Cross-posted at Feministe
I have identified as a feminist for about fifteen years but I’ve only really understood what that meant, to me, in the last three. Because of my relative privilege I am somewhat sheltered from the worst effects that kyriarchy can have — has — on families. But I became acutely aware even before my daughter was born that my convictions were going to be tested more than ever by the experience of motherhood.
As I wrote in Feminist Mothers, there are still many ways that becoming a mother is (generally) a socially sanctioned choice in the culture in which I live. And insofar as it is a choice (we know very well that not every parent chose to be a parent or chose the circumstances or timing!) it is generally sanctioned by feminists as well. We have the right to choose, right?
And yet, the desire to have children and to spend time with those children, the yearning for it, even if that means having one’s career or other markers of ‘freedom’ and ‘success’ eclipsed by child-rearing, still gets kind of a bad rap from some feminists. Or rather, perhaps it’s become a bit of an unmentionable. It’s not uncommon for high-profile feminists to characterise babies and children as little tyrants. Freedom-suckers, equality-trashers, self-actualisation deniers. And whether they intend to or not, this often leads to a characterisation of middle and upper-class mothers, particularly those who choose to practise a form of attachment parenting, as selfishly indulgent, or tragically duped and downtrodden, or both.
This doesn’t come from everybody. Asserting that choice means that the owner of a uterus has the right to say yes as well as no to pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding is important to many, I know.
I think sometimes this dismissive attitude towards certain types of parenting is just a slightly more genteel manifestation of a latent fear and loathing of mothers, of maternal bodies, of any woman who doesn’t conform to ‘what women want’ or appears to conform too closely to ‘what women want’. This is otherwise known as misogyny.
A while back a joke about Michelle Duggar circulated amongst some friends of mine, some of whom self-identified as feminists. It included the words ‘vagina’ and ‘clown car’. Add that to the ‘humour’ leveled at Nadya Suleman, and it becomes pretty clear that in my culture, women who willingly choose lots and lots of babies are treated as a heady blend of ridiculous and monstrous. A slur about clown car vaginas can hurt any person with a large family or multiples and, frankly, it’s awful. It doesn’t need to be said that it’s pretty anti-feminist. (I’m not endorsing the choices of Duggar and Suleman here, beyond saying that as a pro-choice feminist I believe their bodies are their own, their wombs are their own. Some critiques of the phenomena attached to these women may well be legitimate but there is no value in shifting critiques, even obliquely or accidentally, onto all women who have or desire to have a lot of children. And there’s definitely something wrong with humour that implies maternal bodies are gross.)
Does this treatment of women who are especially fecund belie attitudes to mothering and childbearing in general?
I have heard, more than once, young women describe themselves as ‘bad feminists’ for aspiring to motherhood. I don’t think this is only because of ingrained notions of feminism meaning a focus on career and financial independence (although feminism sometimes still means these things and that’s not always a bad thing.) I think it’s also because women who love babies are liable to be stereotyped as ditzy, unambitious or sentimental at best. Sometimes they are seen as emotionally voracious or, well,gross.
Perhaps part of the problem is a lack of articulation of what it is like to want children, and the ways in which this interacts with one’s feminism. Although my approach to motherhood is quite cerebral, my experience of maternal desire and ultimately maternity was very much in the body. The experience of childbirth was for me transformative and empowering but it is not easy to convey that convincingly without sinking into cliche. Breastfeeding my daughter taught me more about misogyny, feminism, community, consent and a million other things that I could never have imagined. It made me want to write poetry (and a blog) about milk! But how does one put the physicality of parenting up to the spotlight, without fueling terribly harmful essentialising narratives? How do you stand in awe of the experience of parenthood without teetering towards being a ‘bad feminist’? (You don’t pretend for a second that your experience is universal, is the short answer, I think.)
Perhaps what we need is more interrogation of these experiences in unexpected places. Parents — mostly mothers — are often accused of being boring. What is infuriating about that is that we are saddled with this label without regard to the societal forces which might make this so. Mothers are frequently left with all the extra work but little of the recognition and then reviled for even the slightest sign that we are living ‘vicariously’ through our kids. Additionally, parents and non-parents often peel off into cliques, partly because we have been herded into distinct consumer groups, and because we are encouraged to keep to discrete family groupings in a culture where individualism is prized. And online we can be confronted with twee marketing-laden speak (‘momversations’ — ew) which, frankly, puts me off too, in place of real dialogue between women who may or may not be mothers.
‘Boring’ is often shorthand for someone whose passions do not match one’s own. But when the day-to-day reality for many women is mothering, it makes sense that a passion for women’s rights is aided by an insight into parenthood.
I am hopeful that we will find new ways to negotiate the experiential divide between parents and those without children, especially in feminist spaces. I hope that ‘admitting’ to either a desire to mother or to be child free can be less loaded, less fraught, more free in all kinds of spaces. And I hope that we can come to more readily expect not only the right to choose, but the right to be actively and meaningfully supported in each instance.