Some women want to stay home with children and feminism needs to make peace with that

Alexandra Carlton has an article in The Age this weekend, “The retro housewife” that proves it is just as possible to build a faux phenomenon in Australia around smart women dropping off the career ladder to become domestic over-achievers as it is to build that case in the United States, though this piece is more nuanced than others of its ilk. Pretty much all my thoughts on this faux trend are here in the article I wrote back in March for Daily Life so I won’t be repetitive, and for the record Carlton, herself, argues by the end of her piece that the trend is overblown; but I will pick up on two points from her article. My first comment is that I truly hope Anne Summers, who I have always found to be very measured, isn’t quite as scathing about my generation of mothers as Carlton forecasts her to be in her forthcoming book.

Feminist and author Anne Summers is exasperated by the domestic revival. “If women want to quilt and craft and sort out their linen cupboards on a weekly basis that is their business. But don’t claim it is a superior way to live,” she says. In her book The Misogyny Factor, to be released next month, Summers writes scathingly of a new generation of middle-class “yummy mummies”: “How could it have come to this – and so quickly? Not even a generation after the women’s movement fought for the right for married women to keep their jobs, to have equal access to promotion, and to be paid the same as men, scores of women are walking away and saying, ‘We’d rather be Mummies.'” Writer and feminist commentator Clementine Ford agrees, and adds that while cupcake baking in and of itself is a blameless pursuit, giving up everything to devote oneself to unpaid domestic work is “self-sabotage”.

And my second point also relates to the sentiment above, which becomes a concluding point made by Emily Matchar in the article:

But, she says, for the new domesticity to become more of a revolution than a regression, it needs to better build a base of equality – the day when it’s just as common to see a man cooking a meal from scratch or stirring a vat of jam while his wife brings in the primary income.


We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.

When women can make observations about the sense of purpose and fulfillment they experience from being at home with their children, and when they can say that their desire to be with their babies feels different to that their male partner experiences, and when they can describe their children as needing to be with them – when they can do all that and we, as feminists, do not reach for the panic button? Then we will know we have finally found equality. It won’t be that men and women will necessarily be living the same lives with the same roles, though it may look like that, it will be equality because women’s passions, ambitions, choices and failures will be, like men’s, free of constant scrutiny and criticism.

Until then, as feminists, we are too often pandering to a neoliberal viewpoint that ultimately devalues care work and sees women acquiring legitimacy only through marketplace transactions. By all means fight for women’s place in the workforce, it’s vital activism and I’m a working-outside-the-home mother myself, but don’t for a minute think you’re really challenging the patriarchy until you’re questioning the way in which capitalism relies upon a framework of unpaid care. It is equally a mistake to see the desire to be at home with children as either essential or universal in women, but as feminists, it matters less whether you think it good or bad for women to feel this way, it is instead crucial for the movement that you accept that some women do feel this way and that it is an authentic and strongly held feeling for them. Some women might be flinching from complexities in their life by relying upon conservative gender roles to express their preferences but for many this drive is real. Maternal desire is real. Accepting that this is the case is not some call for women to be free to ‘choose their choice’ – it is, rather, a time for reflecting upon the internalised misogyny that allows you to assume, without questioning, that self-actualisation cannot simultaneously include mothering.

Cross-posted from blue milk.


And to quote myself from my Daily Life article because this whole topic of ‘retro housewives’ is being treated as individualism rather than a discussion of structural barriers:

We seem to have a vested interest in the decisions of these women who choose to stay home, why is that? Plenty of mothers don’t have a choice about it – they are either sufficiently dependent on their income so as to be forced to work or they earn too little to cover childcare and are forced to stay home. And yet it is this relatively small cohort of educated, professional women with their wealthy husbands who we are preoccupied with – we have decided they can sink or save feminism. It suggests, about this debate, that we put a lot of stock in the notion of trickle-down feminism. That women with the most advantages, if they can climb to the top jobs, will have the power and use it accordingly to change things for women with the least advantages. While there must be some truth to this, it none the less seems indulgent to focus so much of our attention on the most successful women and how to further their paths to achievement.

