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Choice -- We're Doing It Wrong

Today on Blue Milk there is a post called How ‘personal choice’ drove feminism and now stalls it. The post is centred around an excellent excerpt from the New York Times article by Stephanie Coontz on Why Gender Equality Stalled. It starts with an example of the decision-making process that goes into our choices. In this case, it is an example of how a woman came to "choose" being a stay at home mom. In my case, I could use an example of how I "chose" to have my baby in a hospital instead of at home or in a birth centre or how I "chose" to go back to work when my baby was 3 months old.

The quote (which you should read in full), ends with this:

When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you. So couples often create a family myth about why they made these choices, why it has turned out for the best, and why they are still equal in their hearts even if they are not sharing the kind of life they first envisioned.

Under present conditions, the intense consciousness raising about the “rightness” of personal choices that worked so well in the early days of the women’s movement will end up escalating the divisive finger-pointing that stands in the way of political reform.

This is EXACTLY what I see every day as a feminist and advocate of social change. We all make choices in imperfect conditions. Lack of knowledge, lack of support, limited options, limited resources, lack of privilege, preconceived notions, pressure to compromise, not wanting to be difficult, exhaustion. These are all things that contribute to the choices that we make. The existence of imperfect conditions doesn't make our choices universally wrong or universally right. It makes them possibly (or possibly not, depending) the best option in that particular situation.

But so many of us need them to be right. The suggestion that if conditions changed, people would have more options or be able to make different choices is so often perceived as an insult. As a result, people often talk about supporting the choices of others while putting caveats on that support.

  • I support your choice, as long as you understand why it is wrong.
  • If you make that choice, you should have to sacrifice just like I did.
  • Do what you want, but remember that your choice is unrealistic and you'll never succeed. You'll see.
  • If we put any resources towards making it easier for people to make that choice, it means the other choice (my choice) is wrong.
  • Privilege? What privilege?
  • I don't want my hard earned tax dollars to subsidize someone else's choices.
  • That choice wasn't available to me and I turned out fine (my kids turned out fine, my marriage is just fine, my career is just fine), so stop your whining (and your judgment).

We won't make any progress by staunchly defending the imperfect circumstances in which we made our good (or bad) choices. We won't make any progress by assuming that other people will fail if they make choices that are different from ours. We won't make any progress by assuming others can easily make the same choices we did. We will make progress by listening to other people, understanding their struggles, conducting and reading research, and supporting initiatives that will make it easier for everyone to make freer choices.

One example I often give is subsidized day care. We chose not to put our children in day care, despite the fact that subsidized day care exists where we live and has been wildly successful in increasing maternal workforce participation while also paying for itself through increased tax revenues. I am a staunch supporter of subsidized day care because I believe in choice and I've seen the evidence on the positive effects of this program (which just happened to not be the right choice for our family). In other jurisdictions, I see people fighting against subsidized day care because (a) young children should be at home with their parents and (b) other people should have to save and pay full price for day care just like they did. All that does is create a war between people who can't afford day care but would like to use it, people who choose not to use it, and people who can afford to pay for it.

We need a lot more support of free choice and a lot less defensiveness over our own choices.  Shame is a barrier to social change, in feminism and in many other spaces. I will never forget that my choices were made within a set of circumstances that in some ways are entirely imperfect and in other ways are so much more than what other women have access to.

Intsead of rejoicing in and defending our chains, let's work together to break free from them.

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Reader Comments (32)

I loved the analysis of the word 'choice'. I disagree however that we must subsidize any choices over others. Subsidized daycare is good only if we also equally subsidize sitters, nannies, moms at home, dads at home, tag-team parents, grandma are and the other 9 ways to tend kids.
We often hear from daycare operators that everyone should have the choice of daycare so they want to set up a spot for every kid at government cost, and then you can use it or not. That is not efficient use of resources. It is also not really 'choice'. It is like Henry Ford's choice - you can have the model T in any color so long as it is black. We need to fund kids equally period. That enables money to flow for any choice. Otherwise it's just words.

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeverley Smith

I'm glad I read your post before the NYT article. Just reading it I felt my shackles start to come up, at the strong insinuations that those of us who "chose" to stay home are only doing it bc we don't have other options and don't REALLY want to be doing this...

