If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Feminist Mothering

blue milk is one of my all-time favorite blogs. She has a standing set of questions on feminism and mothering that I have always meant to answer and it seems I finally have. Some of the questions seem strange to me, since I am on the "other side" of mothering, but I did my best. I wonder if others who are no longer actively mothering have attempted this?

1.How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

One sentence? That's tough. Let's see. I live life under the assumption that men and women have equal rights to the resources we all need, want and use to live and flourish. I live life under the assumption that the same rights exist for any human regardless of the category we wish to assign the individual. In my daily existence I believe that how we do gender matters and I try to voice how it matters. See I knew I couldn't do it in a sentence.

I was raised a feminist. I grew up in the 70's. My mother left my father, went back to school, found a set of like-minded although younger and more radical friends, bought me "Free To Be You and Me" and took me to teen NOW meetings. I spent my teens and early 20s reading feminist literature and feeling angry.

Motherhood didn't make me a feminist, rather it, and my first marriage, set my feminism back several decades.

2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?

The intensity of my feelings and being both completely adored and needed by one person. I was used to feeling needed but not adored--not loved so unconditionally and so intensely. It was a love affair like no other and it threw me. It also saved me--emotionally. I was forced to deal with issues I had previously never recognized.

What surprises me now is that the love affair is over. I've been effectively (but sweetly) dumped. I know I should have but I didn't see it coming.

3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

My feminism has changed dramatically over the years. The anger has significantly abated. I have a deeper understanding of the issues, mostly due to the luxury of a job where I am paid to research and ponder questions of gender, race and class. I am both more and less optimistic about change happening: more because the longer I live the more I can see the small changes and believe they mean something; less because I no longer believe radical change and revolution are trustworthy or all that beneficial.

As I mentioned, initially motherhood set me back. I was young and I believe many young people become rigid out of fear. They hold onto the roles and identities they have just discovered with dear life so they don't lose their new and bitterly earned sense of self. In thinking I was defying traditional roles of mother and wife I ended up embracing them. However it was also motherhood that snapped me out of it. It was a desire to be true to myself in front of my son--to let him know the Brigindo that I like best--that led me to find my voice as a mother and to discover what it could mean to be a feminist mother.

4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I find it hard to distinguish what makes my mothering feminist from what makes me feminist. Perhaps it is because I've been mothering for over 19 years now and I can no longer see where one identity ends and another begins. My mothering is feminist because I am a feminist and I bring a feminist outlook to everything I do.

In some ways I believe my mothering has always been feminist, however as I mentioned previously I also feel that when I first became a wife and a mother my feminism took several steps backwards. So how do I reconcile this? My initial clinging to the role of perfect mother and wife set-back my feminism but my approach to raising my son was always that of Rich's "outlaw to the institution of motherhood."

From the beginning I refused to alter how we interacted, how our relationship developed--its mutuality and interdependence--in spite of some fierce criticism and social pressure. I was told I was raising a mama's boy and that he would never leave (Ha! I wish). In the early years I ALWAYS felt I was doing the wrong thing I just couldn't do it any other way. In many ways I did raise a mama's boy (he actually announced it proudly at a dinner party once when he was 13...you should have seen the adults' faces as they tried not to comment or laugh) however it seems I raised a very independent one. I also appear to have raised a feminist. Go figure.

5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Generally I don't "do failure." Not that I don't make mistakes, I make plenty but I tend to reframe them in my mind. I'm more likely to see them as learning experiences or as who I had to be to get to where I am now. I try to be very generous with myself. I think everyone should be.

But perhaps explaining why I feel my feminism took a backseat when I first became a mother is a better answer to this question. When I first had Angel I was the main breadwinner in my family. We both knew I had to go back to work as soon as possible (after 2 months of paid leave) and become the sole breadwinner. My ex stayed home with the baby during the day and taught martial arts (for very little or no pay) at night. I would come home and take over the parenting at night. I also attempted to take class with my ex at the dojo, with Angel running around, but if things got too unruly Angel and I would have to go home.

Mr. Mom was a fairly unusual arrangement 20 years ago and I thought it confirmed my feminism. Instead I worked nonstop as breadwinner and mother (and still tried to be #1 student in the dojo whenever possible). In many ways I overcompensated for not being home during the day by trying to the perfect mom at nights and on weekends. Did I mentioned I did all the cooking and cleaning too? Yeah, not so feminist of an approach.