I suspect there’s something less well-meaning going on here, too. The overlap between feminism and neoliberal economics is surprisingly broad. We have long been split on the issue of mothers – whether we should concentrate on freeing women from the home so they can enter the workplace where their time will be valued, or whether we should ensure the work performed by women at home is valued instead. The answer is both, obviously. Few mothers stay at home their whole lives. Most dip in and out of paid work in various forms as their careers speed up and slow down for different life events, including the rearing of children. In fact, few of us committed to full-time careers will find ourselves working uninterrupted from graduation to retirement – there will be unexpected illnesses, career changes, retrenchments and retraining, moving countries, caring for elderly parents, and the sudden need to find ourselves. We would do well to be less divisive in this discussion and to be less extreme about it. The data suggests there isn’t really a flood of mothers shedding the gains of feminism and detouring back to tradition. The trajectories of our career paths need not be measured against the traditional path of men’s, and if there is any significant shift happening it is probably that young men’s career paths are starting to look more like women’s as more of them take an active role in parenting.

Categories: gender & feminism, media, parenting, social justice, work and family


28 replies

  1. I always get sucked into the ‘if your life isn’t baking cupcakes and enjoying craft with your children or being CEO of a large company’ you have failed as a mother. There never seems to be any room for tired mothers, mothers who are so over f’ing craft they could cry, mothers who never want to see another cupcake again, mothers who would rather scoop their eyeballs out with a spoon than do x again. Why don’t these articles ever talk about the boredom, the frustration, the wondering about opportunities gone by, the daydreaming about being somewhere else, anywhere else, that we all do regardless of whether we love our jobs or love staying at home with our kids?
    Getting past that huge wodge of privilege, why don’t these articles ever talk about the women who don’t have the choice who must work to put food on the table or who would love to work but are unable to access safe and affordable childcare and flexible jobs or who have partners with very strong views on mothering and all the other variations that limit the choice for mothers.

  2. Women exploit other women. It is not just the press. It is not men. It is women creating a pecking order to prop up their own inferiority complexes who dictate to other women what their value in life is. Women have always done it to other women even when work was not an issue- for instance in choosing a wet nurse instead of fully embracing all aspects of mothering their own child.
    Back in the 90s while trying to prop up my choice to be a stay at home mum I worked variously between emergency teaching $45/hr, kindergarten teaching $22/hr,childcare$11/hr, playgroup management for a council $25/hr or home cleaning $20/hr and I was constantly amazed by superior professional women who sought someone intelligent to babysit their children but would offer $6/hr. I preferred to keep my babysitting just for family and for free than think that you could diminish quality love and care to the lowest bidder. I was still the same highly qualified person and treated all children with the same loving respect but found myself in a peg hole that gave other the people the right to comment and to treat me differently. Even when choosing to do volunteer work, other people seem to think that that you must be living off a wealthy man but would never say the same of a man doing voluntary work.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I’m sick of defending my choices in life. I waited a long time to have a baby & I don’t want to miss it. I’m lucky we can just about afford for me to do this. I don’t judge working mums as I understand the need to work, for money or just because you want to. It’s been implied to me in the past that I am a brain dead idiot with no ambition. I must be because how could I not be bored staying at home with a small child, being one of ‘those mums’? I don’t judge others & would appreciate the same in return. I had a career, in engineering for over 17 years & now I have a new one. I wish other women could be happy for me.

  4. I don’t disagree with the idea the basic of gist of any of this, but to seriously answer the question of ‘why we have a vested interest in stay at home mums’, it’s because we’re coming out of a historical moment where that was considered the ‘ideal’ for women, and that this ideal was based on the idea that being a SAHM was biologically natural (because laundry and cupcakes were fundamental to paleolithic life). So, when women seem to conform to this ‘natural role’, it becomes challenging to feminists who very recently have had to fight against this presumption (based on the bizarre logic of course that nature means everybody should want the same thing). For this reason, I do think that having more men make that choice is necessary – otherwise, it is difficult to challenge the idea that this is a ‘natural’ choice.
    And, whilst I think it’s right to acknowledge that women’s experiences as mothers might ‘feel different’ from men (and lead them to desire different choices), I would also want to argue that this is not a ‘natural’ feeling but a product of culture as so much of emotion is. The idea that women are natural caregivers is an idea that came to fruition in 18thC Europe; before that men were considered to be equally attached, if not more so, to their children, meaning that women who used wetnurses or gave their children out to nurse, as well as those who placed them in their father’s households (when unmarried) were not seen as cruel or unnatural. No one expected women to have this special attachment to their babies; nor did people expect their children to have a greater attachment to their mothers than their fathers. So, whilst I’m sympathetic towards women being able to follow their feelings and to recognise those feelings as valid, I don’t think this should be articulated at the expense of men ALSO having those feelings and those choices.

