Motherhood and Women’s Liberation: Part 1

Reading different books, listening to health practitioners and generally going out and about in public, it seems that everyone and their mother have assumptions and expectations on how women who decide to have kids should live their motherhood and how they should parent their kid.

It seems that nothing excites society more than discussing a woman’s right to decide if she wants to have children, how many, the spacing of said children, how she would prefer to give birth, how she would decide to rear said children, feed them and generally participate in their well-being.

Men who choose not to have kids are not seen as denatured, heartless monsters while fathers, for some reason, get a lot less judgement and a lot less heat about their parenting choices. Patriarchy for the win, my friend. So good to be a man in this day and age.

Being a feminist, I was afraid that becoming a mother would make me something of a traitor to the sisterhood. After all, don’t kids suck your freedom dry? The fear is real my friends. However, being a feminist can coexist with being a mother, so we’re saved and out of the woods. The thirst to explore the relationships between women’s liberation and motherhood did not leave me, so embark with me on some ramblings.

What interests me is the intersection between feminism and women’s liberation and social expectations of what motherhood should be. I will therefore start a series on feminism and motherhood and try to unpack all the conflicting thoughts that I struggle with on a daily basis. This should include the choice to stay at home, the case of working mothers, ‘parenting trends’. Dynamics within homoparental households should also be part of these series, although not written by me.

Patriarchal expectations of mothers are well -known and quite straightforward in their claims: women who bear children (and make no mistake, under patriarchal rule, all women SHOULD bear children) should stay home and tend to them, becoming homemakers while men provide financially for their family. These strictly defined gender roles seem to accommodate many women, who clearly state that they prefer being a stay at home mother to being gainfully employed, arguing that there is no greater job that rearing a family. Others decide to stay home for financial reasons: these are often women whose potential earnings would not or would barely cover childcare costs, and who thus decide to stay home to save money. Others have no choice but to stay home as they are unable to access quality childcare in their living area. A new emerging trend is the work at home mother, when a woman decides to start her own business or to work freelance, as a means to both earn money and manage to stay home to rear children. Truth is, there is not one size fits all reason to decide to stay home and raise children, and each woman probably has a wealth of reasons behind her choice (is it really a choice if you’re coerced into it by inequalities created by capitalism and patriarchal beliefs imposed to you?).

While involved dads and stay at home dads are becoming more and more socially accepted in certain circles, we are aiming at discussing here the burden of social expectations on women pertaining to motherhood, so we will not discuss further fathers in this post, except perhaps to say that whenever a dad decides to stay home, he is celebrated as the height of progressiveness, but when women decide to do so they are either judged or barely noticed as this is the bare minimum that is socially expected of them.

But back to mothers who face the choice to stay home. Different feminist currents hold different opinions when it comes to women choosing to stay at home: for some, stay at home mothers only replicate the age old gender stereotype that women are either biologically programmed to rear children or that they are, by essence, better skilled to do so than men, as evidenced by this article on ‘The retro wife’, published in 2013 in New York magazine. In this article, some women claimed that they were feminists who managed to be fulfilled by staying at home. The problem here is the justification they were providing: indeed, upon reading it, one could debate endlessly about their definition of feminism. Case in point, this quote by one of said woman, Kelly Makino:

She (Kelly) believes that every household needs one primary caretaker, that women are, broadly speaking, better at that job than men, and that no amount of professional success could possibly console her if she felt her two young children—­were not being looked after the right way. The maternal instinct is a real thing, Kelly argues: Girls play with dolls from childhood, so “women are raised from the get-go to raise children successfully. When we are moms, we have a better toolbox.”

Someone please inform this woman that feminism doesn’t mean replicating and reciting stale gender stereotypes and marketing them as radical ideas. The very idea that ‘girls play with dolls’ needs to be challenged and turned around, not celebrated and used as a justification for women to remain home and take care of children. As for the maternal instinct, Elisabeth Badinter (French feminist who is wrong on many other things, such as on her position on wearing the veil in France) is right when she states in her book (Le Conflit: La Femme et la Mère) that it’s a construct patriarchy invented to further essentialize women and reinforce the idea that women are natural born mothers. The idea that every woman possesses some sort of natural instinct that will magically lead her to be a good mother makes me roll my eyes: when a your child is born, you may or may not fall head over heels for them. It might be love at first sight, it might be a process, what is true is that you don’t know what in the name of FUCK you’re doing. And that’s ok, children teach you, the parents (as in, both people involved in this, not only the mother) to become parents.

Others currents make feminism about choice, and letting women decide what is best for themselves. My concern and question is: to which extent are we really free in our choices? When does internalized sexism begins and choices end? I honestly don’t have a definite answer on that. As feminists, our job is to keep questioning gender stereotypes first and foremost in our daily, private lives, and to keep questioning why we do things the way we do them. In all truth, I find myself fulfilling traditional gender roles more than I care to mention, so to some degree I am definitely not immune to internalized sexism. I’m working on it though, by keeping my eyes open and reflecting on my actions, every day (yes, feminism means that you can stop enjoying anything lightly, it’s awesome, you should try it).

At the same time, if we’re ranting about the difference of treatment between mothers and fathers by society and about the absence of judgement enjoyed by men, we should not add on to the already consequent pile of judgement faced by mothers, staying at home or not. The main difference, to me, is how we frame things. If a stay at home mother comes forward saying her true happiness is to stay with her kids and that she is most fulfilled in her role as a mother, without pretending that it’s a god given role or something nature and society expect of her, or that she would be the best at it because she’s a woman, I’d be first in line cheering her on and struggling at her side for her work to be valued, for make no mistake, it is WORK, and for her economic contribution to be recognized at public policy level as well as in the private sphere. This however should not mean that all household chores should be devolved to the woman ‘because she stays at home’. If we really are set on staying at home while challenging accepted gender norms, our actions need to reflect this need for change: that means equal involvement in everything household and child related by the partner. This decision also needs to be reversible, it needs to come from a point of understanding between partners that a woman doesn’t do so because she is programmed, because she is better skilled at it because she’s a woman, or because this is how things need to be done. A stay at home mother should have the possibility to go back to work should she wish to do so, which means several things: access to jobs, access to education, access to quality, affordable, childcare, and the absence of discrimination based on her motherhood status while looking for work. The responsibility to be the primary caretaker of children should also be shared, and flexible: today the mother can stay home, but tomorrow the dad can too. In such a flexible, evolutive framework, choice can be made possible.

This shift in accepted gender roles needs to be coupled with a struggle for social justice. Women are more likely to occupy precarious jobs, to be unemployed, to be hardest hit by economic crises, to be paid less than their male counterparts for the same job and the same qualifications and to face significantly more discrimination in the workplace that men. This gender specific situation is to link to the very nature of capitalism to create inequalities, therefore one can not tackle gender inequality without actively fighting the system allowing them to stay in place, capitalism.

Next post will be on working mothers

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