Why the Mississippi “personhood amendment” failed

Mississippi voters decided yesterday by a 55 percent majority not to outlaw abortion and some kinds of birth control methods. Photo by The New York Times.

Yesterday Mississippi citizens voted against a so-called “personhood” amendment that would have outlawed abortion and would have prohibited some types of birth control, too.

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Parenting is the new Pinnacle of Human Experience. [Team Mommy vs. Team Cosmo, psych edition]

The old hierarchy of needs

At some point in your education, you’ve probably come across the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s a pyramid that shows the most basic of needs for human beings, the bottom showcasing physiological needs like food and sleep, and the higher levels showcasing less basic needs like social acceptance and self-esteem.

But the pyramid has undergone some changes recently. A group of psychologists decided to replace “self-actualization” with “parenting” as the highest of human needs.

The obvious problem with putting “parenting” at the top is that not everyone can, or wants to, be a parent. Putting parenting at the top casts a kind of scorn on those who cannot or don’t prefer to engage in parenting, as if these people will never actualize their full potential as human beings. There’s an inherent value judgment with that placement, and it’s not inclusive. Anyone can engage in excretion, friendships, or creativity. But not anyone can or will become a parent. And this inherent judgment value will be taught to the students who encounter this pyramid in their high school psych classes or their liberal arts requirements in college. It will also help form the assumptions under which some psychologists study us and report on us.

So why the change? A psychologist in the academic journal Perspectives on Psychological Science explains it this way:

“The new pyramid is based on the premise that our strongest and most fundamental impulse, which shapes our day-to-day desires on an unconscious level, is to survive long enough to pass our genes to the next generation. … In other words, aside from our powerful brains, we’re pretty much like every other living creature.

Given that we humans like to think of ourselves as special, this new pyramid will surely encounter strong resistance. But it could also become a shorthand way to clarify the often-misunderstood concepts of evolutionary psychology, which, its advocates insist, are not as meaning-denying and ego-deflating as we might think.” [as qtd. in New York Times]

He goes on to say it’s not just a matter of becoming a parent, but engaging in the process of parenting—of caring for and raising a child. The group of psychologists who later made the official change recently told the New York Times that they are not promoting the “right” path to take in life, they’re just explaining why we act as we do. But in explaining why we act the way we do, they make the assumption that parenting is the ultimate and most worthwhile motivation behind our actions and quest for survival (unless you think survival isn’t that big of a deal).

This assumption could be particularly frustrating for women, who are forever pulled in two directions. Our culture tells us to go to college, play sports, and have “girl power.” At the same time, our culture stalks celebrities for “baby bumps.” We have gads of mommy-bloggers and women who create email addresses as “Mommyof(Kid’s name).” Not to mention Palin screeching about the power of “mama grizzlies.”

As a woman, it can feel like you have to pick a side: Team Mommy, or Team Cosmo.

There are plenty of options under these two camps, and they come with all sorts of value judgments. So some become mothers, and some don’t. Some mothers make mommyness their identity, and some don’t. Some non-mothers become anti-mother (Samantha wincing at the thought of children, anyone?), and some don’t.

But: If you’re a woman, you will become a mother or you won’t, and it will in some way affect how you and the world identifies your “self.” There are tricky inherent judgment values that come with those decisions. A group of psychologists sauntering along and going with Team Mommy doesn’t make the choice any easier.

Like many young women, I’ve felt the pressure from both sides. I have no interest, really, in raising kids. But I consider it, and marriage and all that, sometimes when the comments start to get to me. Like a comment from my boss about how I “better hope for a ring” from my longtime boyfriend.  Or a comment from a well-meaning cousin about how I ought to consider passing my genes along (he’s getting his PhD in biostatistics). And I hesitate to tell people that I’m staying in one city, not exploring career opportunities in other cities, because I’m living with my boyfriend. I don’t want to hear the follow up questions from the traditional camp (“So you think you’re getting married?”) and I don’t want the scorn of the non-traditional camp (“You’re limiting yourself!”) either.

But I can’t forget that the pyramid explains existence for both men and women, so parenting was also the ultimate goal for men. Men have—as history and literature and television tell me—not always been encouraged to be as involved in parenting as women. This may mean that these distant fathers would be labeled by the psychologists as somehow incomplete. But you don’t have to look at the miserable (and miserable parent) Betty Draper to know that parenting might not be the goal of human experience, and that her kids might not be well-equipped for survival. Sure, her kids will survive, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sally blew something up someday, and uh, eliminated another kid’s chance of survival altogether.