  5. Thanks for the comments.
    Feminist Avatar – that quote is from my article and it probably lacks some context here, but I meant there was a vested interest not just in SAHMs but in certain types – namely they’re white, married, wealthy, professional ones. I think that’s telling. And I suspect these articles are less about trying to understand the many paths mothers are taking and why, and more about a kind of fascination/envy with this particular group of women and what they can be used to represent, in addition to various commentators having an axe to grind.
    I take your point about evolving views on traditional/natural roles for mothers though I think I’d argue that the notion of women as ‘natural caregivers’ extends beyond Europe, and men’s role in their children’s lives in that time and place have been much more about ownership of children than attachment, wouldn’t you say? Which is a different thing.
    And I’m all for more men taking up caring roles, I think men as primary carers to their children is a huge part of the transition to equality. Obviously when more men spend time as primary carers they both value the skill involved in care work more and also the bond. But I no longer think equality need be measured in equal division of all tasks, including care work, between men and women. That may be how we progress but I think there’s something less than wonderful about a preoccupation with discouraging women from specialising in child-rearing. A big part of this motivation is an unexamined devaluing of care work, and children, by some in the feminist movement.

  6. By all means fight for women’s place in the workforce, it’s vital activism and I’m a working-outside-the-home mother myself, but don’t for a minute think you’re really challenging the patriarchy until you’re questioning the way in which capitalism relies upon a framework of unpaid care.

    As the mother of a 10 week old who just started back to work (me, not the baby), this completely resonates with me. Motherhood is radicalizing in ways that I could never have anticipated.

  7. @jo, “Women exploit other women. It is not just the press. It is not men.”
    Of course it’s men, too. You lay it at the women’s door for wanting to underpay you for childcare work, but those children had fathers, too, and they weren’t beating your door down to pay you a wage commensurate with your skill level. Men get the privilege of absenting themselves from the transaction, but every time someone babysits a child they’re doing the work for the father as much as the mother.

  8. In defence of those women whose reaction is ‘why would you do this?’ they probably literally don’t understand why. I know I don’t, although I hope I would not be rude enough to give the impression I disapproved of your life choices. I would go mad within about six months myself.
    And while my spouse is a stay at home parent his motivations were more along the lines that he hated his old job, and then he lost it, and I earned more than he did anyway, plus he was the more adamant that someone should stay home.

  9. What a fabulous and deeply felt piece of writing. Agree completely with everything you have said here and that is pretty rare for me.

  10. Easy solution, pay mothers for the role!
    When you remunerate a person for a service provided, that service becomes validated. If sex workers get paid for a service why the hell can’t mothers (or dads) be paid?
    If motherhood (and most carer roles) wasn’t so undervalued in society then women wouldn’t need to enter the “paid” workforce just to feel like they are contributing.
    The one thing that feminist should be fighting for is the value of motherhood, it is the core of what we are as women. It’s what most men can’t do or choose not to do (the caring/nurturing). It is what we are great at so why would we deny ourselves the right, just to be more like men, to be ordinary like men?
    None of this “mothers should know the dignity of work” rubbish that PM Gillard spouted when forcing young single mothers into welfare “participation requirements”.
    None of this “fair incentives to work” rubbish that Bill Shorten went on about when kicking single mothers (mostly) onto the dole and removing their status as “parents”/”mothers”, thus rendering their parental responsibilities and identity null and void, whilst ignoring the obstacles they face gaining employment.
    Would I rather be a low paid childcare worker or a stay at home mum?
    I think I’d rather the right and autonomy to care for my own child the way I want without the Governments social control and without privileged feminists telling me I’m not as feminist as they are because I want to be a stay at home mum.
    We are losing the narrative of what it means to be a mother and in essence, a HUGE part of what it means to be a woman (not feminine). Instead relying on institutions telling us how to parent, governments telling us when we can parent, feminists telling us we must be dumb or crazy to “want” to be available for our children and society making us feel guilty either way no matter what we choice we make.

