Here are my answers to bluemilk’s 10 questions on feminist motherhood. This is what inspired me to start this blog, as I started writing and realised there was a lot more thinking and writing I wanted to do (Thanks bluemilk!). Some sections of it were written, oh, um, over 6 months ago now, and I was about to start re-writing it again, as my ideas have evolved, but I figure I better just post it as it is now, or I’ll be re-writing forever (that’s what this blog’s for, isn’t it?). So here it is.
- How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
My feminism is the most personal aspect of my broader social justice politics: a belief that all people deserve respect and should be empowered to control their own lives; it is a belief in collectively challenging the structures which prevent this.
I think I identified with the word ‘feminist’ the first time I heard it, as a child – I remember feeling very angry at any suggestion that I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl. Of course my understanding of what it means has changed enormously, and continues to change especially after becoming a mother.
2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
The fierce mama bear inside of me! I love my child more than I could have imagined.
How amazingly beautiful and joyful it can be at the same time as being so difficult and frustrating and painful.
I am surprised by how my friendships with non-mothers have withered. I feel like many old friends do not respect my choices, or assume that I am less interesting or less feminist because I choose to look after my son full time. I feel like I have grown a million times in the two years, I feel like a more well-rounded feminist, yet I feel like I am less interesting to the world, including the feminist world.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
Oh so much! My feminism has become more radical in many ways, yet might appear more conservative on the surface. I guess it’s more nuanced, less black-and-white.
I’m embarrassed to admit now that as a teenager I thought my mother was a ‘bad’ feminist because she gave up work to raise us kids. I thought I would be more proud of a mother with a strong ‘career’ of her own. My mother, however, was always very clear that being a stay-at-home mother (I hate that term!) was her choice. As she used to say: why would you have a child if you don’t want to see it grow up? I didn’t understand that at the time. I certainly never thought I would make a similar choice.
My feminism developed a lot a university, but the issues of motherhood were not a major concern to me. It always disappoints me how hard it is to understand something until it affects us directly.
Now, here I am, a full-time mum (at least for the moment) and still most definitely a feminist. I am much less sure of the value of much paid work, and more sceptical of the economic imperatives which are behind the attempt to poach all the mums off as workers and farm the kids off to childcare. Of course I’m not saying mothers shouldn’t go back to work. I think I am much less judgemental of whatever choice women make (or are forced into making).
What I want is a world that centralises children, so that it is easier for mothers to be mothers (and fathers to be fathers) and also engage with the wider world (whether that’s paid work or something else). I used to be cynical about the term ‘family friendly’ and yes, it is often used by conservative forces, but I think maybe feminism needs to reclaim it.
So my feminism has gone from a simplistic ‘women can and should work’ (access to childcare and maternity leave should facilitate this) to a more radical ‘the whole fucking world needs to change’ (we need radical social change so that parenting can be more equally shared and is not isolated from the rest of life).
4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?
I try to share parenting and household tasks equally with my partner, as much as practical. This is partly for fairness in our relationship and my own sanity, but also to set an example for our son – I don’t want him to believe there are such things as ‘men’s work’ or ‘women’s work’.
I want to raise him to respect women and all people. I want him to be emotionally intelligent – not a ‘man’ in the way that ‘men’ are expected to be by much of our society. So feminist mothering means not imposing gendered norms on my son, allowing and encouraging him to explore whatever activities interest him.
I don’t want to make too many generalisations about non-feminist mothers. I think that most parenting has to some degree been influenced by feminism, whether they acknowledge it or not – for example, most fathers play a much greater role in parenting than a couple of generations ago. However, I am continually surprised by the extent to which non-feminist mothers actively impose gendered norms on their children; in the clothes they dress them in, the toys they buy, generally treating girls and boys very, very differently. I would hope that most women, whether they identify as feminist or not, would want to raise their sons to respect women, though I do think it requires active thought and practice to do it, given that we live in a society that does not really respect women.
My son is only just 2 years old, so I imagine there will be many challenges to come as far as raising a feminist son goes.
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
Yes, I do feel compromised a lot of the time. But no, I don’t think I’ve failed. Feminism for me isn’t a pass/fail kinda thing. It’s not an individual thing. We can’t be ‘perfect’ feminists in a patriarchal world. But even though I know this intellectually, it doesn’t stop me feeling like a failure sometimes. I feel compromised because I do so much more parenting work than my partner, but that’s not my fault or even my partner’s fault. It’s largely because we live in a society which creates such a divide between parenting and out-of-home work, making it difficult to divide tasks in a more equitable way.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
Well, no – there was never really any other option.
But, yes. The last 2 years have been an adjustment coming to identify myself as a mother, let alone a feminist mother. While I’ve always been a feminist and now I am a mother, I am just going through a process of fitting the two together, working out how all the new feelings and priorities I have as a mother can sit nicely with feminism (these questions are helping, thank you). It has been difficult for me to explain any of this to my old non-mother friends; I feel like they think I am less of a feminist because of the choices I’ve made as a mother. It has also been difficult with my new mother friends, just because I don’t know how to start a conversation about feminism in amongst all the talk of sleep, nappies and all that other baby stuff (any suggestions???)
