When my eldest was a small baby and I was deep into sleep-deprived state and feeling lonely in a new city, I stumbled across Bluemilk’s blog. Her posts had (and still have) resonance for me. I loved the way she coupled intelligent comments on culture and economics with her experience of womanhood and parenting. So smart and humane. In 2007 she started a project called “10 Questions About Your Feminist Parenthood” and, although my reflections have been brewing ever since I first read the questions, for some reason I only now feel ready to answer these questions aloud. I wonder how you would answer?
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?
My feminism recognises that the patriarchal arrangement (ie, a hierarchical system in which those at the top are there by virtue of their access to power–typically, but not always, men) is not good for anyone or our planet. My feminism hopes to release ALL people from it to be free to be who they most authentically are, while maintaining that we are all deeply inter-connected and inter-dependant.
I realised I was a feminist in 5th form at school, long before I became a mother, when my English teacher had us think of all the alternative names for men and women. I thought it was unfair that the other names for men (eg, dude, bloke, tosser, etc) were somewhat neutral, even playful, while the ones for women had some kind of a negativity implicit in them (eg, chick, lady, slut, etc), whether it was diminutizing, sexualizing, or embodying a cultural expectation of women. Since then, I have tried to be careful about the words I use to address people and I try to gently point that out to others when they call me things I don’t like or don’t identify as within that relationship. For example, a co-worker or my GP calling me “Mum”. Ergh.
The other formative moment in the evolution of my early feminism which still sticks with me was when I studied a feminism and design paper within my architecture studies. I was introduced to the difficulties that certain groups have in engaging with the built environment–including parents with buggies navigating stairs and underpasses, women having to use toilets that are dark, dirty, and dangerously discrete, and the demise of living quarters for women outside of a traditional family arrangement.
2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
That–in spite of never having felt especially maternal before motherhood, and, perhaps because of my own mother’s mothering–it has come much more intuitively to me than anything else I have ever done in my life… which is not to say I am not brought daily to the verge of a nervous breakdown by minor parenting incidents, like that of the “porridge rubbed into the carpet” scenario, or the “never-ending hunt for the missing mitten”, or the “why are there so many questions? Why?” situation.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
It all feels less theoretical and symbolic to me now. If I sit down and think about it, I can see my whole life on these “feminism vs. patriarchal arrangement” terms. Where shall I start?
I have a huge student loan for a degree that I will probably never be able to use to its full earning potential in part because I want to be around for my kids in a way that precludes registration in–not to mention inclusion in the general work culture of–my profession (architecture). I could go on here… but I won’t…
Being around for my kids means choosing to not pay to outsource my care work to others; now when they are small, but also when they are older and home sick from school, or on school holiday, or before or after school. I live far from family, and am still building up friendship networks around me that may eventually lead to reciprocal care arrangements that will help during these seasons.
Where I live, childcare (beyond the free 15 hours of nursery schooling for 3+4 year olds) is paradoxically very expensive and terribly underpaid. It therefore has all the problems of underpaid work–many private daycares are chaotic places run by staff stressed from work-load and upper-management pressures, and consequently there is high turn-over. So even if I was in a financial situation to afford this childcare option–and wanted to do so–I would feel very uneasy about paying a(nother) woman to care for my children while I go off and work in a field more highly valued than that of the care work she would be doing… the work I am doing now… which is actually the work I’d rather be doing anyway.
At the end of it all, I am mostly frustrated that the whole of society is propped up by amazing women who do this work without financial reward or recognition because they care about their kids and the society that they live in–and this perpetuated because this work simply has to be done by someone, but it is also perpetuated by the idea that doing something for the love of it is reward enough… well, I wonder when we will start penalizing doctors for their love of healing people, or real estate agents for their love of selling property?
So, perhaps motherhood has simply made me angrier as a feminist. What a cliché.
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 try to be intentional about the language I use about and to my sons. You will never hear me say “boys will be boys” because, in the context of my eldest son (he’s nearly 5), he has so many aspects of his personality and behaviour that are so authentically his and are so clearly gender-non-specific (or even traditionally feminine), that that phrase simply makes no sense to me. Similarly, I would feel awkward saying that about any other child I met.
I am also supremely aware that I am raising two boys who are white, from an educated family, and, at this stage, able-bodied. They are also being reared in a very traditionally-structured family. Feminist parenting is hard from this beginning point because while I am trying to teach my children about their self-worth and dignity, I am also trying to let them know that they are culturally privileged and this is not ok when it is (inevitably) at the expense of someone else. That others have worth and dignity in spite of not having cultural privilege is a lesson that Jesus taught and is a strong theme of my feminism.
