The tots came at the rate of 63 an hour—or 1.05 a minute—gliding by in a haze of Pirate Booty and stroller dust.
It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in early October, and all up and down Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue, women were busy being mommies. There were a few nannies, and four fathers stumbled about. But mostly it was mothers—a solid 50 or so—dutifully juggling life and babies while managing to look at once earthy and graceful, not a Britney among them.
This is the good life for a certain caste of New York woman, the aspirational endpoint as brought to you by Maclaren and Cookie magazine. But watching the parade of moms it was hard not to wonder, at what point did child-bearing become such an inescapable component of the New York woman’s dream? And at what point did New York City, historic refuge for the quirky, carefree and childless, turn into a Den of Procreation?
“It’s like a cult,” said a 34-year-old not-yet-parent named Alison who works in advertising and lives with her husband in Lower Manhattan. “It’s like a cult, complete with the required reading, the clubs, the gurus, the dues, the inclusion, the excommunication, the hierarchy.
“And the pressure,” she continued, “starts in the missionary position.”
Raised on the old baby-versus-career debates, women of Alison’s generation always anticipated that the big discussion would be about if they wanted kids, not whether they planned to have three or even four. Certainly when they chose to settle in New York, a town that regularly undershot the national birth rate and was proud of it, they had reason to expect that they were not on the soccer-mom track.
But sometime during the past few years, something strange happened to these historically reticent reproducers. They freaked out, got busy and turned themselves into mascots for the new maternity. In just five years, between 2000 and 2005, the number of children under five living in Manhattan ballooned more than 32 percent, according to Census figures.
It probably didn’t help that in 2006 the Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines recommending that all women of childbearing age be considered “pre-pregnant,” chomp folic acid and avoid smoking. In 2001, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine launched a “protect your fertility” campaign, complete with posters of baby bottles in the shape of quickly draining hourglasses. Meanwhile, the fashion industry has been churning out empire-waist dresses and billowy blouses that make even the skinniest ingenues look like expectant mothers.
Somewhere along the way, the powerful feminist idea that having children was a choice disappeared into the trousseau chest.
Over in France, a similar fertility push, which has helped give that country the highest birthrate in Europe, has sparked something of a backlash in the form of a best-selling book by a writer and psychoanalyst (naturalement!) named Corinne Maier. Titled No Kid: 40 Reasons Not to Have Children, the book is part angry manifesto, part modest proposal urging adults—and above all women—to remain “without descendants.”
“No children, no thank you,” writes Ms. Maier, 43, in the conclusion of No Kid, which is currently being shopped to American publishers. “Women, the future of our country depends on you. The last freedom is to say, ‘I prefer not to.’”
Ms. Maier has caused quite a commotion in France, not the least because she already has two children of her own. (Talk about giving Junior a complex!) But No Kid has raised some valid questions, like, why are people so eager for women (particularly white, nonimmigrant women) to have babies these days? And why, when they do, does it have to be “the most beautiful thing in the world?”
“For women it’s compulsory, you have to be delighted,” Ms. Maier told The Observer in a phone conversation. “We have to work hard, be perfect and be ready,” she added, to sacrifice everything to raise the perfect child.
But back here, in radical old New York, there has been little public discussion among pre-pregnants of the rising pressure to procreate. In this age of “mom”-inism, where success is grand but motherhood is holy, women who declare they don’t want kids are considered self-haters or throwbacks.
This worries veteran feminists like Gloria Steinem. “We’re certainly not in an O.K. place,” said Ms. Steinem, who herself chose not to have children and said she never regretted it. “Whether women can decide for themselves whether to have children or not is the single biggest component of our health, our economic status, our education, our ability to control our own lives.”
One might ask: When will we get our own backlash? In our brave new world, in which everyone from Nicole Richie to Curtis Sliwa’s quintagenarian sister is getting knocked up, no one is exempt from the baby squeeze. Fifty-five-year-old women who’ve never had kids now get told, “It’s not too late!”, while some gay men and women, suddenly surrounded by baby-happy friends, have now begun complaining about the pressure to reproduce.
“When did I wake up and become Bridget Jones?” asked Stephanie, a 37-year-old editor and member of No Kidding!, a social group for adults who, yep, don’t want kids. “I’ve had the experience of having two women not even want to date me because I don’t want to have kids.”
Molly Peacock, the poet and feminist, can relate. At 60, she has never had a child—in fact, she wrote a memoir called Paradise, Piece by Piece about her decision not to have a child—but she can still imagine the day when someone will nudge her in the ribs and wink, “There’s still another chance for you!”
“You can’t get out from under it,” she said. “I really can understand how a younger woman can just feel like this blanket’s been thrown over her head.”
“Even my sluttiest friends are having kids now,” said Alison, the pre-parent, “which is alarming.”
In her new book, The Terror Dream, the feminist Susan Faludi (also without child) argues that the procreation push is part of a creepy post-9/11 gender narrative, an extension of the ongoing, nationalist effort to promote hearth, home, and female fragility: “a concerted effort to promote this … idea that women would and should reproduce as a way of consoling the nation,” as she put it to The Observer.
Or maybe it’s just capitalism at work.
“I think that it’s just such a clear extension of affluence, that people can afford to have children become an extension of themselves,” said Janice Min, editor in chief of Us Weekly and the mother of two young children.
Ms. Min knows a thing or two about today’s fetus frenzy. Hollywood, after all, is one of its chief purveyors, a land in which everyone from 17-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who appeared heartbreaking and prepubescent in Whale Rider, to 45-year-old Marcia Cross of Desperate Housewives seems to be sporting a belly.
Forget Katherine Hepburn, who famously chose not to have children in order to focus on her career. These days, it’s pregnancy that earns an actress ink.
“It’s almost un-American at this point to say you don’t want children, especially from an image perspective,” said Ms. Min, who spoke to The Observer the day her magazine broke the news of Jennifer Lopez’s pregnancy. “It’s almost like saying you’re a communist.”
Asked about her magazine’s own role in this phenomenon, the editor cited audience appetite. “There just seems to be this endless, bottomless desire to see celebrity offspring,” she said. The postfeminists of today, she said, no longer sees kids as “some sort of personal setback.”
Certainly it’s not a bad thing that motherhood is no longer stigmatized. But it all smacks a bit of the 1950’s—albeit spiffed up with Gucci baby carrier, Juicy maternity jeans and wooden toys from Germany. “I think there are ways in which these Bush years feel like the Eisenhower years,” mused Ms. Peacock, the poet. Then she offered a ray of hope.
“Of course, that’s the generation of women who produced Betty Friedan,” she said, “the generation who produced The Feminine Mystique.”