6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

To be honest I don't remember ever having difficulty identifying as a feminist. I can't imagine people meeting me and not recognizing me as a feminist mother. Perhaps this wasn't as strong when I was a young mother. People, especially older men, tend to assume all sorts of things about young women. My life was pretty frazzled and intense then so I don't remember if I had these difficulties. Most likely I was too tired to notice.

7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I believe being a family means being willing to make sacrifices as well as compromises. To me understanding that need is what it means to be in relationship with another person--whether that is a partner or a child. Healthy families recognize that there is a balance that needs to be achieved between individual level needs, relationship (dyadic) needs, and family system needs and they actively work at trying to achieve that balance (of course they don't always manage it). So sometimes people make personal sacrifices and sometimes there are relationship sacrifices and sometimes there are family sacrifices. For this to work, you have to be willing to let others in the family make sacrifices for you. I think the hegemony of motherhood often stops us from allowing others to sacrifice for us. So I guess the answer to the question is that it has taken me a long time to understand that "motherhood means sacrifice" does not mean mothers are solely responsible for sacrifice. I think this is an important feminist principle. In fact I would probably argue that the phrase "motherhood means sacrifice" is decidedly unfeminist.

8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

My partners have always been proud of my feminism. My ex, however, only liked it when it didn't infringe upon what he felt were his rights or his pleasures. While there were instances where we would clash over my feminist mothering, they were few and far between. Mostly we didn't clash. This is because I had not learned the lesson outlined above and embraced sacrifice. Once I stopped embracing it I had to leave.

My current partner is 180 degrees different. I honestly have no idea how my feminism has impacted him. I think you'd need to ask him that question. I know he thinks our son is amazing and that it is all because of me. I know he refuses to acknowledge the importance of his own parenting and I doubt he would analyze it in terms of feminism. I know I wish he was my son's biological father and that we could have shared him from the beginning.

9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

Yeah, I'm not really too up on the whole attachment parenting thing. I think the term (and maybe the practice) came into vogue a little to late for me. However my son grew up by my side; he was allowed in my bed when he wanted until he stopped at around 6; I took him out of school so he could travel with me for work on numerous occasions; and I let him know at all times that I was physically and emotionally there for him. I'm not sure how closely that resembles attachment parenting but I got a lot of flak for it (see above answer about raising a dependent mama's boy). In the beginning I felt guilty but couldn't see any other way of being his mother. Eventually I realized I was right and they were wrong and stopped worrying about it. Now that he's grown I've told him about the reactions I got and he's flabbergasted that any one have doubted that it was the right approach for him. Then he laughs and tells me that we showed them.

But I'm not understanding why this would pose a challenge to my feminism? Perhaps I am misunderstanding the phrase. To me being a feminist mother is ignoring the hegemonic discourse of motherhood and following the path that you believes works for yourself and your child. If that means living a life that on the surface looks "unfeminist" (as in being a SAHM?), who cares? People who think feminism resides in actions such as paid employment or wearing sensible shoes really don't understand feminism.

10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

Again, I'd rather avoid the whole "failure" discussion. Perhaps feminism had to take the stances it took and make the mistakes it made to get to the point where it is now. For me that point is to go beyond simplistic views of feminist action and to own up to mothering as a critical feminist issue. However I also believe that if we want to deconstruct the weight and pressure of hegemonic motherhood we need to be willing to truly share the power of mothering with our partners (not just the chores or the nurturing).

Yes motherhood provides women a power--while at the same time as it exposes our powerlessness--that is normally kept from us. I believe that expecting women to give that up without providing opportunity for real power is unrealistic and foolish but I also believe that thinking womenkind can find true power by ignoring motherhood is equally as foolish and it hurts the very people you are trying to advance.


Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

It sounds like you're an excellent mother. Your post has given me quite a lot to think about with regards to feminism and motherhood. And hope that you can be both.

Julie said...

You have very keen insights, and I agree that you sound like an excellent mother. Now I'm going to try to answer the questions, too. Very interesting post and great food for thought.

MsPrufrock said...

I've never seen this series of questions before, and your answers are really interesting. I look forward to thinking about it and discussing it myself. Also - feminism in one sentence? HA!