Whenever I travel and stay in a hotel, I find myself sitting slack-jawed in front of late-night television. This is because I usually never watch TV. Let's get the accusations of sanctimony and the indignant spluttering about my haughty, cultural elitist perch out of the way. I prefer to think of myself as an innocent, wandering, dewy-eyed, in the wilderness of cable TV, which is wondrously full of Here There Be Peculiar Things. Everything on television is a revelation to me.
So can somebody please explain what the holy hell is up with the baby freakshow?
I've got nothing against babies. I am a fond parent. But I have noticed The Learning Channel (!) slopping out back-to-back sticky chunks of programming about astonishing numbers of offspring. We are, culturally, oohing and goo-ing over quiverfulls of 'em. The Duggars. The Kates and Eights. Octo-mom, bless her trout pout. Multiple births are hot. The implanting of a shoal of eggs into a celebrity-obsessed woman warrants our reality-showing attention.
In the meantime, uber-pricey baby garb and gear has sprouted all over the hip parts of town. I'm talking about strollers that cost thousands of dollars, and that are so wide that they can be used by affluent antisocials as people-dozers on sidewalks (grrr). Babies come to resemble dolls for capitalists, an accessory in designer diapers to strategically park in coffee shops. I keep seeing little ones languishing in their cavernous chariots while their caregiver thumbs the old iPhone. The culture seems to be all about "Mom-Me" rather than Baby.
What's up with this reproductive excess? this fashionable preoccupation with women having massive numbers of kids? Can it, conceivably (ha!), be viewed as a feminist thing? Or is it a cultural conspiracy to try to prod women back towards Kinder und Kuche, like what happened when the men came home from the war in the late 40s and 50s?
Obviously a techie hyper-culture such as ours embraces the technical accomplishments and scientific know-how that surround modern reproductive processes. The strange spawning stories that we suckle at while on the glass teat appeal not only to our urge to gawp but might also be read as triumphs of free choice and non-conventional families. Parents are shown struggling against difficult odds. Such stories in hard times have undeniable appeal.
In some ways, it's never been tougher for women in North America to exercise their choice to raise children. Decades of feminist struggle have won us many rights. But decades of subsequent backlash and misogynist rightwing hegemony have rolled back the freedoms underpinning those rights. The reluctance of patriarchal society to uphold equality by enshrining systemic change has made embarking on the rearing of a child a terrifying prospect for many Gen Xers and younger folks.
Certainly, fewer people seem to be having kids (except in Quebec, where using the term family values could mean removing barriers to the creation of families rather than imposing fundies' restrictive ideas). I remember a 2007 Macleans cover story lamenting the shrinkage of birth rates in Canada that featured a white, non-pregnant woman on the front looking a bit like Octomom before the swelling. The caption nastily enquired "Hey Lady, What Will It Take to Make You Breed?" Imagine burly men yelling that at you on the street.
Well, what will it take? More importantly, do we care about the answers? because we know them. Affordable, accessible childcare, gosh. Or consider this, Macleans, how about a society where parents, usually women, but increasingly men too, are assured that they will not incur enormous penalties for that priceless, society-saving act of breeding. And of course, this goes hand-in-hand with the conservative mantras that have soaked into our social fabric like cat pee. We care passionately about babies but only until they're born, at which point, screw off slut. We bow to bootstrappiness but bail out the bankers. Visions of obscene wealth are paraded in front of our bedazzled eyes and we are told that yes, we can have this, all of it, but only if we can be entertaining. Celebrity-worthy. Grateful. Humble for the crumbs. While we watch the reality shows, our rulers are picking our pockets.
We're living in a society that continually and sentimentally slobbers over women pumping out babies like Ford motorcars while the system makes it heartachingly difficult for us to give our children what they need. No wonder, when the realities of enormous waiting lists, massive childcare costs, environmental destruction, wars and recessions are so grim, we're getting stuffed full of fantasy TV about easy-breezy-beautiful multiple births.
A fountain of fontanelles, a veritable zombie outbreak of adorable little clutching hands. Ah, the reproductive reality shows where there are always lovable nannies and lucrative contracts waiting, and a nice big McMansion to play Mommy in while spinning a bulging belly into a career. A funhouse version of feminism, indeed.