Maternal desire

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.

And yet.

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.


Filed under Feminism, Motherhood and Parenting

15 responses to “Maternal desire

  1. Brilliant post, this resonates very deeply with me. I also have found my experience of motherhood, an experience I deeply desired and actively sought, to be transformative, and mothering daughters (three of them now) has been one of the most consciously feminist acts of my life, in my opinion anyway.

    For me, a middle-class, educated, white professional person in Australia, no experience in my life ever pointed up with such sharpness the multitude of ways in which “femaleness = less-than” than the acts of bearing, breastfeeding and raising children. It has helped me understand in my gut as well as my brain the ways in which I’m not privileged, just as it’s highlighted the many, many ways in which I am.

    Have you read Daphne de Marneffe’s book “Maternal Desire”? It picks up some of the same themes in a really interesting way.

  2. Delightfully (not), I found that not being able to breastfeed my daughter” taught me more about misogyny, feminism, community, consent and a million other things that I could never have imagined.”

  3. Brilliant. That is all.

  4. This was an excellent post.

  5. CRJ

    I am interested in bridging the gap between parents and single people. In the past few years, I have celebrated my friends’ marriages and pregnancies only to have them stop returning my emails and phone calls. I can imagine how much of an adjustment it is to have a baby, but I hear a lot about how mothers feel judged and not a lot about mothers sharing their experiences with their friends who haven’t started a family yet. I don’t understand why the people who used to talk about other life changes suddenly become unavailable after their wedding days.

  6. Rachel

    Amazing, thank you for writing this. As a young woman who is extremely excited about having children in the next several years I have often felt left out of the feminist circle because my husband and I are both trying to figure out how we can afford for one or both of us to stay home with our kids. As a self-identified feminist I don’t think that the desire to be a SAHM diminishes me as a woman or makes me any less independent.

  7. (I do not wish to be seen as hijacking the conversation, so please politely inform me if my views are not welcome.)

    As a father of 5 children, I can relate to what you say about social attitudes. I’m very heavily involved in my children’s lives. At times, I have been labeled as “not masculine enough” because of this. I’ve also received weird glances from people because I enjoy the company of children sometimes in preference to adults (unadulterated joy in seeing a butterfly vs. talking past each other about topics you haven’t researched – it’s not a hard choice). But, women never receive those glances.

    I think that the problem of sexism is solvable if we stop defining people by gender roles (stifling for women and, less so, for men) and recognize that everyone makes a contribution to the whole. If you’re a parenting type (mother or father), be so. If you’re the go-out-and-kill-dragons type, go conquer the world. I know how hard it is to raise kids properly – it’s one of the most difficult jobs, made more so by the idea that this isn’t a job that requires training. Yet, it’s marginalized. Why?

    • I totally agree. I think the biggest problem we have is that modern feminists started arguing that the only valuable work was the traditional male work. This has meant that mothering is discounted and any man who wants to be more actively involved in parenting is looked down upon even more so than any woman who does. If we could recognize the value of raising kids, we hopefully wouldn’t have this problem.

      I’d be curious to your thoughts on my piece on the same topic which I’ve posted below as I do include a discussion of the effects on men.

  8. Wonderfully written. Sadly mothering continues to be marginalized by those who have said they’re fighting for women’s rights. Personally I struggle with the modern feminist movement for this exact reason. In my mind, there is nothing more important than being a parent as that’s what defines our next generation, but somehow it’s become something beneath many women and it’s the children that suffer for it.

    I also wrote a piece on the same topic here, but I admit I’m a bit more scathing of modern feminism :)

  9. Lila

    Since the post is called Maternal Desire, I hoped it would delve into the fascinating and complex topic of maternal desire, explore and elucidate it, and reveal at least a bit of what goes on in a mother’s mind when she is moved by this desire. I’ve been wanting to read something of that kind for a long, long time now! But of course this post is not that, so… any pointers?

  10. Feminism means different things to different people. I know that wanting and having and caring for my babies informed my own feminism more than almost any other experiences I have had. The desire to have children was a visceral thing for me.

    I also chose to breastfeed my babies whenever they seemed interested and to give them as much contact as I could. They slept in my bed so that they could more or less help themselves in the night if they got hungry.

    But I worry sometimes about attachment parenting buying into the notion that true womanly fulfillment can only be found in endless maternal sacrifice. That it would seek to label women ‘bad nurturers’ if they didn’t want to carry their babies around endlessly, or if they wanted to go back to work before their children had self-weaned.

    And having children does trash your feedom – there is no doubt about that for me. I don’t think that makes the choice to have them ‘anti-feminist’ though. The majority of women have children. If feminism can’t or won’t accept or include them then it isn’t any sort of feminism I recognise.

  11. Enjoyed reading your post.

    • Morgan

      Really enjoyed reading your post and following comments, at the moment I am having issues with my own mother who during the sixties and seventies was (and still remains) a highly militant feminist. I have always appreciated the history of early feminism and the gifts we enjoy today because of it, and because of this upbringing I feel I have been spoiled into thinking any choice I make as a woman is fine and accepted, unfortunately I have just had my first child and have decided to remain home for a year and return to work part time on night shift so my son doesn’t have to go to child care, and I am also demand breast feeding which I plan to do for a year also, my mother feels that I have basically given up on life and will now amount to nothing but a SAHM, it wasn’t until this time that I reaslised that there was such a stigma associated with the choices parents make in rearing their children.

  12. Pingback: Maternal desire | Spilt Milk « saeugetier – mutterblog

  13. HayKeen

    I’m a new reader to your site – and am really enjoying it. The one thing I thought of when reading this post was how (at least in the US) there seems to be a general trend of dislike of children and families. If you Google “children or babies banned” you’ll probably find a bunch of articles regarding restaurants banning families with children under a certain age or completely. I’ve also read many articles in the past few years about people complaining about children on planes and other public places. It seems as if there’s a general attitude that children should only ever be at home or in school. What’s up with that? So I wonder if it’s not just some feminists but American culture as a whole that’s heading in this direction. Very weird!

    I lived in Armenia for almost four years and my husband is Armenian. They are way more family positive and men there are just about as excited about children as women are. I think men in the West seem “in general” (not all of them, but seems like most of them) are just tolerant of children rather than really wanting to engage with them and be with them. It’s a very sad state. I’m not saying everyone should want to have children, obviously there are those who never want and never should have kids, but shouldn’t love of children be something that’s more abundant?

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