she has fallen and now she is awake
On feminist mothering
January 27, 2010Posted by on
10 Questions from bluemilk about feminist motherhood. I came across these when I was pregnant with BunBun and they’ve always stuck in my mind and it’s something I do contemplate on an irregular basis. Moreso as the moment since we’re struggling with how we’re going to make my decision to go back to work not fail miserably thanks to my stupidly underpaid feminised career.
1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
Women are people. I’ve been a feminist since I was a child and learning just how little I was supposed to do or learn or get or give because I was a girl, not a person. Which was well before motherhood. Obviously.
2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
I can be this vulnerable and still live. Hell, I thrive in ways I haven’t previously. I’ve managed to spend 8 months not working and I haven’t dropped into serious depression (an amazing record for me – my mental health has always been inextricably linked with routines provided by employment). That vulnerability may make me cry more often (i.e. at all) and may make the simplest of things excruciatingly painful but it’s worth is for the amazing joys and incredible moments. Some people can cultivate this point of view – I needed the hormonal and spiritual change of motherhood.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
I was a big participant in the boys club – to be anything you’ve got to be one of the boys. Which is a load of shit, but I lived and breathed it for far too long. I know now that the male default not only others women but negates our experiences and our participation in the world. Motherhood has only strengthened that knowing – the amount of energy it takes me to deny the ‘reality’ that as a ‘mummy’ I’m stupid and obsessed with my child and just not intellectual enough or smart enough or experienced enough is proof of that. Attempting to sweeten the pot with ‘but you’re such an excellent multitasker/organiser’ or ‘you’re smart in other ways’ really doesn’t make that denial appropriate or less harmful to all women.
Not to mention it ignores the real experience of mothers.
So nowadays I’m far less likely to try and compete with the boys – it’s a zero-sum game anyway. Your yardstick of success is useless for anyone else. I’m far more likely to be able to accept my feminine side and I’m going to defend it as well. I’m certainly going to speak out against the way the life is set up as a game and only men can play it well – we need to stop playing the ‘full-time is the only worthy way to work, one parent needs to stay at home all the time and be responsible for everything and you need to do it with a smile on your face’ game.
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 understand implicitly that even now (7 and a half months in) that what I do is gendered. No matter what I mean to do, gendered assumptions affect how I treat my child (and every other child I interact with). So as a feminist mother I actively try to counteract that (from myself, my family and the rest of the world). So I praise my daughter for her strength, her tenacity and her fierceness. I congratulate her dinosaur impressions. I try not to be alarmed when she over-reaches, when she faceplants or when she falls. I deal with the fact that she’s found her vulva without telling her that it’s bad or gross and allow her bodily autonomy. I dress her appropriate for the environment firstly not appropriate for her gender and the occasion and then the environment.
I also understand that I’m walking a fine line between actively countering the girlification of my daughter and denigrating her gender. It’s hard. It sucks. But I’ll keep going. I’ll fall sometimes, but get up all the same.
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
Ugh, all the fucking time. When I’m changing a nappy and she grabs her vulva and it’s the fifth time today it’s real easy to say “stop grabbing your bits” even when I know using the correct terminology is a protective behaviour. Even though I don’t want her to feel like her genitals are bad. Even though it’s her vulva, she can grab it if she wants (but please don’t stick your pee/poop/talc stained hand in your face afterwards). Even though I know it’s not necessarily for her right now, it’s about what I model.
I still have moments where I deride myself, and blame myself, and talk some real bad talk about my body. I still find myself worrying about how I’m perceived as a mother. I don’t want to model that shit for her, but I still do.
The compromise I feel most awkward about is that my daughter’s family name is the same as my husband’s and different from mine. My family name is part of her whole name but that just isn’t the same. It was a hard discussion and it took us a long time to come to an agreement. Wolfman hates hyphenation which made it all a lot harder. He’s also incredibly attached to his surname as a link with the rest of his family whereas I’m attached to my name as my name – the link to my family is not as important. That in and of itself is a gendered concern I think – women are raised to consider their name transitory whereas the expectation of name changing never affects men. If I had been adamant, Wolfman would have changed his name and would have agreed to BunBun having my family name (it was more important to him that he would share the same name as her). I just couldn’t honestly be adamant about it in the face of his emotional connection with the name. At the same time I do feel like that’s a failure. Like I should be more emotional about it and certainly should care more.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
Not so much identifying as a feminist mother, but sharing feminist concerns has been. Derision or bewilderment have been the usual responses to my concerns (particularly about BunBun’s name). I’ve always been open about being a feminist and I’ve had the good fortune to find like-minded women in my local ABA group but the explicitly feminist stance has rarely caused any problems. That will change as she gets older and plays with other children, but for the moment there’s a lot of leeway (and a lot of “ha, you’ll learn that what you care about is unimportant”).