I prefer to think that the authors didn’t just mean that “parenting” should be at the apex. I prefer to think they realized that only focusing on “finding yourself” could be a selfish and lonely endeavor. If you find yourself, what does it matter if you have no one to share that self with? It’s important, sure, but I think what matters more in life is the relationships you create with others. “Parenting” may have been a step in the right direction. Raising a child is a particularly life-altering experience. I haven’t had any kids of my own, but I can see how parenting does bring out the best in some people, and makes them act for more than just themselves.

But at the same time, parenting a kid doesn’t necessarily mean that you create a healthy relationship with the kid. Committing the act of parenting doesn’t mean that you can foster healthy relationships with friends and family. Parenting doesn’t necessarily mean helping someone else be a better human, or becoming a better human yourself.

If you choose not to produce children, it doesn’t mean that you’re not supporting the human race. You may dedicate your life to teaching or science or policy or development, and thus support the strength of the human race by making it better connected and more resourceful. “Consider,” cracks New York Times, “that Beethoven had no children.”

I get that self-actualization should be replaced by now. And I get the premise of evolutionary psychology: that humans need to survive like any other animal, and our psychological needs reflect that need. I also get that the field of psychology isn’t the ultimate authority. After all, homosexuality was removed only a few years ago from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a bible for the field of psychology. And its recent overhaul caused many to decry its slew of new disorders and ask who could possibly be normal. So these standards don’t always mean much.

Still, as standards, they set powerful guidelines  to evaluate or explain human behavior. In the case of the evolutionary psychologists, I think they took a step in the right direction when they chose to revamp Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But they’re not quite there. Not yet.


My Grandmother’s Ring

Left, Anne Homkes on July 4, 1944, on the beach at Lake Makatawa in Holland, Michigan. Right, the ring Anne's granddaugher, Erin K. O'Neill, inherited.

It’s small and gold and is set with precious green stones. I doubt they are real emeralds. It catches on all my T-shirts. But despite its destructive power it almost never leaves my right ring finger.

I wear my grandmother’s ring every day.

My grandmother, Anne Homkes (née Anna Kooistra), was awesome. She was born in 1920 on a farm in Iowa. The oldest of eight children, her father gave her the option of going to high school or getting married. Anna Kooistra decided to go to high school and boarded with an old woman who only spoke Dutch.

My grandmother put herself through college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She read Hemingway. She graduated from Calvin College in 1942. She taught elementary school and got married in Holland, Michigan. An ambitious woman with a career and a family right after World War II was almost unheard of.

Anne Homkes would have never identified as a feminist.

As progressive as my grandmother was for her time, she stopped progressing after about 1958. When I was younger she seemed horribly conservative and backwards. She could be close-minded about social issues, and she really hated that my mom and I didn’t go to church every Sunday. I never actually told her I’m an atheist. I didn’t understand why she was the way she was. Sometimes her disapproval was more than my sarcastic middle school self could stand. I thought she lived in a bubble, and I was disdainful of it.

When I started college I began to understand the sacrifices she made for her education. She wrote me letters. I occasionally responded.  But, it took being on my own to really learn to respect her.

In a letter dated Nov. 24, 2007, I wrote:

“I wanted you to know how very much I admire you and your accomplishments. To be a woman who is smart, ambitious and successful is difficult enough today – to go to college and have a career and a family when you did 60 years ago must have been much harder and required more fortitude and bravery . . . I find strength in the history of the women in my family – from you and what you gave your daughters and the values of education and strength you have installed in them, and by proxy, myself.”

I sent it weeks after I started it, and she never read it.

She died of a series of strokes following knee replacement surgery before my letter arrived. It was Finals Week and I presented my senior capstone project on the day of her funeral.

I wear her ring to remember that there are strong women in my family who, despite differences in religion, politics and lifestyle, I aspire to emulate. These heirlooms come from Anne Homkes, née Anna Kooistra – the farm girl who became a college graduate and teacher – my grandmother.

– By Erin K. O’Neill

Erin’s story is a part of our series called “My Favorite Things,” in which writers identify an item they love to wear.