The real reason why you should be careful in your discussions about mothers

I really like Feministe, I think the site produces some amazing writing, and I appreciate Mamamia for seeking to incorporate feminism in a mainstream, commercial motherhood site because that isn’t easy, but oh my god…

Reading these posts at Feministe on stay-at-home mothers, and then this one on the ‘choice’ to be a mother, and then this one on birth activist mothers at Mamamia – I just want to remind complainers that mothers aren’t touchy about mother-blaming discussions like these because we’re such sensitive little flowers, we can take a good, juicy discussion, really; we’re sensitive about these discussions because you are running roughshod over the truth of our lives.

We’re surprised, as feminists, that some of you are not more suspicious of lines of debate designed to isolate us and make us defensive. A feminist discussion does not need to make us all feel validated, it doesn’t have to avoid tough questions, but it does need to be honest about women’s lives, it’s part of the whole point of it being feminist. And that discussion should also include the voices typically excluded, that’s also the whole point about it being feminist. If your hypothesis about motherhood does not fit the marginalised mother’s life then it has failed to explain mothers. (And we can have conversations about very particular groups of mothers sometimes, like the 1%, but there’s a fair bit of generalising going on at the moment with this one which makes me think we’re all really looking for a broader discussion).

Some thoughts I have after reading the posts on the following –

Stay-at-home mothers:

I want to say something important here as someone who works in the field of economics. Some of you seem to me to be failing to understand all the obstacles holding mothers back. They are not entirely about the patriarchy, they’re also about capitalism. That is not to say that I think we should all drop out and live in a commune, but it is saying that if you are promoting some of the most exploitative elements of capitalism as part of your feminism then you will be missing the mark. If you do not understand how capitalism survives on (not just benefits from, but in its present form could not survive without) the unpaid caring work of women (that this isn’t just ‘lip service for mummies’, this is an economic truth), then your feminism is missing the mark. Self-ownership through wages has been an incredibly important development in feminism but it has not made unpaid caring work disappear – 50% of all hours of work performed in the USA are UNPAID.

You have some of the most inflexible workplaces in the Western world, with or without children, you have it tough in the US. But workplaces can change. We can focus feminist efforts on changing institutions of power to be less exploitative of unpaid caring work instead of just saying women must somehow ignore the realities of their lives. (Because how much real ‘choice’ about work does a mother get who has a severely disabled child? How much real ‘choice’ is there for a mother when the only job is a full-time job with long hours? Why are mothers supposed to think anything apart from raising their children is a worthy pursuit of their lives? And anyway, how many women are actually stay-at-home mothers for their entire lives? It is surprisingly low, so, do we need to suggest stay-at-home mothers are behaving like ‘indulged children’? Could we instead talk about how and when they return to paid work and what are the vulnerabilities involved? And, stay-at-home parents are not homogenous either, some of them are even fathers).

I feel like we have been here before – like, Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work, which had some important things to say, but which was also flawed – can feminism not learn from this and maybe take this discussion forward a little?

The ‘choice’ to be mothers:

Why aren’t feminists being more suspicious of ‘licence to breed’ rhetoric? Because you know who that argument gets used against most, right? Who are these careless mothers? The mindless mothers? Who are the mothers people assume to be having children without ‘good reason’ or for the ‘wrong reasons’? For selfish reasons? Single mothers, black mothers, immigrant mothers, teenage mothers, poor mothers, mothers on welfare, mothers in non-traditional family structures, mothers with disabilities, mothers with children with disabilities… I mean, come on!

Also, why assume mothers don’t already think about having babies, and that they aren’t asked to defend their decisions all the time? I get that women who choose not to have children are fucking tired of being asked to justify their decisions and how wrong it is that they are made to feel like deviants, but this is not an answer.

Birth activist mothers as birthzillas: I won’t go too far into this one because I’m writing an article about it – but talk about bullshit, sexist stereotype.

You know, the real reason why you should be careful in your discussions about mothers is not because we’re over-sensitive, it is because motherhood is political and complicated and a core part of feminism, and if you’re simplifying all of that then you’re missing the big picture.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: economics, gender & feminism, media, parenting, work and family

Tags: ,

2 replies

  1. Holy Toledo, thank you. This “discussion” is exhausting.

  2. I saw the most recent of these “discussions” on Feministe a few days ago, and, despite (ahem) a bit “rich in opinions,” I was too exhausted by the end (> 300 comments at that time, it’s probably over 1000 by now) to type anything in.
    These discussions always seem to turn into peeves battling peeves. That’s partly because there’s a culture at Feministe (as in many places on the WWW) of quick responses, of typing in the first thing that comes into your mind while your blood is hot.
    But there’s also _not_ a culture of reflection or self-examination. I don’t get the feeling most commenters really _read_ what other people write and try to understand where they’re coming from, let alone maybe modify their own point of view.
    This is a real problem when discussing a topic as complicated and as deeply rooted in human society and people’s sense of who they are as motherhood is. Nobody can remain unemotional on the subject, that’s why it’s such a minefield.
    IMHO, the only way anything useful can come out of it is if people can make a practice of stepping back and counting to three (or maybe 100) and then asking themselves, what can I say that will move things closer to something that will be better for all of us? (Reminds me of what I had to do on a daily basis when my kids were younger.)

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