to work from home, but can’t afford to freelance when they don’t have a partner with a full-time job and benefits. And many mothers would prefer to go back to work, but don’t make enough money to afford full-time child care.
There’s also the fact that in a different-sex family, the man is likely to make more money than the woman, so if somebody has to sacrifice career for child-rearing it’s almost always going to be Mom—and that’s before taking into account the fact that women’s careers tend to flounder after they have children, and never fully recover. On average, women with kids earn less for the rest of their lives than women without. Thus, many women are staying home with their children not because they find it fulfilling, but because all the other options—sacrifice the other partner’s higher-paying job, or lose money on day care—are even less appealing.
On the flip side are women who would love to stay home with their children but can’t, either because they’re single parents or their families need two incomes to survive. At the same time that our society shames middle-class women for abandoning their children to pursue their careers, we also shame poor and working-class mothers, especially if they’re women of color, for being lazy, greedy “welfare queens” if they don’t work outside the home.
As someone fortunate enough to have a genuine choice in whether to go to work or stay home with my children, I have a responsibility as a feminist to support women with fewer choices. Being truly feminist means working toward policies that provide high-quality child care for free, end the wage gap, and destigmatize both working mothers and mothers who stay home. We also need more support for single parents and positive images of men and non-binary parents taking on the bulk of the child-rearing duties.
Saying “feminism is about women making choices” is all well and good, but it’s not enough if it doesn’t work to make the full range of choices equally available to every woman. If a woman is making the only choice she and her family can afford, without regard to what would actually make her happiest, that’s not a feminist victory—it’s a symbol of how far we still have to go. Doing whatever I want doesn’t automatically make me a feminist. I’m a feminist because I advocate for a world in which every woman has the freedom and resources to do the same.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.