But the greater, and much more important point, is figuring out how to support families so parents can share work/life/parenting duties more easily, and be more free in our choices vs being pushed into one corner or another. Feminism is about choices... and having the control over our lives to make those choices without extenuating circumstances (or with as few as possible).

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

We all have lives and values that differ from one another and that is the way it should be. Diversity should be embraced and used as a tool to explore who we are. Acceptance of eachother's choices is an important part of learning to live in harmony and extend a helping hand to others. There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing to stay at home or go back to work when becoming a parent and no person should be judged for their decision. Instead they should be supported and respected for whatever decision they make. That is just my opinion and I am well aware that it may differ from others but also totally fine with that. I am a stay at home mum who is currently studying. We are lucky that we do have choices as difficult as it can be to make a choice at times.

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterConnie Meier

I find that whenever I'm thinking about these issues, I have to walk the fine line between a) working to improve the conditions under which we all make decisions on the one hand, and b) still avoiding a perfectionist model of choice on the other. In other words, even in a world where there *were* the perfect conditions for all parents (and I'm under no impression that this world will ever exist), I still wouldn't want to assume that everyone would thereby make the right decisions for themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if people get so defensive about the "rightness" of their choices because they *do* feel as if they are operating under a perfectionist model of choice, where every choice HAS to be what's best/the best/and so on. (Of course, there are lots of other cans o' worms that leads to this defensiveness too...)

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I never chose to stay home and work extremely part time. It makes more financial sense since my husband makes way more than me. It bothers me, there's no convincing me that it doesn't.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterM

It is hard to have progress because it means that the thing you suffered or struggled or sacrificed to obtain someone later on can obtain without suffering. It is hard to let go of the suffering. And sometimes it on some level does not seem "fair". Progress by it's nature is not fair. That is the whole point- people later on will have it better. But I think that fairness issue underlies some of the difficulty we have in accepting positive changes.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAurora

I am an economist by profession and I wanted to weigh in a bit with Beverly Smith. She is exactly right that selecting what is subsidized equates to making the choices. But I do somewhat disagree about the subsidies. Subsidizing EVERYTHING leads to a misallocation of resources. The price of things is what allows resources to be allocated correctly. Since TVs cost money, most people only have one or two, but if TVs were free or $5 then many would have a TV in every room (though some wouldn't because it wasn't "right" for their situation). However, the number of TVs would simply be too high and very few individuals would ever allocate resources to making 10 TVs per family over, say, feeding people. The same with subsidized day care. I personally witnessed a neighbour in Montreal put their daughter in daycare so that 1) the husband could go to work and 2) the wife could go shopping and the salon and such. I'm not judging the wife, but I am saying that she might have made a different choice if she got the childcare subsidy directly but could spend it as she wished. For that reason the daycare spots sometimes go to people who value them less than others.

The best would be a value to work done in the home but it would be very tough to figure the right price for that work since so many people are "willing to do it for free".

Anyway, the point is that choices should not be free otherwise they serve no purpose in society. The price needs to be right and certainly not everyone is getting paid for all the work being done, but free is possibly the worst price.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlex | Perfecting Dad

I'm glad to read Alex's and Beverly's comments.
I've been trying to formulate a comment without being self-righteous about my choice to stay home or being dismissive of truly poor people who really can't stay home...
To me it's not so much that I am willing to do the work of caring for my little one "for free" its that the job is "priceless" and not one that I really felt anyone else was capable of doing, or would be appropriately tasked to do (that is caring for a 0-5 year old for the majority of her waking hours). I am the utmost expert on my 0-5 year old. Would that all mothers had the confidence and resources to say this.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers


"Would that all mothers had the confidence and resources to say this."

How about parents instead of just mothers?

February 21, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Sorry, I am just not overly invested in the whole male/female uber equality in all aspects of life thing. Of course, I am for equal opportunity and equal rights when it comes to legal and public-sphere issues, but the fact is, from 0-5, especially with regard to breastfeeding, a mother plays a key role that is very different from a father.

Also, with the whole single mother "epidemic," at least in the U.S., it would appear that it really is the "mother" who's responsible —"right" or wrong. (Though I will say that one of the very best things a mother can do for her child is to be married to a good man!—or woman, if that's your thing...)