  11. Wow, well I guess I lost my essential core of womanhood, or something…

  12. Wow, Isis, it was enormously important to me that I stay home with my son for the first few years of his life and I am utterly revolted by a bunch of the crap you just wrote.
    So “a huge part of being a woman” is a)to be a mother and b)to be feminine? I guess I’d better tell all my childfree female friends, and friends who are over 18 but without children for whatever reason, my female friends with short hair and wardrobes full of jeans, that they missed the memo, and they’re out of the woman club now. And better tell my stay at home (MALE) partner that he’s incapable of kising hurt knees, feeding our child and reading his bedtime story to him.
    What an extremely limited and shallow worldview you have.

  13. I must admit, I’m kind of enjoying (in a morbid sort of way) watching the government do this ridiculous dance where they try to force a world in which 2 people need to work to support a household, and then they realise there isn’t enough child care for that. So they create massive subsidies for some kinds of child care and recruit heaps of child care workers of varying qualifications. Then they realise that the quality of child care is crap, so they enforce new standards on the industry, which puts up the price of child care and makes the job even more stressful than before. So then they decide they need to pay child care workers more. Which will in turn increase the cost of child care….
    At want point do they realise that kids need to be raised and, in some way or another, it has to be paid for? I tend to agree that when this shocking realisation hits our genius economists, (along with the value of all caring work, and other things not currently valued by our tired economic system), it will alleviate some of the undervaluing of anyone who takes on the task of raising kids.
    I also utterly reject the notion that motherhood is central to being a woman, but it’s a valid, valuable choice.

  14. @ Mindy- on the question of ownership v attachment. I basically think that’s too simplistic a distinction. Many forms of love are predicated on ownership, even today. Sexual exclusivity in love relationships, for example, is often linked to a form of ownership, where we often spout ‘you are mine and I’m yours’. In feminist circles, we might view this with a critical eye, but I think it’s a very real part of relationships for many people, leading at times to jealousy and violence.
    In many ways, it’s even worse with children, with a large part of the activism around child’s rights today actively disputing the idea that children are owned by their parents and therefore subject to their whims and desires.
    Going back to early modern Europe, we see a very similar thing, only that sense of ownership is more strongly tied to fathers, than mothers. But that in no way meant that this wasn’t a strong or loving relationship. Indeed, in the logic of the period, ownership was what gave force to attachment, to love (just as it did in marriage and other relationships). Fathers were absolutely expected to be loving, even self-sacrificing for their children – even more so than mothers – because they has so much invested in them. Love was the central bond that tied families together and children were taught that they knew they belonged to particular families because of the love that they were shown. There is also quite a strong motif of the ‘nursing father’ in early modern society (taken from the Biblical allusions to God as a nursing father) that meant that men who ‘nursed’ (fed, cared for) their children were seen as quite normal. Indeed, there is even folk belief that while women often birthed children, both men and women were able to breastfeed and so the wetnursing responsibility was not gendered.
    Despite this, there is also a fair bit of evidence that suggests that parents (both fathers and mothers) were expected to love different types of children in different ways. Mothers were assumed to love their sons more, because it was through their sons (heirs) that mothers received respect and were integrated into the marital family. Sons were often treated better than daughters by both parents. Having favourites among your children was seen to be quite normal and expected. Illegitimate children, on the other hand, whilst legally due love from their parents (and indeed often were loved) created a lot of social anxiety and it was often expected that in practice they would be treated less well. There was a very real concern that mothers of illegitimate children would murder their new infants or mistreat them when older, because they were a mark of her shame. There are certainly examples of this happening. As a result, many societies preferred illegitimate children to live with fathers because they expected they would be better treated – so in fact, some ownerships issues arise because of concerns about love and attachment (or its lack).

