A feminist challenge to sexism within the current cult of motherhood is needed, argues Victoria Dutchman-Smith
Before I became a mother myself, among my favourite works of feminist literature were The Women’s Room and The Feminine Mystique. These remain favourites of mine, even though the views they put forward on motherhood are pretty negative, to put it mildly. Personally, becoming a mother was the best thing that’s ever happened to me, yet I still think Betty Friedan and Marilyn French are spot on in their attacks. Then again, that may be because I see a real difference between our current cultural construct of motherhood, and what it’s actually like to be a woman who’s had a child. It disturbs me that an attack on the former is so often misrepresented as an attack on the latter.
As a feminist and a mother, I think recent (and indeed not so recent) feminist positions on pregnancy, motherhood and childcare blow the alternatives out of the water. The central chapters of French’s The Women’s Room cover in wonderful, painful detail just how boring, lonely and restrictive caring for children full-time can be. This is not an instance of a feminist demeaning or attacking mothers. It’s an impassioned cry for help and support, and one that we shouldn’t be drowning out with mutterings about how all mothers really need is more respect (which usually means a metaphorical pat on the head from Daily Mail columnists and the odd bunch of flowers from the loved ones who would help us more, but daren’t tread on our sacred little toes). I’m so thankful I read The Women’s Room and other works before becoming a mother myself, as I was able to go into it with my eyes open, and find a different way of living with my partner and son, one which made sense for us as individuals, not as play-actors taking on the mummy and daddy roles that most people struggle to shoehorn themselves into.
While I love being a mother, I resent the current cult of motherhood in our society. It’s something feminists need to challenge, instead of feeling it’s a thing they need to adapt to and be oh-so-polite about. When I was on maternity leave following the birth of my son, the loneliness I felt at being out of the workplace and spending all day with someone who couldn’t talk was compounded by the fact that when I did meet with other mothers, the contemporary cult of motherhood required me to hold my tongue. It’s not that no-one talks about the physical and mental challenges of being a mother. Women do, all the time (even though the same discussions on cracked nipples and tantrums in Sainsbury’s are treated as ‘taboo breaking’ each time they arise). The trouble is, while we’re all allowed to say how difficult it is, no-one’s allowed to say that it’s too difficult and needs to change, because that would be seen as undermining the very roles with which we’re struggling. So we get nowhere or, worse, we learn to seek value in all the things that could be so much better if only we’d try to alter them.
So many websites and mothers’ groups I visited devoted an inordinate amount of time to a) moaning about how much others demean the role of mothers and b) demeaning yourself and all other mothers in pretty much the same breath.
I’m sick of people saying mothers are dowdy and unsexy… I can’t lose my baby weight, can you, isn’t it terrible how big we all are?
People treat stay-at-home mums like they’re stupid… Yeah, your brain does turn to porridge when you have kids, I can’t even follow Hollyoaks any more.
Mothers get blamed whatever they do… Of course, feeling guilty’s just a natural part of motherhood.
Rather than listen to this, I found myself avoiding all the usual ‘support’ networks. I was lonely, but at least not filling my son’s head with ideas on how useless mummies are. I may not be the perfect mother, but I’ve got better things to do than go on about how fat, thick and guilt-ridden motherhood has made me, before demanding that the rest of society appreciates me and my fat, thick, guilt-ridden fellow mums for becoming this way. This is not, by the way, another so-called feminist attack on mothers, but on a culture that encourages them not only to think so little of themselves, but to positively glorify themselves in doing so, as though this constitutes some kind of sacrifice on behalf of our children. In magazines, TV programmes, mothers’ groups and web forums, it seems to be taken as read that motherhood makes you less of a person. Rather than challenge this, as feminists have done and continue to do, the accepted response is to go along with it all, but say it doesn’t matter, as long as everyone appreciates how noble we are for having given up said personhood. Well, it does matter and as a feminist I’m not willing to join in the self-abnegation fest at any cost. I’m not playing at being more-rubbish-than-thou and if that makes you feel even more rubbish, why not stop playing, too?
