FEMINISM & MOTHERHOOD
I'm going to commit heresy right now by questioning feminism - but have you ever noticed that feminism never talks about motherhood? I heard a fun fact the other day (I can't prove it's true): only 3% of academic papers on feminism contain the word “motherhood”, or address it at all.
And yet 99% of women are mothers.
Doesn’t that seem strange to you?
The most influential feminists of the second wave, Germain Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, never had children.
Think about that for a second: they never carried a child in their bellies. Never gave birth. Never spent a single sleepless night with a baby or toddler that needs them or is throwing up or pissing out his arse.
They never had to finish work at 3 to rush to pick up the kids.
They never stared into the eyes of a child that they made and felt the mixture of fear and awe and joy and love and tiredness that only a mother knows.
How can they possibly talk of women’s issues?
Indeed, feminism, and so called feminists, in my estimation, conveniently avoid the topic of motherhood altogether - it seems to cover everything but - work, involvement in public life, sex.
And this all seems fairly intuitive when you are a Maiden - these are the things that matter to you.
But once you’ve crossed over that threshold into motherhood, this all seems absurd.
It does to me at least.
As a girl growing up in the 1990s, I had all the opportunities my brother and male cousins and friends had. I don’t take that for granted.
I was asked, mostly by the older men in my life, what I wanted to be.
They of course meant what I wanted to do, as a job.
How I wanted to earn money.
Think about that phrasing for a moment: What I want to be. The choice of verb. Not what I want to “do”, but what I want to BE. Not even "who".
I love my job, but it’s taken me years to understand that my work, my trade, and my ability to earn money, while they are important, they are things I DO, not who I am. I am proud of them, and feel privileged to have them, I acknowledge their contribution to my lifestyle, comfort and security and thank God that I grew up today, and not in my mother’s, or grandmother’s era, with so few options.
But they don’t define me, they are not who I am. They are not my worth as a human being.
Yet I was brought up to believe they were the be all and end all of what I could contribute to this world.
It wasn’t until I became a mother that I truly realised my worth as a human being. That I am special, just because I’m me. There are people who love me, just because I am who I am. Not because I earn money or get good grades, but because I simply am the person I am, with all my messy, horrible flaws, my temper, my ADHD, my forgetfulness and ability to get so engrossed in something I wouldn’t notice if the house was on fire. Who see me in the morning when I’m my absolute worst, who see me getting too heated in an argument - and they love me - not even in spite of these things, but sometimes because of them.
They are fucking crazy. But I love them too - not because they do things or are good at things but simply because of who they are.
That is not to say I shouldn’t or don’t strive to be better: it’s a strange irony how having a child makes you feel more important, more loved, but simultaneously makes you want to strive to be better, for them.
Yet, as a child, when I was asked what I wanted to be, it meant a doctor or a politician or a lawyer or something we could all be proud of. A certificate we could hang on the landing.
And never once did that question imply if I wanted to be a mother - if I wanted to have children and raise them and love them and be changed by their existence for the rest of my life.
Now that is a “be” if ever there was one. I am a mother, it is not simply something I DO.
I’m not even particularly good at it a lot of the time, but unlike other endeavours, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Kind of like how they say golf and sex are two things you don’t need to be good at in order to enjoy.
Never once was I asked what kind of mother I would like to be, and how I might imagine combining motherhood and work, or even that I might want to sacrifice some of my work time to be with my children. Or what kind of man, or woman, I would like to have by my side to take on that gargantuan task. What kind of man I want to provide half the genes of my offspring. What kind of man I want to wake up next to every morning, what kind of man I want to raise my children with me and care and love them when I’m not around.
Or how I imagine combining work with motherhood, or if I would prefer to stay at home with the children, or how I might build a productive household with my partner and share the childcare responsibilities.
You know, the really important things I think about now.
I was just asked about what kind of job I wanted to do.
As though there was nothing else that might be important other than that. Nothing that will define me more. Nothing that would give my life more meaning.
It’s little surprise I grew up a workaholic, unable to relax at home.
No wonder it took me so long to shake off the idea that I need to work a 40 hour week.
No wonder I tie my value as a spouse to my economic productivity.
I know everyone meant well, they wanted what was best for me. I don’t hold any grudges or resentment. I just feel deeply in my bones that they totally missed the point.