  15. Sorry @blue milk, not Mindy – don’t know where my head was at!

  16. Just on a tangent – apparently men can breastfeed and lactation is brought on by the same method used to bring on lactation in women who wish to feed an adopted child (which as I understand it is keep pumping until the milk comes). The only ‘drawback’ is that just as women’s breasts often get larger with lactation so do men’s. Not that I have ever tried this nor anyone I know, but I read it in a book called ‘Milk’ that was published some time ago now, back when my eldest was still a bub.

  17. Mindy – the how stuff works podcast did some research into this as part of an episode about why men have nipples. IIRC apparently it is possible if testosterone levels get low enough, but many men would need to take drugs to get to that point.
    There have been a few cases of it happening naturally. My daughter certainly tried!

  18. I think women who have not been pregnant also have to take prolactin to stimulate milk production.
    But there is an African hunter-gatherer people (the name eludes me right now, but I think it starts with an E) where it is customary for the men to do all of the child care. They basically only hand babies over to the mothers to breast feed, and if the baby is fussy but not hungry they (the men) will suckle them (like natural dummies I guess).
    @Chris – yeah my daughter latched on to Mr angharad once when he got her up at night whilst not wearing a shirt. He was most perturbed!

  19. Also Libby Anne at Love Joy Feminism posted on this subject today (must be on a lot of people’s minds atm)

  20. angharad – when co-sleeping with my daughter she would sometimes just pull my t-shirt up, and latch on! Much to her disappointment nothing ever happened though 🙂

  21. It won’t be that men and women will necessarily be living the same lives with the same roles, though it may look like that, it will be equality because women’s passions, ambitions, choices and failures will be, like men’s, free of constant scrutiny and criticism

    So we give up on questioning gendered parenting roles?
    What about the many women who (still) don’t find parenthood so fulfilling, and the men who (still) find the expectation to be the perfect employee making them a stranger to their kids?
    I want more change than that.

  22. Sorry, that sounded harsh.
    What I mean is, my feminism means that I’m questioning the gendered nature of the assignation of caring roles, not putting down the caring roles.
    I guess because what I want is a cultural change where the actions and traits of caring and unpaid work are not necessarily assigned to women and girls, where attributes like ambition and exercise of power are not by default assigned to men, it is not all that different to work towards a cultural change where these gender traits are kept but the attributes of caring and unpaid work are elevated to get more respect. I just prefer my version but they will both be very difficult to achieve.
    The bottom line, to me, is that men don’t have to make this “choice”. Sit in a highly paid male medical specialist’s consulting room, or your male CEO’s office, and see the artfully photographed family photos of the children.
    Ask yourself, with lifespans now about ten years more than they were when I was a child, and with 40 being the new 30 and etc etc, why the men shouldn’t take a couple of years off to be at home with their children.

  23. The bottom line, to me, is that men don’t have to make this “choice”. Sit in a highly paid male medical specialist’s consulting room, or your male CEO’s office, and see the artfully photographed family photos of the children.

    I think that for many men they either don’t realise that its a choice they can make or when they do there are extra barriers to them doing so. For example, how many women are asked to give their employer a statuary declaration that they are the primary carer in order to access parental leave? How hard is it for men to negotiate flexible working hours compared to women (in my case my wife at the time was just asked to let her employer what hours she wanted to work, whereas I had to go through some negotiation and asked to agree not to disclose to anyone else I worked with what I got). We had the same employer, same manager.
    Also having children and photos with them on your desk actually says very little about what relationship you have with them. Care of (especially young) children is so often portrayed as a burden rather than an opportunity which many men miss out on. In retrospect if it wasn’t for a divorce and subsequent shared care of a 2 year old I would never have realised what I would have missed out on had I stayed married. My experience is that having signifcant solo time care of a child is more work but also more rewarding than your more traditional father involvement (eg just out of working hours involvement).

  24. Chris, what I was talking about upthread is to attack the very assumption that it will be the female partner who takes that time off. Your description of these barriers is exactly what I’m saying needs to change.
    I’m sorry you encountered barriers to working the way you wanted to, but that’s actually an argument for what I’m saying. it’s a case of PHMT. Or perhaps you knew that.
    I have seen some very encouraging developments in my own workplace, which is fairly male dominated.

