Questions from Blue Milk: What does a feminist mother look like?

One of my favorite blogs is Blue Milk, a blog about feminism & mothering. It’s pretty rad (… can I still use that word?!)….

The other day, I discovered an old post posing 10 questions about feminist mothering to readers. Though I’m rather unschooled in current feminist thought & discourse, I identify as a feminist & thought it would be fun to take a stab at answering some of the questions. If nothing else, I thought it would be a good way to think through for myself how my feminism fits with my mothering…

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?

In one sentence: If I don’t do what I can to embody feminism on a daily basis, nothing will change for the better for women.

I became a feminist because my father always believed in me & taught me to never put up with any crap. He really drilled it into my brain early (& I mean early!) that girls & women are capable of all that men are capable of doing. Maybe it was because he was always a feminist, maybe because I was his little girl, but whatever the reason, he totally influenced how I view the role of women in society & culture. I grew up wanting to prove to my male teachers (more than a couple of whom seemed to have little faith in me and my fellow female students…) that I was smart & not obsessed with shopping. Of course, this view of feminism (focused as it was on “equality”) has evolved for me over the years, but that’s where I’m coming from.

2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?

How much I feel like a woman and how much my son seems to be a boy. Biology has definitely disturbed my sense of what “gender equality” means. I have a much greater appreciation of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be have these wonderous reproductive capabilities. I have found myself often pondering where the line stops, when it’s no longer ok to simply rely on biology as a reason for role distribution. It’s all very murky stuff, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

I really think that motherhood has expanded & entrenched my feminism. I feel far more strongly about equality in relationships, and in that way I am more entrenched in my feminism. I feel that feminism hasn’t done enough for mothers, and in that way my concept of feminism is greatly expanded.

4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

This is such a difficult question because so much of what it has meant to be a mother for me (so far) has seemed so traditional — breastfeeding, reigning in my career ambitions to focus on mothering, etc. I could say that sticking with law school, pursuing my career makes me a feminist mother, but I actually don’t think that’s true. Plenty of women pursue work and/or careers out of necessity or regardless of whether or not they are feminists. I personally believe that unless mothers engage in paid work, the workplace will not move in a positive direction for families. In that sense, choosing to work is a feminist act. But I don’t think it’s the only way to be a feminist mother. In the more every day sense, I try to use non-gendered nouns & pronouns, to offer my son a variety of toys & books (though this often seems like a losing battle as his love of all things construction-related grows daily), to not dress him in “future-quarterback”-type clothes.

So far, the most feminist “mothering” in our family has been my husband’s fathering. Creating an equitable parenting relationship is by far the most feminist act of parenting that my household has accomplished. There is no way that there can be feminist mothering without feminist fathering, at least for me (who happens to be in a rather traditional hetero relationship). I’m especially cognizant of this having a son. I can work & succeed to the highest degree in the work place, but to have a model of masculinity that is caring & nurturing is really damned important in my view. And really, I have so come to appreciate that things will not change for women unless they change for men.

5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Sometimes I feel I’ve failed as a feminist mother because after two years of being a mother I still don’t know what “feminist mothering” looks like. Also, it’s really hard to be more or less gender neutral in this world!

6. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

Well, I don’t think being a feminist requires a woman to be totally self-centered & never sacrificing. Any relationship worth cultivating requires sacrifice. The fact that I have a partner who is also willing to sacrifice makes this less of a feminist issue for me. But if we’re talking more broadly (as in, mothers being forced to sacrifice in the workplace because of poor parental leave policies & wage gaps & dead-end “mommy tracks”) then, yes, I find it difficult to reconcile sacrificing those societal goods in favor of being a present & good mom.

7. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I don’t think that attachment parenting itself poses challenges to feminism. The culture of all-encompassing motherhood that has grown up around the idea of attachment parenting is what poses the challenge to feminism. It seems pretty rough for women if we accept the version of attachment parent that requires mothers to stay by their child’s side until three years of age (or longer!) and to be the (almost) sole caregiver. That’s unhealthy for women, and in my experience it’s not entirely necessary or healthy (depending on the child, of course!) to have one sole caregiver, even from an early age. My son is attached & confident & loving, but I am certainly not his only caregiver.

Attachment parenting as a cultural creation also seems to have a real problem with overlooking the capacity of fathers to nurture & the necessity of including fathers in infant bonding. At best the AP gurus pay lip-service to fathering while talking down to fathers, as if they lacked all capacity to parent instinctively. And for many experts & families, it seems like it’s accepted that fathers will be less bonded. My husband stripped down in the birthing room to establish skin-to-skin contact with our newborn son. It was amazing! Is everything precisely equal? No. I have spent far more time in skin-to-skin contact with my son, particularly because of our nursing relationship. But this has not stopped the boys in our house from establishing their own loving connection & rituals.

8. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I actually do think that feminism has failed mothers in some ways. It seems that many (third-wave?) feminists have foresaken mothers in the name of furthering equality in the public sphere. In the process, c-section rates and maternal mortality are terrible in this country, laws regulating midwifery are awful in many states, access to quality childcare is impossible for most, the “mommy track” in many industries is a dead-end off-ramp. If you are a childless woman, you have as close to equal opportunities as equally-qualified men (with or without children) as has been possible in modern history. But the picture isn’t as rosy for mothers. So, yes, I think feminism has done a huge disservice to women by ignoring mothers (or motherhood) to the extent it has.

