My wife and I are getting to the point in our shared life where we are beginning to think seriously about children. If we can swing the finances for it, one of us is probably going to stay home with the little buggers and be a full-time parent, at least for the first three or four years. That parent is almost certainly going to be me. Now, you’re probably all thinking “Oh, he’s such a good feminist! Taking on a traditionally female role and subverting the Patriarchy like that.” And it does feel good to contemplate giving the middle finger to normative gender roles. But here’s the thing: the decision for me to be the stay-at-home parent has very little to do with screwing with gender stereotypes. Simply put, I want to be heavily involved in my future kids’ lives, and I have a better temperament for child-raising than does my wife. So I get to take credit for making a “feminist choice”. But let’s say our positions were reversed. Would my wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom be a feminist choice? Obviously not – I may be a third-wave feminist, but I don’t buy into the “empowerful” bullshit. “My choice to conform to and reinforce this patriarchal trope is a feminist choice because I’m doing exactly what I want” doesn’t cut it. The problem is that being the breadwinner for the family when you’d much rather be (and can afford to be) the primary caregiver isn’t exactly a feminist choice either. In this sort of situation, there IS no feminist choice. We just have to make our own way as best we can, deciding for ourselves how much suffering a given feminist ideal is worth. The trick is not to castigate ourselves for the compromises we inevitably make, but at the same time, not to fool ourselves into thinking that a choice is feminist, just because we really want it to be.
On a related note, I think that this sort of catch-22 is the reason the phrase “I’m not a feminist but . . .” is so common. The “but” is inevitably followed by opinions that indicate that the speaker is, in fact, a feminist, but is reluctant to call herself that. Part of the reason for this reluctance to own the feminist label is the social stigma attached to feminism (the feminazi effect), but I think part of it is also the perception that feminists reject and vilify any woman (or man) who makes an unfeminist choice. This isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – true, and we ought to take every opportunity we can to remind people of that. If you’d like a little more justice in this world, then you’re a feminist, and you don’t get your feminist card confiscated just because you decided not to be a martyr for the cause.