And, most importantly, I was speaking as a mother myself of my own experience. I refuse to pander with my language to the "what about men" question that's so often thrown back by feminists.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

And, while I appreciate and agree much with Alex's comment, I recalled a book that shows that people actually DO things like buy TVs (and other things) before providing proper nutrition to their families. So, all I can say is..."it's complicated." And after reading this book I've quoted below (although not directly relating to the issue of subsidies in the U.S.) it's become clear to me that policymaking to effect certain behaviors in people is not always intuitive or straightforward...

"...if nutrition is so important, why don’t people spend every available extra cent on more calories? From the look of our eighteen-country dataset, people spent their money on food… and festivals, funerals, weddings, televisions, DVD players, medical emergencies, alcohol, tobacco and, well, better-tasting food. So what stands in the way of better nutrition for the poor? And what policies can eradicate the “hidden hunger” of a population who may feel sated but whose diet lacks essential micronutrients?" (http://pooreconomics.com/chapters/2-billion-hungry-people#full)

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

Yes, yes, yes. I find myself caught in these webs so often. It feels like we can't talk about the institutional and cultural problems that might be limiting our choices without demonizing the individuals who make those choices. Since it's a lot easier to fight with an individual than it is an institution, we spend all our time bickering over whose choice is right instead of looking at whether we actually have the choices we think we do.

I think a lot of this is tied into our understanding of individualism and collectivism. While it's true that individuals make up the collective, it's more than just adding up the sum of the choices people make and calling that the whole. It's a really tough balance to walk.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBalancing Jane

Balancing Jane:

I want to wrap myself up in that comment and pretend that someday the whole world may come to that understanding. Thank you!

I'm definitely a bit (a lot?) of a socialist, so looking at the collective is something that comes naturally to me. In fact, it is so obvious to be that I think I often forget that people will read my messages through the lens of individualism. Even though I'm not criticizing individuals in my fight for more political and societal support for choice, I have to remember to always make that obvious and repeat it 10 times (and even then it won't be enough for some to truly see).

February 21, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Getting people to see the structural impediments to equality is really difficult, particularly in the US where everyone seems to have adopted the language of personal responsibility wholesale from the Right beginning in the late 80s, and talking about structure is perceived somehow as whining or making excuses. I see how women's choices was a key feature of the feminist movement in the mid 20th century, but the way we talk about 'choice' now - feminists included - is more deeply shaped by the 'personal responsibility' rhetoric than the feminist legacy, since the social justice understanding of choice is about freedom (freedom from structural impediments), whereas the 'personal responsibility' framework says 'if you were trying hard enough there wouldn't be any impediments'. So I find it particularly frustrating when feminists adopt the rhetoric of choice and use it as a weapon against other women, like the assumption in some feminist circles that women who stay home are betraying the sisterhood and giving in to the patriarchy. It's my big soap box - let's stop talking about individual choice and start talking about structure. Thanks for this great post, Annie, and for advancing this important conversation.

@Gretchen, when you make a statement like "Would that all women had the resources and confidence to say this," you transition from your reflection on your own thoughts and decisions and move to a blanket statement of what you think is Right for all women (the implication here is if women had the correct amount of resources and confidence, they would all feel like staying at home because they would be able to recognize that they were the most qualified to care for their kids.)

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErin

That's exactly right, Erin.

That is the ideal, in my opinion—that for the earliest years of a child's life, the best place for them is at home with their mother, aside from part-time preschool, playgroups, outings. I don't support government programs that warehouse infants and babies in out-of-home institutions.

I was trying to be gracious in allowing that some people just really do not have the resources and that, over time, women's confidence in themselves as mothers has been chipped away at by various cultural factor.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

To be clear, it's not about "what women feel like" (as nice as that is) it's about what children need, if we really do want to invest in children, if we really do believe they are important and are "the future" as so many like to say. Sometimes I didn't "feel like" being at home with my baby, sometimes I "feel like" having a 4-hour margarita lunch with friends (or a hot guy). But I am a grown up with responsibilities. Government's role is not to enable every last individual to live how they "feel like"...