And how could they think otherwise? Because the society they lived in didn’t value the Mothers and Matriarchs around them. Only the Men and the sexy Maidens (who were working like men).
Money is of course important, as is having a trade or a job or career that you enjoy and are good at. I feel very blessed to have these things - it just, in my estimation, isn’t MORE important than all those questions of motherhood - so why didn’t they ask both sets of questions?
When I get to this point in my argument, a lot of women give the knee-jerk reaction of “BECAUSE THE PATRIARCHY” - but I think this is a massive cop-out.
Mary Harrington talks about how during the second/first wave, two streams of feminism emerged: the Feminism of Freedom and the Feminism of Care. The Feminism of Freedom fought for the right of women to participate in public life, work like a man, and behave like a man - especially with regards to sex, while the Feminism of Care sought to elevate the status of mothers in society and truly value their role.
I think we can safely say that the Feminism of Freedom has won out.
Indeed, you've probably never even considered there might be a "Feminism of Care".
Because these two streams of feminism are in direct competition with each other. A zero sum game. Because, like it or not, being a mother is synonymous with losing your freedom.
I talk about this much more in my essay “Maiden, Mother, Matriarch” but I think it’s nicely summed up by the phrase “there’s no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone” because babies can’t survive on their own.
By extension, there’s no such thing as a mother, only a mother and someone.
And if you’re a mother, you’ll know how deeply our existence depends not only on our children, but on our partners and wider communities too.
But I want to point out how it’s not the men that decide that we don’t matter - we women have decided that that role matters less. We elevate women in society that either stay eternally young (like Kim Kardashian or Shakira) or contribute to the Machine just as good as a man does.
We talk about the CEO of YouTube, not the mother that stays at home to raise her children, as though the former is more of an achievement, more of a noble task, than the latter.
I’m not saying that we should all give up our jobs and get back in the kitchen - I’m not a ‘trad wife’ or someone who believes in strict gender roles. In fact, I take great pride in the way my husband and I share the child-rearing and economic activities - indeed, he’s taking care of the children while I write this, and I have much to say about creating what some have termed a “productive household” or “cottage industry” in the modern age (I might write a blog post about it)
I also have strong and controversial opinions about how we as mothers and wives might help our husbands have a bigger role at home, by taking some of the economic burden and expectations off them, and that we have more choices and power than they do when it comes to deciding how and if we want to split economic and household activities.
We have much more power and agency than angry feminists and the regurgitated and empty soundbite “because the patriarchy!” leads one to believe. Consider this: when your child was born, you were likely asked how long and if you want to stay at home, and if you want to go back to work full-time, part-time or at all.
I’ll bet a lot of money no-one, including you, asked your husband those questions.
I certainly didn’t ask mine.
It was just assumed that he would keep working, and work more.
(But that he should also, simultaneously "be at home more")
Some women will inevitably get their knickers in a twist here and say “no one asked me those questions, and my husband forced me to go back to work” - I get that this is not EVERYONE’S experience, and not a luxury some of us can afford. But a lot of women will nod their heads with this.
When a child is born, many women today have 3 choices: work, stay at home, or combine the 2.
Most men only have one: work.
I know some women are poor, or single mothers, or live in China. But let's be real here: I, and you, are middle class, western women with husbands (or sometimes wives) that shoulder the economic burden while we torture ourselves with questions of identity, choice, freedom and privilege, when we have all four.
We’re the ones that decide who stays at home, how much we work, what brand of bum wipes we buy…. And we can change the conversation. We can value ourselves and other women by their contribution to their home and the family, as well as success in the workplace.
Because the uncomfortable truth is that someone still needs to do the washing up. Someone still needs to clean the dirty nappies. Someone still needs to push the baby out and teach our children the difference between right and wrong. To show them that they are loved and don’t need to do a certain job or earn a load of money to be worthy of love and have a place in this or any home.
We can continue the march towards unfettered contribution in the workplace and totally outsourcing our roles as mothers.
We can pay another woman to do the dirty work - ideally someone poorer and less fortunate than ourselves.
Or insist that our husbands do it instead, so that we can look down on and feel superior to them, and complain about how much we have to work.
Or we can start really valuing that role, and demanding, or gently nudging, others to do the same.