An empowered mother is an outlaw mother, argues Jane Chelliah
Back in the 1950s, US feminist Adrienne Rich went on a summer holiday. She spent prolonged periods alone with her sons. Writing about the experience in Of Woman Born, she explained the relief it was to escape the usual routines expected of mothers.
“This is what living with children could be – without school hours, fixed routines, naps, the conflict of being both mother and wife with no room for being simply, myself.
“Driving home once, after midnight, from a late drive-in movie… with three sleeping children in the back of the car, I felt wide awake, elated; we had broken together all the rules of bedtime, the night rules, rules I myself thought I had to observe in the city or become a ‘bad mother’. We were conspirators, outlaws from the institution of motherhood; I felt enormously in charge of my life.”
This phrase, “outlaws from the institution of motherhood”, encapsulates the pivotal penny-dropping moment in her realisation of the power of her mothering. Upon return to normal life, Adrienne said she slipped back into the ‘good mother’ role.
In a nutshell, Adrienne was describing a common problem which persists till today – the ambiguity of being a mother. For most of us, becoming a mother is the single most fulfilling experience of our lives which we cherish but it is not without pain. Being a mother involves self-sacrifice, endless patience, a large dose of self-denial and being on-call no matter how unwell or mentally exhausted we are. Is this the only way to practise being a mother or is it a social patriarchal construct?
The key to the answer lies in the distinction Adrienne makes when setting out two explanations for motherhood: one “the potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children” and and two “the institution” which seeks to keep that potential and mothers under male control and deprives them of their potential to mother.
Motherhood, therefore, is a patriarchal institution which outlaw mothers are breaking away from, to carry out empowered mothering. The former is oppressive and the latter is a women-centric subjective style.
Of Woman Born is a classic feminist text that lays bare the pervasive nature of patriarchal motherhood, and how it debilitates women and undervalues the work of mothers. Adrienne was ahead of her time in 1976, when she argued that being a mother is but one dimension of a woman’s life and it should not act as a barrier to a woman participating in society.
Interestingly, the book constantly tugs at the short leash of patriarchal motherhood but does not go on to define what constitutes empowered outlaw mothering. Instead, subsequent feminists have filled the void by constructing a narrative of empowered mothering as a contradiction to what the institution of motherhood is. From reading the book and listening to other feminists speak, I believe that an outlaw mother is an empowered mother who believes that her personal self-fulfilment is a key enabler of her child’s happiness and who mothers in contradiction to the prescriptive dictates of the patriarchal society we live in.
My personal journey to becoming an outlaw mother began before I even became a mother 12 years ago, I now realise. I bought into the rules of the patriarchal society: that ‘good’ mothers devote their days and nights wholeheartedly to the upkeep of their children and home while the ‘bad’ ones put their careers ahead of their children simply because they go to work. The devil of the institution of patriarchal motherhood lies in the simplicity of the rules.
When I was pregnant I was constantly told by people that once my child was born I would have no interest in work anymore. I began to question my own previous belief system because I loved my job and could not imagine wanting to resign from it.
When my daughter was born I was happy to stay home and bond with her. We had many magical months but it was quite clear that for me to be an effective mother I needed interaction with the outside world, to be challenged and stretched, so I could bring different dimensions to my mothering.
As the months went on, far more surprisingly, I realised that my daughter needed to be stimulated in ways that I could not do alone. Meeting other mothers for chats was not the way. Quite often the mothers would be having conversations while the babies would fall asleep with boredom because a busy cafe is not a place in which to develop a baby’s needs. The mothers’ network of meeting in chain coffee stores is overrated.
When I went back to work I missed my little baby dreadfully but it was a joy to watch her play with other babies, have huge spaces to crawl around in at nursery and learn through interaction with other children.
The benefit to her of having a mother who was using her education and agency to improve family life was invisible to society. People felt quite free to criticise me for going back to work, even going so far as to say that I ought not to have had a child. Over the ensuing years I wondered if there were other mothers who had had the same experiences. Mothers in the UK, generally, tend not to have conversations which stray beyond the confines of domesticity.
One night, last year, I went online in frustration and looked up resources on feminist mothering. I discovered the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement in Canada which was set up by Dr Andrea O’Reilly to explore feminist scholarly study and activism in mothering and motherhood issues. Joining MIRCI helped me put a language to my feelings and to feel validated. It is full of intelligent mothers who are activists and academics in mother studies. They are progressive mother feminists who are willing to break with tradition while still maintaining a fierce loyalty to their children.
I have since spoken at two MIRCI conferences attended by women from across the world who do not have a fear of being accused of selfishness or an anti-father philosophy, unlike British mothers.
