Saturday, April 21, 2018

Why I Want to Be An Alien Mother

I would have no problem being a human father. Being a human mother, on the other hand, is much more complicated. Science fiction, however, offers some inspiration, and after I finished reading Becky Chambers' Galactic Commons books, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit, I realized--I want to be an alien mother.

I’ve long been impressed by the parenting solutions of science fiction. For example, the group marriage parenting in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or the village parenting model in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. However, Heinlein’s solution problematically had only women doing the parenting, which, although it freed up some of the women to pursue careers, is marginally superior to today’s model of childcare for those who can afford it.

Piercy’s solution has long seemed the most elegant to me. Get rid of women’s unique biological ability to bear children, and--voila!--goodbye gendered inequality overall, and inequality in parenting specifically. Nobody bears children, nobody bears the risks of gestation or birth (children are grown and born in machines), everybody shares in the work and joy of feeding, changing, rocking. Everybody wins.

Piercy's is the only solution for humans that has ever made sense to me: completely rewiring our biology in order to bring equality to our society.

Until Becky Chambers showed me another way. Her character-driven, Firefly-esque sci-fi novels feature an eclectic mix of alien species alongside a diverse human diaspora. Over the course of her novels, at least two of these species’ parenting is described in detail: the Aandrisk and the Aeluon. Notably, both species, like humans, have both males and females. Biological reproduction is comparable to humans: females provide eggs, males provide sperm. However, both of these species' primary parenting structures are significantly different from humans. Despite the biological similarity, fascinatingly, neither relies on gender to divide parenting tasks.

Opposed to what I have long assumed, does that mean that gender inequality in humans could also have a non-biological solution?

The first species, unfortunately, would suggest no. Similar to Piercy’s solution, the Aandrisk approach to motherhood is rooted in biology: reptilian biology, to be specific. Aandrisk mothers, like reptiles on Earth, lay a clutch of eggs, which are then fertilized--and given to a "nest family" to raise. Nest families consist of groups of older Aandrisks, both male and female, who have volunteered to raise children. When those children grow, they form feather families, where they live with groups of other Aandrisks their age, and if they wish, produce eggs for nest families to raise. Aandrisks do not raise their own eggs. When they become older, they can form their own nest families and volunteer to raise the eggs of younger Aandrisks. In this society, Aandrisk women aren't hampered by motherhood in the prime of their lives, but they can still choose to be parents (or not) when they have the time, financial means, and stable, willing co-parents. Since parenting isn't gendered, there's no more expectations of mothers than of fathers.

Unfortunately, that lack of gendered parenting probably has a lot to do with the fact that Aandrisk women aren't gestating babies for nine months nor are they breastfeeding once those babies are born. Aandrisk women, similar to  human men, can lay eggs and walk away--so parenting falls to those who choose it rather than those upon whom babies are more biologically reliant. It also helps that Aandrisks don't care if a few thousand eggs don't make it. One or two will survive, just from sheer probability. So unless and until we human women can deposit eggs outside of our bodies, the Aandrisk model is probably out for us.

The second species, the Aeluon, look more promising. Like human women, Aeluon women gestate and give birth to babies. It's a long process for which Aeluon women take an extended break from their careers as military captains, cargo runners, or tattoo artists, as the case may be. But babies are so valued in Aeluon society that women are enthusiastically granted leaves of absence, and subsequently, welcomed heartily back to their careers. And what happens to the babies? They're raised by units of four to five professionally trained parents. Parenting is a respected and highly competitive career among the Aeluons. The required training for parents is extensive. Admittedly, it does seem to be a largely male career, at least as represented in the series, although there are representative parents of the neutral gender and the gender that transitions between male and female, and there's no indication that women couldn't be parents if they wanted. Furthermore, biological mothers can interact with their children as much as they wish, from living with their kids (and kids' parents) to a couple of intergalactic phone calls per standard year. Regardless of what the mothers choose, the kids have the best full-time care and love that society can provide.

Why isn't this viable for humans? Like Heinlein's group parenting, it's not biologically based, and, unlike Heinlein,  it shatters the notion of separate professional and domestic spheres. Parenting and childcare isn't unpaid, underpaid, or part-time. If we could elevate childcare as a profession, maybe we could provide higher quality care for our children, value the work of women, and equalize the discrepancies between motherhood and fatherhood. 

Sadly for us, there is a slight biological impetus for Aeluon society's privileging of children. As opposed to humans, Aeluon fertility is somewhat limited. Instead of monthly opportunities, Aeluon women are fertile only a few times in their lives. This factor undoubtedly contributes to the enviable social infrastructure for the precious next generation.

However, while it's unlikely humans will start laying eggs, valuing our children like we claim to do is not such a big leap. If we truly love our children, as a society, then we will provide them with the best care possible, and one way or another, "traditional" motherhood, with a single woman doing unpaid work, has to go.* With Becky Chambers' options on the table, I want to be an alien mother.

*"traditional" motherhood is in quotes because many societies have had multiple women, and sometimes women and men, sharing the work of childcare, and also because there is nothing wrong with parenting as a career, but it deserves the same recognition as any other profession. 

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