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
Life involves sacrifice. Love involves sacrifice. The myth of a life lived without sacrifice is pervasive and a total lie – sacrifice gives meaning and risk always includes the chance of sacrifice. Feminism is a risk and a sacrifice – I’ve sacrificed a shit ton of ignorant peace of mind to become aware and responsible. Motherhood is a risk and a sacrifice – I risk my life and my heart simply by having my daughter. I sacrifice parts of my career, some of my goals and a lot of my sleep for her. In order to provide her with a stay at home parent, I’ve sacrificed what I would like to do at work in order to do what brings in more money. I’m probably never going to live in a studio apartment in the city. That’s okay. I’m not ever going to ride a motorcycle either.
There’s a big market in false equations for women and the whole ‘oh noes, you must sacrifice EVERYTHING for motherhood’ accompanied by whatever thing being touted as the ‘cure’ for that sacrifice undermines the meaning behind the sacrifice. So breastfeeding is often portrayed as sacrificing my freedom (and it occasionally does) but the rewards of that sacrifice and the reality of it aren’t often shown. BunBun is worth that sacrifice of freedom, even if it were as all pervasive and if the alternative was as riskfree as so often portrayed. Sacrifice is simultaneously lauded as good mothering yet so much of the media around mothering is about minimising that sacrifice.
That said, sacrificing everything for BunBun will only work in a life/death situation. If I sacrifice everything, who will be her mama? If I sacrifice everything important about myself, who is left to be mama? My well being is as important as hers – I’m the one with the long term planning skills though. So right now I’m at home, sacrificing time in my career, money and super. And a certain amount of mental well being. When I go back to work I’ll be sacrificing even more money but I’ll be banking those sacrifices against a payoff down the road. I can do that because I’m the adult in the situation. Sacrificing my time with her is the hardest aspect of that, but I know that the time that I sacrifice is balanced by the time that Wolfman will gain.
I’m not happy to sacrifice everything for my daughter. It is nothing to do with happy. I am responsible for her and there is a sacredness to that duty as a parent. Happy doesn’t come into it.
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?
Wolfman has been around for a lot of my feminist maturing – he was there while I was in the ‘one of the boys’ club, he was there when that was shattered, he was there when I started finding more to life and feminism. He has always supported me and supports a feminist household for our daughter to grow up in. I think the biggest effect for Wolfman is that I have always fully supported his desire to be a stay at home parent – even before we partnered up, I was supportive. We’re significantly changing our lifestyles to incorporate his staying at home while I work. The effects aren’t all good though. There is a lot of media that has become unbearable for him. Some of his friends are less than accepting. His employer is incredibly unsupportive – both of him and the women on his team. The awareness comes at a price.
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 kind of attachment parent – I babywear (sometimes) and I breastfeed (exclusively til 6mth and now shared with solids), I cloth nappy (from about 2 months onwards and part-time) and I co-sleep (all the time). I don’t like a lot of the politics around AP though – the anti-science stuff around vaccination for example. I really don’t like a lot of the AP communities either – the assumption that I will never ever ever work and that’s the only way to do it is rife. The assumption that Wolfman (my DH *sigh* heteronormative and marriage-assumptive much?) goes along with it and that I am the emotional centre of my family. I find I am as awkward and outsider there as I am in most mothering communities. It’s something I’ve begun to accept as pretty normal and certainly OK, but I find it challenging as a person.
The assumption that I will sacrifice everything for whatever I’ve just been told (sold?) as the best for my child isn’t unique to AP. Same with the heteronormativity, the assumption of SAHMing and even the consumerist parts (if you think AP isn’t as consumerist as any other parenting philosophy, check out babywearing communities). I find all of these things fuck with my feminist ways – even though I know AP isn’t heteronormative it does make the assumption of a stay at home parent and socially that often relies on the gendering of the workforce to create the male = breadwinner default. The consumerism gets me – the derision aimed at parents with fancy strollers, at yummy mummies in SUVs, at those crappy welfare parents not buying organic, while lauding the latest handloomed SPOC wrap from Czechoslovakia, single-origin chocolate, organic coffee and green cars. Consumerist behaviour is very effective at convincing large swathes of people that their life isn’t good enough. Motherhood is hard enough without the added pressure of “buy this way or you suck as a mother”.
10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
Feminism has it’s share of arseholes – that’s part and parcel of anything involving multiple people and points of view. The sad part is that the arseholes are virulently vocal in their arsehole behaviour. So the support and strength the feminist community can offer mothers can be drowned out by the vilely childfree shouting ‘breeder’ and ‘crotchdroppings’ or the militantly corporate shouting betrayal or the excruciatingly environmental shouting ‘consumer’. Then you get into the separate camps of birthing and medicine and mothering and it can be overwhelming. Instead of the millions of voices who can offer support and advice and “I have been there and survived, let me show you how” the voices of the hundreds of arseholes drown us out. That is the failure – not that they exist, but that they drown out our support and our knowledge and call it worthless.
Feminism has given me the strength to choose motherhood, and staying at home, and going back to work It’s given me the ability to assess myself truthfully instead of using the fake male default. It’s given me self-confidence that I can in turn give my daughter. It’s given me support for my choices that I can offer to other women. The voices of the millions of women who have gone before me, their journeys different but their survival a lesson all the same, sustain me when I simply want to give up.
Feminism has given me hope that my daughter will have a better life than me.