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

Oh, thank you for writing this! I'm a doctoral candidate in educational policy -- but consider myself an educational sociologist -- and spend my days thinking about how personal lives, opportunities, and choices are often constrained by inequalities and cultural forces. I'm also a new parenting blogger, and reading all the debates about parenting as a nearly full-time job is new to me and often puzzling.
I'm also a huge supporter of subsidized early childhood education. I spent years of my life researching, observing, and talking to experts about it. And when it came time to finding the right care for my toddler son -- even though I was still just technically a "student" and writer and not working outside the home yet -- I very much wanted him to experience the benefits of an outstanding childcare program. Our community-based preschool has children from all races, religions, and all socioeconomic backgrounds. It's one of the best things that has happened to my family. And if every mother, like mothers in other advanced democracies, could have the security -- emotional and financial -- that her child could attend a program like my son's with government subsidies, I think there would be huge societal as well as personal benefits for women and women's lives.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Smock


I can assure you that when I wasn't home with my kids, I wasn't having 4 hour margarita lunches. I was working hard to earn a living.

My children's needs were more than adequately met by being at home with their father/grandmother (or later on preschool and then elementary school) during the 1/3 of the day that I wasn't with them.

I reject the idea that because I have breasts and gave birth to them, that I'm the only one who can adequately meet their needs. Personally, I think my children are at an incredible advantage as a result of their strong, close bonds with both parents and with their grandmother.

February 22, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

It sounds like you had a great situation. I do feel like you're slightly missing the point, though. And the margarita line was in response to what women "feel like" doing (not what they may or may not "need" to do). Of course loving family members will be nearly as equally invested in your child as you will. Paid workers in a government (or even the best private) preschool/daycare will not.

February 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

Personally, I think it's much better for children not to be with adults every second of their day who are 100% invested in their development. My son's preschool is wonderful, perfect for his development in every way. It's part of the fabric of my community, and his class has urban kids on scholarships, the daughter of a doctor, and the son of a janitor. His teachers are early childhood experts, with advanced graduate degrees in education, and are loving, attentive, and gifted teachers. And I think it's actually better for kids to learn to be part of a group, part of a little community, to learn that the world does not revolve around their needs at every second of the day, that sometimes their immediate concerns have to be negotiated with others. Yes, parents (almost always moms) stayed home with their kids in previous generations. But parenting was very different. My mom was home with me, but she simply did not "hover" over me. Kids were left on their own for large chunks of the day, even from an early age. Today even toddlers' days are overscheduled, and their lives are micromanaged and they're primarily with adults. For me, preschool -- even though I technically do not work outside the home -- serves as time when my son is learning a lot about how to interact in the world and with others, without my constant presence, and I get time to myself to write, work, and know that he is well-cared for.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica Smock

I agree, Jessica. Our 100% investment in our child means that it is our responsibility to ensure the best possible environment for them, which means time to connect with their parents, but also time to explore and venture, to learn from themselves and to learn from others.

There are many different ways to do that. Our way worked very well for us and for our children.

February 23, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Part-time preschool is not the same, of course, it's good to give parents a break and let them play with others, learn to be able to be part of groups, etc. But not ALL DAY LONG when they're little. They'll get the soon enough when they go to big-kid school. Years and years of institutions and rules. At home with me most of the time from 0–5 I certainly did not hover or wait on my child all day. I had clients and projects and my own interests and she was free to do what she wanted. I was just sort of the facilitator of her own projects and playing. The things my daughter finds to do and creates on her own with me just very loosely facilitating are now and have always been way cooler and more enriching for her than the organized things they did in preschool (and sadly now school-school, to the extent that I would not mind homeschooling, but that's a whole other more complicated issue...) A lot of it depends on the child and the home environment. I just know I personally would not send my kid to an all-day government-run pre-K and the state of the U.S. economy and public schools such as they are right now, I don't think adding more responsibilities to them and throwing more money at them is something I'm on board with.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

I read a great quote the other day that is my new mantra when it comes to debates of "wrongness" and "rightness". It is from Rumi - "Beyond the ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. I'll meet you there." This post might be my favorite of yours ever!

