never married, over forty, a little bitter

the stalling

And what about child care? In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Childcare Act (CCA), providing national day care to women who needed it. (Such a law wouldn’t have a chance today.) President Richard Nixon vetoed it that December. Using Cold War rhetoric, he argued that the legislation would harm the family and turn American women into their Soviet counterparts — that is, working drudges. His veto was also payback to his religious supporters in the South who opposed women working outside the home, and so using child care. It set childcare legislation back until, well, this very moment.

Ask any young working mother about the nightmare of finding day care for her infant or a space in a preschool for her child. Childcare, as feminists recognized, was a major precondition for women entering the labor force on an equal footing with men. Instead of comprehensive childcare, however, this country chose the more acceptable American way of dealing with problems, namely, that everyone find an individual solution. If you’re wealthy, you pay for a live-in nanny. If you’re middle class, you hire someone to arrive every day, ready to take care of your young children. Or you luck out and find a place in a good preschool — or a not-so-good one.

If you’re poor, you rely on a series of exhausted and generous grandparents, unemployed husbands, over-worked sisters, and goodhearted neighbors. Unlike every nation in Europe, we have no guaranteed preschool or after-school childcare, despite our endless political platitudes about how much we cherish our children. And sadly, childcare has remained off the national political agenda since 1971. It was never even mentioned during the 2012 presidential debates.

And let’s not forget women’s wages. In 1970, women earned, on average,59% of men’s wages. More than four decades later, the figure is 77%. When a university recently invited me to give a keynote address at a conference, they asked what fee I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. The best advice I got — from my husband — was: “Just tell them to give you 77% of whatever they’re paying the male keynote speaker.” That response resulted in a generous honorarium.

But what about all the women — widowed, divorced, or single — who can’t draw on a second income from a man? How can we claim we’ve reached the 1970 equal pay demand when 70% of the nation’s poor are women and children? This isn’t about glass ceilings. What concerns me are all the women glued to the sticky floor of dead-end jobs that provide no benefits and no health insurance, women who, at the end of each month, have to decide whether to pay the electricity bill or feed their children.

artificial threats

The authors continue to fixate on the concerns and challenges that are supposedly created by those selfish non-procreators. Whose going to replace the workforce? What about all those elderly entitlements? (Of course, he seems oblivious to the fact that adults without children–particularly DINKs–are likely to have more resources to work with and be less of a social burden). The authors are not concerned about the overall continued population growth in the world, but about the United States. So much of the challenges that he points to–only exist because of a self-interested and one might say selfish approach to looking at human population. These are artificial threats created by an artificial barrier called nation. Here, the authors are playing upon a xenophobic bias (his own and the readers) to ignore the larger picture and just frame the US in a state of crisis (making note that we could go the way of Europe or Japan who also face population declines) that is in part, caused by the childfree selfish people.


Not long ago, I received an 11th-hour request to discuss this topic on a public radio show with Last, a writer at the Weekly Standard. The urgency was probably due to the fact that the lineup included, along with Last, two other gentlemen and a male host. I agreed to represent we wombs with legs. On the show, I was introduced as “someone who comes from a very different point of view from our other guests, inasmuch as she is a woman.” I said that I questioned any conversations about fertility decline without centering around the people who are exclusively bearing and primarily raising children — the ones I’d been asked to solely represent. “These abstractions, I don’t think that they really speak to the lived realities of people’s lives,” I said. “I think lots of women are making rational decisions about how many children to have.” I mentioned the lack of paid family leave and daycare, the stigmatization of single mothers, families separated in deportation proceedings.


Meanwhile, the economist Nancy Folbre writes at the Times, “I know of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a society is determined by the age structure of its population. The interaction between demographic and economic change is so much more complex than the simplistic doomsday scenario implies.” She does say that an aging population with lower (but stabilized) fertility raises concerns about the long-term viability of how our retirement programs work, but that’s an issue of program design and priority, not certain civilizational destruction.

So why the hysteria? I’d argue that it serves several retrograde political functions, besides its marketability as a counterintuitive rebuttal to the “Population Bomb” fears of old. We are in a moment of partial Republican self-examination, in which certain party reformers are facing the fact that there just aren’t enough white voters to keep them in power — a demographic problem! (While there have been some serious conversations about family-friendly policies started by feminists, including Stephanie Coontz in the Times last weekend, it’s currently edgy among Republicans to support tax breaks for working families they once proposed.) And every conversation about how allegedly unsustainable Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are, for one reason or another, mainstreams the pressure to radically cut its benefits or reshape it to the whims of the market.

lowered expectations

In the face of these problems and many more, we might question our expectations of how often we can rightly look forward to sex going well for us– and, contrary to the spirit of the age, might conclude that a handful of occasions in a lifetime may be a fair and natural limit to our ambitions. Great sex, like happiness more generally, may be the precious and sublime exception.

During our most fortunate encounters, it is rare for us to appreciate how privileged we are. It is only as we get older, and look back repeatedly and nostalgically to a few erotic episodes, that we start to realize with what stinginess nature extends her gifts to us– and therefore what an extraordinary and rare achievement of biology, psychology and timing satisfying sex really is.

— Alain de Botton, How to Think More About Sex, p. 10