The question was prompted by the competition between several men to be declared the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby. After watching Larry Birkhead jubilantly confirm that he had been found to be the real dad, Tracee felt a little undone:
I suspect I wasn't the only single, childless woman of a certain age who belched up a slightly sour-tasting ironic burp ...
... it seemed incredible, from my experience, that each of them seemed so desperately keen to own up to firing the winning sperm.
If only there were men queueing up for fatherhood duties with such fervour in the real-life version of what happens to women in their late 30s. With due respect to the many doting fathers I know, who love and support their kids in one — or two — homes, I seem to know a lot more women who have either given up chasing child-support payments from absent and/or financially gymnastic fathers or given up the idea of having a biological child at all.
If anecdote is the litmus test for truth, the latter category feels like an epidemic. Especially if you're immersed in that special something that happens to women when their body clock starts shrieking like a wounded hyena and there's not a willing bloke within cooee.
... There aren't enough blokes with sufficient enthusiasm for child-rearing to go around.
What can explain this lack of willing fathers for late-30s women? I'd put the answer as follows.
Back in the mid-1980s Tracee Hutchison was an idealistic feminist:
I was young, passionate and idealistic and felt I was part of something with powerful momentum. I walked with thousands of other women in the annual women's day marches and proudly wore the green, white and purple colours of the sisterhood. I felt that - together - we could make the world a better place.
Feminism in those years did have a powerful momentum. Its message to young women was to remain autonomous, which meant in practice focusing on careers, travel, and casual relationships. The independent, single girl lifestyle was to be stretched out as far as it could be, with marriage and motherhood deferred until some time in a woman's late 30s.
The hold of such ideas over university educated woman was very strong in the late 80s and early 90s. It couldn't help but affect the male attitude to relationships. Men discovered that women were rewarding players and shunning men with traditional, family type qualities. They were also confronted with the message that the male family role was sexist and "anti-woman"; the male effort to provide, for instance, was no longer thought of positively but as a source of inequality hurtful to women.
What were men to do? Some accepted the player role; others opted out completely; some focused on careers or personal interests; a number tried to complement a female autonomy with a male one, in which a loss of love and marriage was to be compensated by a greater freedom of choice in work and a greater independence in relationships.
When many women eventually did decide, in their 30s, that they wanted marriage and motherhood they faced a significant problem, the one troubling Tracee Hutchison. They had been all too successful in their 20s in discouraging the family instincts of men. Suddenly there seemed to be a lack of "good men" who would commit to the role of self-sacrificing husband and father.
So the problem derives, at least in part, from the tendency of feminism to follow the autonomy strand of liberalism, in which what is thought to matter most is our ability as an individual to be self-determining (and therefore independent). This didn't lead most women of Tracee Hutchison's generation to reject marriage or motherhood in absolute terms, but it did lead them to fatally defer such commitments.
Which raises an interesting question. Autonomy liberals often talk about life being given a purpose by our having a life plan which is determined not by tradition but by our own reasoned choices.
Can it really be said, though, that the feminist cohort of the 1980s and early 90s had a life plan based on reasoned choices?
Even when I was in my early 20s, I thought some of the choices women were making were madly shortsighted. Why would you defer motherhood to your late 30s, to the very last moments of potential fertility? Even now Tracee Hutchison speaks of women in their late 30s having shrieking ovaries, when fertility decline actually sets in much earlier at about the age of 30.
Why too would you sacrifice the opportunity for love in your 20s, at the very time we are most impelled toward love by our romantic and sexual impulses? Why would you accept a more cynically casual attitude toward relationships at exactly this time?
It wasn't difficult to predict, even back in the 1980s, that there would be many regrets later on, such as those experienced now by Tracee Hutchison and her circle of friends.
So why might autonomy liberals find it difficult to make life plans based on rational choices, when this is so frequently emphasised in their philosophy?
I suppose we could answer with Edmund Burke that individual reason is not as effective an instrument for most people as liberals assert it to be:
We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages.
Yet, even if a feminist woman had enough private stock of reason to generate a successful life plan, there are other factors likely to hold her back.
For example, the belief in autonomy has two separate effects. First, it generates the idea that we should determine our own life plan based on rational choice as a means to bring meaning to our existence. Second, it then tells us that these life choices should maximise our autonomy.
But the two effects can only complement each other if it's always rational to prefer autonomy over other goods in life. Otherwise, the second effect (of always maximising autonomy) leads us to make irrational choices.
This is, I believe, what happened to the feminist cohort. They were encouraged to choose an independent, single-girl lifestyle over marriage and motherhood as this appeared to maximise autonomy. Yet the single-girl lifestyle was unlikely to prove a superior good in the longer-term for most of these women, and so it involved a set of irrational choices (whilst serving a "logic" of autonomy).
There are other factors too in explaining this problem of liberal life plans, but I'll leave discussion of them for a future post.