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
The moments when I feel like I have failed most are when I haven’t done my best to act in solidarity with another mother; whether that be by listening well to a friend who is tired in her parenting, or supporting another mother in a tough situation in public, or by finding an authentic response to the suffering of women in other places. I feel this failure daily but I know that for me, and the work of feminism in itself, there will always be work to do and mistakes to be made–it’s a big world out there to respond to. So there’s got to be grace as well. Ultimately the work of feminism is a uniting work, one that illuminates and works through–and for–our deep inter-connectedness and dependence on one another. When I lose sight of that, that is when I feel I have failed the most.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
In the circles that I move in it can be difficult identifying as a feminist–this is mostly because I am not sure that my definition of feminism necessarily fits with the definition in other people’s heads. I think many people still think that feminism equates to hating men, or thinking that you have to run a successful corporation… but as you can see, this is nothing like my feminism.
Through my partner’s workplace and through our church life, I meet a lot of women from more conservative backgrounds who are often at home with their kids too. I wonder if they feel marginalised enough by the celebrity/corporate type of feminism, so much so that they choose not to identify with feminism altogether. I don’t know. I just know that I often feel misunderstood by this group, and misunderstood by some successful working mothers who don’t see the value of the care work I do, or the complexities of professional, cultural, and financial systems that make it hard for many mothers to work outside the home. However, it is never so difficult that I don’t identify as a feminist.
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
I don’t think it is possible to live in the world, be deeply connected with others, and be a complex human being without sacrifice. Sacrifice becomes a problem when it is done by only one person in the family (or one sector of society), or when there is not even an awareness of the sacrifice that is happening.
This topic goes hand in hand with some of the thoughts I have around dependence and vulnerability–things that, in order to be fully human/e, we need to experience deeply and often, irrespective of who we are. It is hard to experience dependence and vulnerability when you have power and resources on your side. In this way, I think the call to sacrifice is equally for men+women, but it is a much bigger challenge for men who have not traditionally heard this as their call.
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?
He would call himself a feminist. At the same time, however, he would recognise that while wanting to be a part of the solution, he will also always be a part of the problem (in the same way that I, as a white and educated woman in the developed world, am too). We take very similar positions on the way we parent in terms of the language and behaviour we accept in our home. However, one of the things I struggle most with is allowing my partner to parent in his own way. I have interrupted his parenting so many times with my “better” way. This is an anti-feminist move on my part, for sure.
There is an awkward dynamic in our relationship that I haven’t yet mentioned which is that we have moved internationally twice since we married and these moves have been entirely because of his academic work. We both bristle when people say to us “oh, so you [Ruth] followed your spouse here”, because perhaps it labels the situation for what it is (sigh) but also because it is not how we choose to understand our situation. Our circumstances, and my ability to work, make friends, get involved in community stuff, etc, has all been affected by our international moves. Some of these things have been hard and have felt unfair. But it also has been liberating not to be forced up a corporate ladder because that’s what I’m “supposed” to do, or being stuck in one place without a chance to see different ways of living. I guess my partner feels guilty in some ways about how much his work enscribes our lives. However, his work is also what allows him to be flexible and present at home. While many male academics don’t take advantage of that reality, he does.
He is a great role model for my boys in that he is a gentle and thoughtful person and he treats all people, including women, with respect. This is, as a feminist, what I want my children to learn from him by way of example.
9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
I guess from the outside I do look like a very “attachment-y” parent–with my breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby wearing+carrying, and gentle discipline–but I am not sure I would use that term to define my parenting. It is simply what has come naturally to me, and what has made the most sense for who I am and how we live where we live.
I like being able to rely on myself and other people around me–as opposed to machines and corporations–to get things done. It is very empowering, but also very practical! For example, I have had little trouble with breastfeeding, my boobs go everywhere with me and don’t need to be sterilized, so I like using them to feed my baby. Or sometimes when I carry my baby in arms I need to give him to someone else to hold so that I can hoist my tights up again and keep on walking. This is a kind of vulnerability or dependence that I mention in Question 7 that in a very small way creates connections between me and the world.
The work of parenting was never meant to be done alone, but modern parenting can be sooooo lonely. These little tricks help me to reach out to others–to ask for help, give help, or simply have a sweet interaction with a stranger–and strengthen inter-personal connections. This is how I reconcile my “attachment-ish” parenting with my feminism. When I try to do everything by myself or within our family unit, it is lonely, boring, and I feel like something is missing… it’s the solidarity of other parents, and other people in general, that’s missing.
10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
Strands of feminism that suggest that the only work of feminism is to bring women to the top of hierarchical (workplace or political) systems have been totally co-opted by capitalism and this, to me, is a pseudo-feminism that really just enforces the status quo. It perpetuates the marginalization of vulnerable groups, like mothers, carers, and children. This is not right feminism.
On the plus-side, feminism has given many mothers language to describe what the injustices are that they are experiencing. So many experiences or difficult circumstances of my own life simply don’t make sense without the insight and vocabulary that I have gained through reading blogs like Bluemilk’s or Women In Theology. I think feminism has also helped mothers to see the value of the work they do, in spite of it being unpaid. For me, there is also a sense of solidarity with other women doing care work–either that of their own children or of other people’s family members.