How one woman decided whether reproduction had a place in her quest for a sustainable life.
By Shannon Hayes
When I first began sharing my newest research endeavor—to explore the role of homemaking in healing our current global crises—I spoke with a slight tremor in my voice. I was afraid of what people might think: that I’d stepped onto a slippery path that begins with being a small-scale farmer and ends with a silenced woman diligently serving husband and a vast brood of children in a cloistered household far removed from society. But when I talked about homemakers, I had an entirely different idea in mind. Both sexes were involved, and they were people who used the home as the foundational unit for profound social, ecological, and economic change. Homemakers could have children or be child-free; they could be male or female. My argument to reclaim the home was not a statement about reproductive choices.
Most people got it. But sometimes the message was lost in translation. Two weeks ago, for example, I received a letter from a reporter in Turkey who had not seen my own writing on the topic, but who was exposed to the idea of radical homemaking second- or third-hand, through a language barrier. It was like a game of telephone, made scary for the real world. Her initial interpretation of my argument was essentially this: In order to live more ecologically and socially responsible lives, women (not men) need to return to the home; there, they should bear many children so that they could help with household duties and grow food. This, she had surmised, was my definition of a new feminism. She being a young, career-oriented, ecologically aware woman, I don’t think it sat well with her. It certainly didn’t resonate with me (as was evidenced by the fingernail marks on my desk). But, working carefully with our language barriers, I think we came to an understanding about what I mean by radical homemaking (although I’ll never know for sure, since I can’t read Turkish.)
She wasn’t the first to misconstrue my message. Since I’ve begun communicating these concepts in lectures, I’ve been taken aside several times by zealous, rather domineering men who want to have what my husband Bob and I now dub “the talk.” To be blunt, “the talk” is an invasive discussion about my fertility. The lecture starts out with assertions that I think are genuinely meant to be complimentary. These men observe the health of my children—their good eating habits, their resulting “proper bone structure” and robust health, their “stability from being in a home where a loving mother is preparing home-cooked meals.” “It is a pity,” I am therefore informed, that I do not bear more of them, since Bob and I seem to be the “right kind of parents.” These men then typically toss in a few Biblical verses for good measure.
Always alone and unsure of how to respond to these conversations, my skin crawls and I inwardly seethe. They may be well-intentioned comments that are simply grounded in beliefs wildly variant from my own, but I cannot help but hear them as statements of cultural supremacy, as conniving suggestions that a woman’s highest purpose is a functioning uterus. Typically, I use my absent husband as a scapegoat and blithely remark to the offender that “if I had more kids, I’d probably be a single mom,” in hopes that he will conclude that perhaps we aren’t the “right kind of parents” after all.
When Bob and I started dating, we agreed it would be better for the Earth if we didn’t have kids. A few years later I wanted one kid, and so I argued that a new generation would be beneficial for our rural agricultural community, with its population in decline. But we decided that if we had just one, at least we would still be contributing to a net population decline. That worked for a while, and then this screaming, raging, passionate desire for a second child simply overwhelmed me. I argued that I couldn’t bear to see my first-born daughter without a companion; that we had so much to give in terms of time and family; that, with grandparents helping full-time, we had too high a parent-to-child ratio for Saoirse. And our rural community still had a serious lack of children. In my most conniving moments, I pointed out to Bob that our personal ecological footprints would actually be lower if we had a fourth family member (I know. That was a pretty cheap argument. But I was desperate.)
To his credit, Bob towed the line on ecological concerns. But seeing my strong desire, and Saoirse’s longing for a sibling (and probably liking the idea of some unfettered sex), he eventually gave in. So along came Ula, the kind of kid who likes to turn on farm equipment, hide keys, play with knives, and lick batteries. The child-rearing equivalent of four 3-year-olds, she balanced out our parent-to-child ratio … or did she? I remember vividly one day last year, sometime after she was out of diapers and into trouble, cleaning out her dresser and bagging up clothes to take to the local thrift store. It was a pair of fuzzy, purple-footed sleepers that did me in. I had loved zipping her into them, seeing those fat baby cheeks pop out the top, sniffing her neck and nuzzling her as my personal cuddle toy. Suddenly, that unbearable urge washed over me again.
I wanted a third baby. Knowing this was not going to be a popular idea with Bob, I sat down in the chair where I’d rocked and nursed both my daughters and attempted to sort through my emotions.
There was no doubt that I loved my babies, that they had pushed Bob and me to experience and evaluate our world and life choices in new ways. They helped us grow immeasurably in strength and confidence. Our children taught us about our imperfections, and they filled us with empathy, grace, and new understanding about our own childhood experiences. For us, having two kids had been a great move. But what was I hoping for with “just one more?”
I was surprised at the first answer that came to me: “To stay young.” I wanted to have another baby because I didn’t want to let go of this lovely phase of life, where my body was fulfilling a primal biological function. I didn’t want to surrender that youthful vibrancy that surrounds childbearing.
There were other reasons. When pregnant or nursing, I experience a place of honor as one entitled to rest, a reduced workload, good food, and emotional vicissitudes, all for the sake of creating another life. As I reflected on those ideas, they seemed unfair. How did I come to believe I wasn’t entitled to those things unless I had a fetus in my uterus or a baby at my breast? Rest, appetite, and the freedom to express one’s emotions should be an entitlement for everyone. They shouldn’t be regarded as socially aberrant conditions excusable only in those who are pregnant or nursing. And I saw another quirk in my compulsion: I seemed to be confusing biological fulfillment with creative fulfillment. As I pondered having a third, I began to see that I was at least partially seeking a distraction from my personal creative challenges. If I constantly had the work of seeing to my young infants and children, I could sidestep the personal creative challenges that loomed in front of me: taking a greater role on my family’s farm, researching and writing about issues that I felt were important.
Still, the sweet milk-scented sighs of little babies, their soulful gazes as they suckle at the breast, and the coos, giggles, and naked bummies that eventually dart across the kitchen floor are just fantastic. As I rocked in my chair, I wasn’t sure I was ready to let them go. But just then, I heard my eldest, Saoirse, burst inside and ask her dad about taking out the canoe. She had been learning about dragonflies, and wanted to see some of them in action as they guarded their territories on a nearby pond.
Ula was finally old enough to put in the boat as well, and I wanted to join them on the adventure. And while nursing babies are lovely, they really don’t belong in canoes. As I stood up from my rocking chair, I acknowledged that it was hard for me to let go of a period in my life that I have found joyous and fulfilling—but I knew that if I didn’t, I was going to miss some other marvelous part of my life’s journey.
Today, I am thankful that I have only two children. Once I left my rocking chair that morning, my longing for a third disappeared. But I intend to remain non-committal about reproductive policy prescriptions. I am as opposed to “only one child” arguments as I am to “go forth and multiply” arguments. Instead, I think we need to be asking ourselves the deeper questions—about our need to care for and honor our health and the Earth, to seek creative fulfillment, to experience relationships and contribute to our communities, to create a better future, to do what makes us happy. Each of us will have a different answer about how children figure into this picture, but hopefully the result will be a more sustainable future.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.