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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What Exactly Is Feminist Mothering?

This week I received the proofs for a chapter I have coming out in a book celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sara Ruddick's Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politic of Peace. The chapter represents a stretch for me in terms of professional writing and I'm happy with how it turned out. This same week I also read this post over at Hoyden About Town and this response post at Blue Milk--both on the practices of feminist mothering (you may want to take some time right now to read them...I think you will enjoy the posts and the comments). I also took part in a survey on feminist mothering that I saw referenced on Blue Milk. Needless to say all of this has gotten me thinking about feminist mothering this week and I have to say: I'm very confused. Did something happen to feminism generally and to feminist mothering specifically while I was busy doing other things?

For those of you who haven't read Maternal Thinking, Ruddick makes the claim that (a) engaging in the practice of mothering (which she does NOT define as exclusively female) creates a unique way of thinking--the same as the engagement in any other practice creates a unique thought process (i.e. lawyers end up thinking like lawyers); (b) maternal practice ultimately consists of three factors--preservation, nurturance, and training; and (c) since the definition of training is preparing your child to be socially acceptable--as defined by the social groups to which the mother is a member--there are multiple instances where the tasks are in conflict and mothers must figure out how to resolve these conflicts. For example, raising your son to be a soldier, if this is the socially acceptable adult role in a woman's social group, is in direct conflict with the task of preservation. It is the resolution of these conflicts that forces mothers to think and, thereby, creates maternal thought. Now Ruddick also speaks of maternal inauthenticity--when these conflicts arise and mothers are not true to their own beliefs. However she notes:
"It is not when they submit or are prudent or timid that mothers are inauthentic. It is when they loose sight of the cost of prudence, deny their timidity, and tell their children that unquestioning obedience is actually right. Inauthenticity is a matter of form, not content."
To me, being authentic in this sense is feminist mothering. It is not whether we do or do not make concessions to the established order--to the institution of motherhood, as Rich would phrase it--but when we are false with our children and pretend what we believe is not valid, is not true.

However my other run-ins with definitions of feminist mothering this week seem to center on what I would term mothering (or even parenting) tasks--not practices--and many of these tasks seem to be related to styles of parenting (i.e. attachment parenting--which I freely admit I don't know enough about to discuss in an intelligent fashion) or even to other belief systems and practices (i.e. environmentalism). Now I have nothing against either attachment parenting (what little I know of it leads me to believe I would have endorsed it when Angel was small) or environmental practices but I don't think that is what defines feminist mothering (assuming we believe this term is meaningful--as opposed to their being people who are feminist and who mother--which is more how I think I would describe myself).

I also need to say that this post is not in response to either Lauredhel's or Blue Milk's thoughtful posts or any of the comments on their blogs, but rather as a response to the original post that generated their posts and, mainly, to the survey on feminist motherhood that I completed. I can do no better justice to the original post than Lauredhel herself, so I will put that aside. However the survey bothered me and I feel I can discuss it here. Again, I must start by applauding the researchers' efforts to study feminism and motherhood but I found it incredibly difficult to answer the survey. Below is a description of my main problems:
  • The survey represented motherhood as only consisting of the mothering of young children and did not acknowledge that some of us are mothers of grown children, yet our practices and attitudes may still hold some value.
  • Items of mothering practices revolved around specific tasks like breastfeeding, bed-sharing, and keeping children on a strict schedule. Given my definition of feminist mothering above, I don't see that there is necessarily any association between these tasks and a person's identity as a feminist. Take breastfeeding, for instance. The question asked (as I best recall) what length of time you felt breastfeeding was beneficial (it also asked how a "typical feminist" would respond--more on that later). Now there is quite a lot of data out there on the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and child and there are also recommendations for length of breastfeeding. However there are many reasons why woman either choose not to breastfeed or stop breastfeeding earlier than recommended time frames, would this mean she is not a feminist?
  • A significant portion of the survey was devoted to the percentage of time the person spent engaged in household tasks, including but not limited to early childcare tasks (i.e. diaper changing, getting up in the middle of the night). While I understand that equality in household and childcare tasks is a feminist issue, I don't think it is associated with feminist beliefs or identity. That is, there are many women who identify as feminist and who hold (so-called) feminist beliefs but still end up engaged in more than 50% of these tasks on a daily basis. I believe the reasons for this involve deep-seated gender constructions that we all hold (even us feminists) and, more importantly, shape our institutions. Rallying against them is a battle most of us (especially those with small children) are too tired to take on on a daily basis. Now keep in mind that the stated purpose of the study is to learn more about how women feel about the relationship between feminism and motherhood. I'm not convinced that looking at associations between feminist identity, mothering practices, and time spent engaged in house/childcare work is going to provide that understanding.
  • What exactly is "a typical feminist"? By asking me to rate responses to all of these items as a typical feminist would, you are assuming that I believe feminist are a homogeneous group. Would a feminist believe that?
So this post has turned into a bit of a rant and I feel bad if it sounds like I'm trashing this research. There is so little research out there on this subject and I do not know the specific aims of the study, nor do I think I was the correct demographic for completing the survey, so I don't want to appear unfair. It was more that trying to answer the questions was frustrating for me and it brought to the forefront these questions I have about the concept of feminist mothering. It seems I thought I knew what it meant, to me at least, but now I'm thinking there is another definition out there and it seems a bit too narrow for my comfort.


life_of_a_fool said...

it would, though, be interesting to see the discrepancies, if people do report a "typical feminist" response, between that and their personal responses. To illustrate, for example, the tension in your second to last bullet . . . (which may or may not be their point, and may or may not be possible, but . . .)

Julie said...

Very interesting post. I know several women who "say" they are feminists. But as you point out, their actions contradict their words. On the other hand, I know many strong, older women whom I consider to be feminists, because they live the life, regardless of labels. They don't think of themselves as feminists.

I agree with you. It's hard to define what is "typically feminist." Defining a feminist mother seems even more difficult. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

Annie K said...

Hi Brigindo, I haven't had time to read your links yet, but I appreciate your posting them. This is an interesting article, and based on what you're saying about the survey, it appears very flawed, for all of the reasons you site. Just as one example, re: breastfeeding, the number of months one does it, may bear no relation to feminism, because there can be so many other factors. I like your definition for yourself: I am a feminist and a mother. That would describe me as well. Congratulations on your book chapter. Please let us know when the book is availabe.

MsPrufrock said...

Why, oh why do I try to catch up on my blog reading late at night? I am completely lacking the ability to form coherent thoughts, so when I come across posts like this one, I desperately want to engage my brain but it's just not joining the party. I must bookmark this post to come back to, as it's a significant interest of mine.

I'm trying to restrain myself for commenting on the breastfeeding/feminism issues, as it's such a sensitive topic for me it's become cliche.

blue milk said...

I agree that there are many problems with that survey, what a shame too because it will really muck up the information they are gleaning from it. Liked very much reading your thoughts on the whole issue here, not just survey design.