It is not sisterly or supportive to go along with the ghettoisation of mothers as a special-interest group. Furthermore, it is not the case that all ‘mothers’ issues’ are feminist issues. To claim they are is to mistake the trees for the wood, since what clearly is a feminist issue is the way in which all parenting issues are cast as mothers’ issues, as is the way in which any negative perspective on the undue burden parenting puts upon women is misrepresented as a failure to value the work mothers do. Quite frankly, I’d rather someone saw that changing nappies is not the whole purpose of my life rather than “appreciated” my contributions. I don’t want to face the same lack of choice as women before me, but have it repackaged as the best, most important job in the world.
Remarketing the value of motherhood to women without actually counting the cost is not elevating mothers; on the contrary, it’s treating them like idiots who’ll do anything for a bit of hollow flattery. I’m not under any illusions about how difficult yet rewarding looking after a child can be. I don’t think many feminists are, but this doesn’t mean the ways in which men and women currently divide parenting responsibilities are beyond reproach, or that work which is valuable cannot also be seen as damaging to anyone who’s expected to do it year-in year-out, just because she was born female.
Feminism has a long tradition of promoting fairness, equality and choice, things that enable women to be respected as complete human beings worth just as much as men. If we ask feminists to sympathise with cultural trends that militate against such ideals, we weaken the fight for equality to the extent of it becoming meaningless. For instance, it is not reasonable to ask feminists to treat essentialist and non-essentialist views on the roles of mothers and fathers as though they are equal, just because not to do so will offend some mothers and fathers. It doesn’t matter to me how you choose to run your own household. It does, however, matter that the view that mummy does one thing, daddy another, currently holds sway over our parental leave laws and limits the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. It matters that many children are being brought up with restricted views of what women and men do, simply because the essentialist views of their parents are held to be off-limits in feminist debate. It might upset some mothers to say that their femaleness is not intrinsic to how they act as parents. But it isn’t, and to claim otherwise isn’t to take a neutral “all things are equal” approach. It’s to say mixed-gender couples who achieve an equal division of labour and perform similar roles are somehow doing it wrong. And why should we put up with that, just so that others feel their personal choices, choices we have no interest in challenging, are viewed as superior? I don’t care if an individual woman chooses to take on all childcare responsibilities, if this is the division of labour that works for her and her partner. I do, however, care if this particular allocation of roles is claimed to be “natural” and any deviation from this taken as a personal insult. If we believe in choices, we cannot validate one person’s choice at the expense of everyone else’s. That leaves us with no choice at all.
I may be a mother myself, but, to my mind, all women have a right to comment on issues pertaining to motherhood because, in an ideal world, motherhood is not something which randomly happens to some of us and not others. We get to choose whether or not we become mothers, and our choice is undoubtedly influenced by the conditions under which mothers have to live. And we can influence these, not by buying into the cloying mummy-world that popular culture currently offers our sisters, but by looking for different routes, challenging what’s accepted as normal and taking alternative paths ourselves. It shouldn’t be down to feminists to appeal to non-feminist mothers by putting aside the odd principle and turning a blind eye to essentialist assumptions which might elevate individual mothers as exemplars for femininity, but which ultimately diminish all women and restrict their lives.
So mothers, please remember: many of the feminists who stand accused of attacking you are mothers themselves. Or are planning to become mothers and have an obvious investment in what it means. Or are infertile and have more insight than you or I ever could into how motherhood need not define us as women. The point is, we don’t need to be told what pregnancy, birth and childcare are like. We’re just also interested in how they could be in future. We’re interested in an approach to motherhood which does not blindly ‘respect’ women who reproduce without any recognition of them as individuals with beliefs worth scrutinising. We’re interested in how much better our experiences could be if parenting could be shared by everyone, not just those who think pregnancy bestows authority and unaccountability in equal measure. Above all, we’d like mothers to consider themselves too important to be patronised and tiptoed around. So instead of trying to silence us, why not join us?