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
This was initially a tricky one for me. I was shocked at how quickly and willingly I gave up so much of my former work, study and social life. The sacrifice didn’t feel ‘feminist’, but I didn’t know how unimportant that stuff would become compared with my son. What I have gained is so much more valuable. The alternative, sacrificing a close relationship with my son, would be unbearable.
So it’s not the sacrifice itself which is the problem. I think the sacrifice involved in motherhood is a shock to many of us partly because of the individualist culture we’ve grown up in – and this includes some interpretations of feminism. It’s relatively easy to imagine we are free, empowered ‘feminist’ individuals when we are single, childless young adults, with few real responsibilities. So motherhood comes as a shock. All relationships involve ‘sacrifice’ in some form, if that’s the word you want to use. I’d prefer to think of motherhood as revealing how connected and interdependent we all really are. How could we possibly invite a new little person into our lives and expect to be able to do everything as we did before? Sacrifices should be seen in context. Feminism shouldn’t mean being individualistic or always putting ones self first – this is a gross misinterpretation of the view that women shouldn’t always be last.
So I think the question might be referring to the extraordinary amount of sacrifice in motherhood. This only confirms my feminism – it does not need reconciling – if the world was organised along more feminist principles, I believe motherhood would be more balanced.
8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?
My partner is in general agreement with my feminism, though I don’t think he takes it as seriously as I do. He is supportive in the sense that he takes on as much parenting as is practical. Shared parenting is not something he does because of my feminism, it’s just what he wants, what seems obvious to him. However, I think there are plenty more conversations we need to have about what it means and how we want to raise our child.
9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
I am an attachment parenting mother and initially I felt like this was very challenging to my feminism. I was doing what felt right as a mother and what worked for me and my baby (before I knew what attachment parenting was), yet I felt that as a feminist, I should be able to be more independent, do more things that I used to do.
Having thought long and hard about this, I figured that what felt right as a mother simply could not be in conflict with being a feminist. I was not making these choices because patriarchy was telling me to, I was doing it because it worked for me and my baby. However, if society wasn’t organised the way that it is, attachment parenting choices could be easier and less demanding on the mother. To be consistent with feminism, it has to be attachment parenting, not attachment mothering. Fathers have a major role to play too, and, ideally, so do other extended family members or allo-parents. I think many attachment parenting books do not acknowledge this adequately, and therefore end up encouraging women to be martyrs.
I should clarify what attachment parenting means to me. It is an approach with encourages becoming in tune with your child and building a relationship of trust with your child. For this reason, it is entirely compatible with my feminist mothering, which aims to raise an emotionally connected son. It is usually associated with particular early parenting choices, like breastfeeding, baby wearing, co-sleeping, but it is not defined by any particular choice – I think very few attachment mothers do all the attachment things all of the time. These things are all just tools which can help with attachment, but they don’t work for everyone all the time. But neither can they be considered to always be more limiting than other parenting choices. For example, I have a friend who insisted her baby would sleep in a cot from birth, then found she couldn’t sleep anywhere else, and was thus stuck at home for many hours a day, whereas I was out doing stuff most of the day, my baby happily sleeping in his sling. Also, breastfeeding makes healthier kids, so less time spent caring for sick ones.
I see attachment parenting as an alternative to popular ‘detached’ parenting styles which encourage an adversarial, authoritarian relationship with your child. Such approaches are ‘patriarchal’ in the sense that they are ‘male’ ways of relating – less emotionally involved, more ‘rational’, more authoritarian*. I don’t think feminism is supposed to make women more like men; more like make men more like women.
What I am trying to say is that I hope that the ‘outcome’ of my mothering is feminist. That is, it is more important to me that I raise a feminist son in the long term, rather than that I appear a free, independent woman in the short term. I hope the time invested now, building a good relationship with my son, will make things easier as he gets older.
* There are a million variations and combinations between styles of parenting – I don’t want to suggest there is only a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ way to parent.
10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
Feminism is an ongoing process; it hasn’t failed mothers, but it certainly hasn’t achieved all we might have hoped yet. I do think that some interpretations of feminism let mothers down, as some of the above questions have implied. For example, the idea that women can ‘have it all’ – motherhood and a career – puts so much more pressure on us and is quite unrealistic in the current culture. Also, mothers who choose to look after their children fulltime can be seen as not doing enough.
But despite all that, feminism has given mothers so much, and that should never be forgotten. We need to remember and celebrate our gains, not give up on feminism just because we haven’t got everything. Women today have much more choice and control over their lives (if not complete choice or perfect control, and some women have benefited more than others). But at least we have the option of working after marriage and children, and a broader range of work, with better pay too. Fathers today are much more involved in parenting. Feminism also gives us a language to talk about mother’s issues, and has put many of these issues on the broader political and social agenda.
So really, feminism has given mothers so much, and the potential to gain so much more. Hurrah for feminism!