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKellie

Yes. I am working on processing (and really trying to let go of) notions of "right" or "wrong"...my way versus someone else's way. The hang up, though, is when we start talking public policy decisions that cost billions of dollars...I'm still searching spiritual/philosophical ways to deal with feelings about that, but it may just be the whole notion of "rendering to Caesar" and trying to live in my own realm, separating myself from the madness of the State.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers


For me, the important thing to consider in those cases is both the long-term ROI of those investments and the greater good (I'm kind of fiscally conservative socialist that way).

The subsidized day care system (or child tax credits for those choosing to use private child care) in Quebec have been shown to more than pay for itself through additional income tax revenue (from the increased maternal workforce participation and childcare workers).

From that perspective, the only possible reason I could have to oppose something like that would be an ideological belief that my choice is better for everyone or that everyone should have to pay just like I did.

February 24, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

First and foremost, I love this post.

One point: we need to remember that no one, not even the most vocal child care advocate, is suggesting that child care should be free. There is, however, a good deal of evidence (qualitative and quantitative) that does point out the economic and social benefits of publicly funded ECE programs where the staff is well trained and properly compensated and children receive high quality care. Flaws in the Quebec system notwithstanding (many of which are as a result of demand far outstripping supply), the program has been overwhelmingly successful, has contributed significantly to the quality of life of the families who use it and has also put back more into the economy than the initial cost.

That said, I fully support more options being made available and financially supported through the tax system, such as family leave programs that actually do allow parents to stay home if that is the option they choose. We were lucky--both my workplace and my partner's workplace are unionized and so we were provided with top-up benefits in addition to EI that allowed us to each take 6 months off with both our kids, so for the first year of their lives we were home with them. After that, they went to a community daycare that has a number of neighbourhood satellite programs so it also provides pre- and post-school care for our eldest.

However, a key reason why there are 4 and 1/2 years between our kids is because of the cost of the childcare center our kids attend (and don't get me wrong--the care and support the centre provides out kids and our entire family is remarkable) and the student loans we had to pay off. Which goes back to the original point, I think, of how we ensure families--however they are defined--have access to the choices that make sense for them and ensure their kids are well cared for, regardless of how it's structured. And that includes recognizing the longterm ramifications (and the impact on the choices people are often forced to make) when as a society we increasingly individualize and download the cost of things like education onto graduates and their families.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commentererika


You may be interested in a post I wrote about subsidized day care in Germany. It is actually free in some cities. The issue there is that rich cities can afford to provide free day care to their residents, while poor cities cannot.


February 24, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Oh, all of you...I guess I am very cynical—and skeptical—of my fellow Americans...mostly our leaders. I don't doubt things work well in Canada and certain European countries. We are different here. I do think there are greed problems, leaders build into their programs opportunities for various stakeholders in the mix to make money from the programs, etc. To me, they are not generally trustworthy or efficient. I wish I lived in Canada!

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGretchen Powers

thanks, annie, will take a look.

February 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commentererika

Great post. I've also heard time and time again similar arguments that "I got by just fine with XYZ so they don't need". It baffles me how so many people don't realize that everyone is an individual and everyone has different needs/wants. Just because you got by without something doesn't mean that everyone else can.

A similar issue is something that I see here in Brazil. The public schools are awful. I'm not talking just about low education levels but they are extremely unsafe, drugs often permeate the halls and from what I understand from talking to other Brazilians is that the schools are getting worse, not better. Part of the reason for this is that so many choose to send their kids to private school and have no interest whatsoever in improving the public schools. They don't see how it affects them directly. Of course, this hurts women (especially single moms) who would like to work something fierce and to make matters worse school days are only 4 hours so there is no other available free child care beyond that.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJune

AMEN SISTER!! Personally, I feel strongly that the words "You'll see" should never be uttered. Thank you for this.

March 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Todd

Why aren't we asking the obvious question? It's this one:

"Why do parents have to choose between raising our own kids and working to earn our life's necessities?"

It didn't used to be that way. It used to be that you could do necessary life's work AND look after your children. Frequently with some or all of your extended family available to help.

In the name of progress, we have chosen to give up a whole/holistic life in favor of one divided up into compartments, and guess which compartment is the least valued.

And this serves no one but our society's elite, in the end.

If I truly felt feminism was about "having choices" (what, between bad and worse? Nice "choices" there) or about serving the interests of the elite, I would not be a feminist.

Can we come back down to Earth now please?

March 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDana

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