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7 Comments

Filed under Attachment Parenting, Feminism, Parenting, Working

7 responses to “Questions from Blue Milk: What does a feminist mother look like?

  1. Kate H.

    Oh! I must confess I read your blog…and I like it a lot! You are smart and thoughtful. But of course I knew that already!

    I’d love to talk about that last response to question 8. I’m not sure things are so great for childless women in the workplace…In the academy (which is the workplace I know best) there’s been some movement to redress inequity around, for example, tenure or dissertating re: women who have children, and this has extended to men who have children as well (which is very nice, and quite as it should be). The trouble is, it leaves women without children still very much under pressure, since regardless of motherhood status we often face more complicated employment, education, caretaking, and family situations than our childless male counterparts. I literally once heard a woman academic say it was a good thing she had kids because otherwise she’d never have had enough time (and goodwill) extended to finish her dissertation. What’s your take? I feel like things are getting better (slowly!) for mothers (and by extension, for fathers and families, narrowly defined) but not for childless women and the families they have (aging parents, let’s say, or siblings, friends, etc. to whom they might be responsible). Is there any way to solve this, do you suppose? And the bazillion dollar question–can it be solved without putting childless women and mothers in competition with one another? Since that’s so often what happens…Moms upset because childless women advance quicker, childless women upset because they feel themselves doing extra or “pulling up the slack”?

    (PS: Can I buy you a cup of coffee someday so we can talk about…this…and everything…and fun stuff? Or dinner sometime?)

    • Kate! So nice to hear from you!! Wow, so you bring up such an interesting problem. I admit I took for granted the base-line pressures I used to feel (both in law school & grad school) before having T, so that now everything just feels like so much more, if that makes sense. But, taking a step back, I truly don’t think childless women are totally on an equal footing with men (your point reminds me of a faculty advisor in my old grad program who was working on exactly what I wanted to be doing but was known to only mentor men…). You’re so right to point out that, children or no, women are way more likely to be in a caregiver role than men (and therefore more likely to need some “give” in their work commitments). There is legally mandated leave available for caring for an elderly parent, but that doesn’t solve nearly all of the myriad situations childless women often find themselves in. I think part of the problem is that the gender-related realities that tend to hold women back become more difficult to synthesize or fold into a movement… They’re less visible in a way that makes them difficult to redress. Though not impossible!

      Yeah, and I do think there definitely is a problem about who’s going to shoulder the extra responsibility (with the sister problem of fueling competition, as you raised it). I’ve actually thought about this a lot. I think it sucks if companies or organizations (the academy included) allow for parental leave or flexible work situations but don’t plan so that others aren’t then overloaded & resentful. Yet, I don’t think benefits have to necessarily be completely equal either. When I was childless I wouldn’t necessarily think I deserved an extension or leave simply because other women, mothers, were getting it. It’s (for better or worse) the same with healthcare — I’m fine paying in the same amount even if I’m healthy & my colleague is undergoing costly treatments. Of course, comments like the one you heard don’t necessarily paint a positive picture for this view (although, on some level, I’d guess that abusing goodwill will be noticed & not reflect well on the abuser… or maybe I’d just like to think that…). But, generally, any organization will have only limited resources & they do need to be allocated in a fair way.

      On a related note, I don’t think moms should be upset if a childless woman advances more quickly if the mom is not working an equal amount. But these things are so hard to judge… the working mom may be extremely efficient & believe that she really is getting more done just not seen as being as reliable or available. At the same time, I’m not a libertarian, but in some respect we have to own up to our choices — if focusing on a family is what’s important to you at a given time, well… other things in your life (like career) might suffer (I’m not bitter because I didn’t do law review… ha ha… because I got to spend that time with T & that was important to me). I think feminism has instilled in women a sense that we can do it all, without or even with kids (for moms I just think it’s not true unless you’re willing to be present at the birth & then hand your kids off to someone else). Still there is a sense in which our way of doing things is so soul-crushing for all that it just seems impossible to keep going at this speed, childless or with kids.

      Wow… I would love to get together to chat (a real live conversation!) sometime SOON! This is endlessly fascinating for me, and you, too, it seems!

  2. Kate H.

    YES! Let’s do it! I am totally doing my dissertation on this (sort-of). (Okay, not really, but on gender, sexuality, and the problems of collective authorship and care-taking. Damn! Let’s chat it up! I can’t wait!)

  3. Pingback: Follow up on feminist mothering | Mom, JD

  4. Pingback: What makes you a better feminist? « blue milk

  5. I found your blog through Blue Milk’s link. As I was reading this, I kept saying in my head “Yes! Exactly that!” I pretty much don’t have to do my own post for her 10 questions about feminist motherhood now, because you virtually reached into my head and pulled almost all my own answers out – and much more articulately than I’m sure I could have done. I’ll be back and look forward to following your parenting journey. 🙂

    • Aw, thanks! Though I would highly recommend going through the exercise of answering the 10 questions — It’s so much fun to have a reason to sit down & think about this stuff… you know, stuff that really matters but that we don’t have time for on any given day when we’re on the toddler roller coaster (saw on your blog you’re also mom to a toddler!).

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