  25. Helen – I certainly agree with the need for the basic assumptions around care to change. What I disagree with is how its often framed – eg men skipping out work they should be doing at home, rather than men missing out on the same depth and quality of relationship with their children as women often have. Almost always emphasising the work side rather than the reward side of the care of children is also an odd way of encouraging men to consider it 🙂
    Just as another example (and just as an example, not meant as an attack on you) the claim that men don’t have to make this choice implies that its something that is of benefit to them. Whereas I think its actually to their detriment. Because many miss out on quite a bit without ever having conciously made the decision to do so. I think it’s a myth that most men have been able to “have everything” except perhaps the surface social acceptance.

    I’m sorry you encountered barriers to working the way you wanted to, but that’s actually an argument for what I’m saying. it’s a case of PHMT. Or perhaps you knew that.
    I have seen some very encouraging developments in my own workplace, which is fairly male dominated.

    I agree – the situation has got much better over the last few decades. The flexibility that I have in my job to fit into what my daughter needs is far superior to anything my father.
    And for all my gripes I’m actually really appreciative of the flexibility and understanding that I do get from my employer. I know it probably comes at a cost to career progression, but I’m ok with that.

  26. We are losing the narrative of what it means to be a mother and in essence, a HUGE part of what it means to be a woman
    Hey thanks Isis, for reminding me that I am nothing more then my uterus! You aren’t a feminist with that line of thinking.
    As for being a SAHM, these choices aren’t made in a vacuum.
    Childfree female.

  27. Isis: Thanks so much for reminding me I’m not really a woman unless I have children.
    Do you even realise how damn misogynist you sound (not to mention homo- and trans-phobic)? Are you aware that one of the ongoing snarks of our Leader of the Opposition against our Prime Minister is that because Ms Gillard has chosen not to have children, she’s somehow “incomplete” and “inadequate”? From the sounds of things, you apparently agree with him.
    I’m childfree by choice. I chose not to have children, because I didn’t think it was ethical of me to force a child (who had absolutely no say in the matter whatsoever) to have to grow up with a mother who is clinically depressed. I also didn’t think it was particularly ethical to subject a child who has no say in the matter to the emotionally neglectful parenting style I grew up with, and that my parents grew up with, and my grandparents ditto. Oddly enough, I still have all the biological accoutrements of female-ness – my uterus still functions (I’m in the middle of a period right now, in fact), my hormones still tick over on a monthly basis, and my body’s form and shape yells out “female” to anyone who looks at me (it’s something to do with the tits and the hips, they tell me).
    I’m in my forties now, which gives me another reason not to have kids (as though I needed another, but what the hey). This one’s ableist, but it’s socially acceptable – I’m over forty, which means my chance of conceiving a kid with Trisomy 21 (aka Downs’ Syndrome) or some other genetic “deformity” is about eight times higher than it was when I was twenty-odd.
    My partner, incidentally, doesn’t want kids either. We have a joke every month (every period) about how he’s still not a Dad. He seems to consider me fully female, too.
    You’ve also removed a good friend of mine from womanhood – a friend who dearly wanted children but who wasn’t able to have them, due to problems which rendered her infertile. She’s another one who’s visually female, but according to you, due to her lack of children, she’s not a “real woman”.
    Fancy telling both myself and my friend which gender we actually occupy? I mean, if we aren’t women, and we visibly aren’t men, what the flying fuck are we?

  28. Clarification: I actually agree one of the things which feminism needs to come to terms with is the necessity of domestic labour. Domestic labour (cleaning and maintaining the living space, cooking meals, looking after children, shopping etc) needs to be done by someone. Ideally speaking, we’d be working to alter capitalism so domestic labour was recognised as being important ongoing maintenance for the human capital which makes up the workforce. Of course, this would also require an alteration of the way capitalism views its human capital – at the moment human capital is largely regarded (particularly at the lower levels) as being an eminently fungible, infinitely replaceable set of interchangeable parts, so there isn’t much interest in maintaining them at peak condition. The idea at present is there’s bound to be another person out there which can take the place of a person who breaks down.
    Personally, I think this attitude is likely to alter some time in the next twenty to thirty years, as the “baby boom” demographic starts ageing out of the workforce and the subsequent generations turn out to be insufficient to fill the gaps.

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