Notable at these conferences is the scarcity of UK representation.
Feminist mothering in the UK is struggling to take off for to a number of reasons, in my opinion. Firstly, the feminist movement itself does not fully recognise the diversity that exists within women’s identities and tends to campaign on single issues. It is largely reactionary as opposed to being an internalised empowering activism and views mothers as being ancillary to the cause in the sense that they are included as women, not as mothers.
Secondly, policy-makers favour the family model and stereotype the single mother as one who relies on state benefits. By contrast, the mother within the family model who does not work and stays home to look after the children is unsullied by societal stigma because her male partner is financially supporting her. The idea of patriarchal motherhood acts to suppress empowered mothering.
Finally, unfortunately the outward facing persona of mothering in the UK is the mummy blogsphere, which is as far away from feminist mothering as dry land is to fish. These bloggers often reinforce the stereotypes by writing about their baking and cookery experiences and their days out. The mummy blogsphere has not contributed to a capacity building exercise of modern mothers and acts under the mistaken assumption that the very act of blogging makes one an empowered mother. Such is the dizzy seduction of the mastery of modern technology.
Mumsnet is different in that it hosts a feminist forum. Interestingly, the mummy blogsphere runs blogging competitions and one recent winner had written about the isolation of being a mother. Feminist mothering was not mentioned in her blog post but her solitary words were echoes of what Adrienne Rich wrote.
The state of play of mothers in the UK is rather black and white. Good mothers stay at home and do everything for the children and her partner – playing, reading, physical care, and looking after the house. A working mother is expected to feel guilty and to put her work last. She will be watched to determine whether she is having and doing it all.
This paradigm is alienating and divisive and carries risks for those children of mothers who cannot sustain an isolated way of life. Also, mothers such as lesbians, widows, disabled women and single women need to feel included in mothering. This is why I launched the UK outlaw mother movement. MIRCI started the outlaw mother discussions in Toronto as a community outreach initiative to open up discussion and debate among a wider audience and it has been a big success. I am hoping to replicate this in the UK.
When I gave my first talk in at Occupy St. Paul’s in London, it was heartening to watch the women’s faces change when I described the difference between patriarchal motherhood and empowered mothering. These women had not realised either that there were other mothers who felt the same way. We even got into a discussion about the guilt mothers feel when they ask their partners for help with childcare.
I anticipate that the group I set up, UK Outlaw Mothers, will initially appeal to women with left-leaning politics (as it is happening at present) who tend to be more non-traditionalists. However, I hope that mothers of other political persuasion will realise that mothering is a personal identity and act free of political colours and is an extremely gratifying experience.
Being an outlaw mother has enabled me the satisfaction of seeing my daughter discover her potential already at the age of 12. She is the youngest child political blogger in the UK, and was voted the seventh most influential child blogger in the world.
Apart from my daughter’s intellectual prowess, I am humbled by the interest that she shows in my work and other activities; and the way she has embraced the knowledge and skills that I bring into her life and how she has built her capabilities on these is more than I could ever have imagined would happen. In return, I am grateful to her for showing me how to make even more of myself as a mother and a woman.
Ambition has been central to my empowered mothering hence my blogger name, ‘ambitiousmamas’. It is my position of mothering as a location for social change. My ambitions give me agency which translates into my daughter’s sense of self-worth and autonomy.
I may be a convert but will it be easy to convince others? In the book, 21st Century Motherhood, written by Dr O’Reilly, she asks the question why, after 40 years of feminism, it is still the case that modern motherhood is practised as a patriarchal institution. Mothers still talk about the exhaustion, guilt, anxiety and loneliness they suffer but do not have an explanation as to why this is so. Dr O’Reilly states that this is because the symptoms of patriarchal motherhood are seen as gender essentialism for modern motherhood. If this gender essentialism is eradicated then 21st century motherhood will be viewed as being a practice of maternal empowerment.
In other words, it starts with you: only you can make the change and to reclaim your power as a mother. “We do not think of the power stolen from us and the power withheld from us in the name of the institution of motherhood,” as Adrienne Rich said.
Characteristics of patriarchal motherhood
- Children can be properly cared for only by the biological mother,
- this mothering must be provided 24/7,
- the mother must always put her children’s needs before her own,
- mothers must turn to the experts for instruction,
- the mother must be fully satisfied, fulfilled, completed and composed in motherhood,
- mothers must lavish excessive amounts of time, energy and money in the rearing of their children, and
- the mother has full responsibility but no power from which to mother.
Picture of a mother and child an original piece of art by Bethany Lamont. Image of a mother and child sculpture uploaded by Flickr user williamcho. Image of an adult hedgehog and a newborn hedgehog obtained via Wikimedia Commons.