Loribeth mentioned someone who had posted on social media about Afghanistan, commenting that “now I have a daughter, this hits differently.” Some of the comments rejected Loribeth’s categorisation of her friend’s statement as #pronatalismatwork. This conversation made me reflect on such comments, and whether pronatalism (the promotion of childbearing and parenthood as desirable for society) was behind it or not.
I’ve written elsewhere about “as a mother” comments here and here, and on A Separate Life here about the “I have a daughter” comments that men invariably make to justify their feelings or express a new-found realisation that women deserve decent treatment too. As if women in general didn’t deserve that prior to them having a daughter. I’ll try not to repeat all those arguments here.
Ultimately, I feel as if the differences between “now I have a daughter, this hits differently” and “didn’t daughters always deserve empathy?” come down to the point of focus. The person who commented that Afghanistan was hitting differently was focusing on their daughter. (I don’t know if they were a man or a woman, though I have my suspicions. Edit: It was a woman. I was wrong!) Of course, they were imagining their daughter being in that situation, and were understandably (I assume) distressed at that thought – at the fear, the uncertainty, the lack of freedom, and loss of opportunity, the inability to change things to help their daughter – let alone some of the more horrific outcomes of the situation in Afghanistan. They were thinking as a parent, and their empathy was focused on one or two children, their own children, in an imagined situation, rather than in a more selfless, all-encompassing way.
Yes, I deliberately used the term “selfless.” Because the empathy shown by parents when they say this “hits differently” for them, even if it is a very deep empathy, is focused inwardly, on their feeling as parents, and on their daughters. Because I think they are saying that prior to having a daughter, the situation wouldn’t have hurt them, not just in the same way, but with the same intensity. And, as I’ve written before, that leads me to wonder why they would make such a statement. Even if they’d been appalled at the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls in the past, this was never really personal to them. But “now I have a daughter” is an admission that it IS personal.
Whereas when I – a childless woman who has neither given birth nor been primary care-giver of a child – consider Afghanistan, I shudder, because I imagine being all those little girls, all those women, I imagine myself and all the little girls and women I know in that situation, not to make it about myself (because how could it be?), but to try to understand. I feel their hurt, and I want to protect them. Now, I know that this isn’t always helpful (intense pain with little to no ability to help) and I often have to step aside. But when I’m watching news and reading about events and situations that are different to mine, I find that it is a) unavoidable to imagine what it is like to be in that position, to be those people, and b) extremely useful to put it all into context and think about the reality of what it means. I’m trying to understand an event from the perspective of the people in that position, rather than from how I would feel if one person I loved was in that position. I do think there’s a difference.
What is pronatalist about all that? Is it pronatalist, or is it patriarchal and sexist? I know many women (parents and non-parents) would be more aghast at the situation in Afghanistan than men, who probably just don’t give it much thought. Women would feel it more personally, just as I felt elements of the US election in 2016 very personally, and yet my BIL – who lived in the US and had daughters – did not feel it. So maybe it’s more an issue of how men and women view the world? Perhaps. But not entirely.
I think that making comments like “now I have a daughter, it hits differently,” is an example of the pronatalist world at work simply because it calls attention, before anything else, to their parenthood and states it as a virtue. Throughout pronatalist societies, comments like this are not only permitted, but accepted, and encouraged in our societies. In fact, the pronatalist world applauds them loudly for their empathy, empathy they admit they might not have had before. (Though I’m all for empathy, and for increasing empathy, especially internationally.) People making statements like these are congratulated for their supposed elevated level of compassion that parents are assumed to have (even if the evidence isn’t there) over the rest of us. This support and encouragement then spurs others to make similar comments, so often without thinking, using their parenting status as a mark of superiority. (Ironically, showing no empathy to those who do not have children.) It is accepted as an established fact. There is no examination of motives, as I’ve done above, further reinforcing the whole “parents are selfless, childless are selfish” stereotype. And anyone criticising is told that “we don’t understand.” That is why I think these comments, the support for them, and the culture around them, are indeed part of the pronatalism at work.