Thursday, May 03, 2007

Losing motherhood

It's soon to be election time here in Australia. Currently the right liberal Liberal Party is in power, and they have promised voters a $3000 "baby bonus" as part of their family package.

Interestingly, the left liberal Labor Party has warned that the baby bonus might backfire by encouraging teenage girls to become pregnant.

Why is this interesting? Because it's usually conservatives who worry that government welfare undermines the family. Conservatives often argue that the best way to help families financially is to give tax breaks. This form of assistance supports the efforts of men to be providers by returning some of their earnings. It therefore increases the financial benefit to a woman of having a husband, and strengthens the social role of marriage.

The $3000 baby bonus, on the other hand, undermines the position of men in families. It is the government which gets the credit for this kind of family payment, and not husbands. In effect, the government is taking over some of the role of being a provider from men, so that women need a husband as a provider within a marriage to a lesser degree.

That's why you might expect a family-oriented conservative to prefer a $3000 tax deduction to a $3000 baby bonus. But why would a left liberal oppose the bonus?

The answer, perhaps, is revealed in an article by Fiona Stewart in today's Age newspaper. Fiona Stewart is worried that the $3000 baby bonus might encourage young women to become mothers. Why doesn't she want young women to become mothers? She explains that when she was completing academic work on this subject a few years ago,

Everyone in the youth sector was - and still is - committed to encouraging girls to see motherhood as one of many choices. To move away from the historical model of "the baby maketh the woman" ... This strategy of encouraging choice over biological destiny was aimed particularly at girls from non-English-speaking backgrounds ... (Age 29/5/04)

This is a logical position for a liberal to take. Liberals believe that we should be self-defined through our own reason and will, rather than through unchosen things we simply inherit. Therefore, liberals like Fiona Stewart don't like the idea that a woman's identity should be formed around motherhood as this is part of an inherited "biological destiny" rather than something chosen individually, like a particular career path.

This issue, of how we define ourselves, is raised again later in the article when the reasons why a young woman might choose to have a child are discussed. According to Fiona Stewart,

She will do this, not to get social security benefits as some seem to believe, but because motherhood is a definer of self.

Which is exactly the problem for a liberal like Fiona Stewart. Motherhood is not supposed to be a primary "definer of self" under the rules of liberalism because it's not something self-created out of a woman's own mind, but is a natural outcome of her inherited sex.

What Fiona Stewart would prefer is for women to fashion their self-identity through educational and career accomplishments, with motherhood being a possible later and subsidiary add on.

For Fiona Stewart, if there is to be any incentive for women to become mothers, it shouldn't be in the form of a baby bonus, nor a tax break, but greater support for childcare, so that women needn't interrupt their focus on career or education when they have children.

Hence her less than maternal conclusion that,

If we have to pay women to have children - rather than providing the infrastructure to support the integration of parenting and work - it should be done in a way that ensures that education and career still come first.

The kids can wait.

Is this a way of looking at things which is likely to lead to a commitment to family and having children? The answer clearly is no, which helps to explain delayed family formation and low birth rates in liberal, Western countries.

Yet, it's hard to blame young intellectual women like Fiona Stewart. They are simply following through the logic of the orthodox liberal philosophy of the West. Unless we decisively reject this orthodoxy how can we expect our intellectual class to view motherhood as a central "definer of self", rather than as a form of self-identity to be suppressed?

Motherhood is likely to be placed in a losing position, despite concern over low birth rates, until we reject the first principles of liberalism.

(First published at Conservative Central, 29/05/2004)

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