10 feminist motherhood questions

I’ve been enjoying reading the back catalogue from blue milk, and thought it would be interesting to answer the 10 Feminist Motherhood questions now and then revisit periodically.

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

Feminism to me means acknowledging that society is built around a male template for personhood, and insisting that this must change. I’ve always been a feminist – my main introduction to feminism was the centenary of women’s suffrage when I was 6 (I was obsessed with the suffragettes). My mother is a feminist and so were most of my female role models growing up.

What has surprised you most about motherhood?

It is possible to forget to eat. My grandmother says “don’t forget to eat”, whenever I’m busy – and it has seemed a completely bizarre statement until now. I can suddenly realise at noon that I haven’t eaten since the piece of toast my husband left next to me as he rushed out the door to work. Before having a baby, when I heard people speak about putting the baby’s needs first, I imagined this as a conscious act of love, not an act of blearry autopilot, of forgetting to remember your own needs.

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

My feminism has become less theoretical and more personal as I’ve grown older. In the cosy bubble of a blue-stocking girls high school, feminism seemed to be a project for my mother’s generation, and just about completed. Girls can do anything, rada rada rada. At uni, this was less true but the world still seemed a pretty equal place. I didn’t realise how much progress still needed to be made until I was working, and thinking about having babies in the nearish future.

My husband and I looked around the corporate law firm where we both started our careers, and we thought “we can’t both do this work and also be the parents we want to be”. I left before I left, in search for a job that required fewer hours. But the public sector job I shifted to demonstrated the stalled progress of workplace feminism in a different way – those in charge are exclusively men, but the staff is overwhelmingly female. Women with kids are disproportionately represented: places with flexible hours are rare, we flock and stay, even if it’s at the cost of higher salaries and career progression. And so things will continue until working conditions everywhere are better suited to parenthood. The gender gap at the top will also continue, as will implicit sexism that follows from this and makes career advancement even harder. It’s a vicious cycle.

Becoming a mother has made me more strident about all my pre-motherhood feminist concerns. I have a new respect for all mothers. It is a massive problem that our ability to contribute to the world through paid work is strangulated by ideals of the committed employee that just aren’t compatible with children’s needs.

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

I suspect most mothers are feminists, but at differing levels of self-identification. Mothers who defend their sweet little boys from calls to “man up”, mothers in the trenches of the equal chores battle with their (male) partners, mothers bargaining for additional unpaid school holiday leave in their employment contracts – these are all feminist actions. I’ve heard more anti-feminist sentiment from self-proclaimed feminists without children than from mothers who don’t identify as feminists (the perennial “why should parents get special treatment”, etc).

Being a purposefully feminist mother means trying to model a feminist household. It means striving for equal parenting. It means letting kids explore their world as free from gendered limitations as possible, including through encouraging them to question internalised stereotypes. And maybe it also means coming to peace with the fact that if you really want to make progress, you have to accept things being harder than they should be and soldier on anyway in order to get to the top and then use your influence to campaign for change.

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

Passing on this one for now.

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

Passing on this one for now.

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

Life involves difficult trade-offs, and it requires us to sometimes put ourselves second and meet the needs of people we care about, and we all must to reconcile this with being autonomous individuals.  I’m not big on the concept of sacrifice, it is too loaded and presents an image of the maternal martyr. That’s not a helpful image for women. Better to think in terms of doing some things and not others because you can’t do all the things.

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

I’m interested to see how this will pan out. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot at various stages of our relationship, mainly in relation to balancing two careers. We met at uni as two ambitious law student types, and he fully supports the idea that I should be able to go forth professionally and do interesting, meaningful things in paid work, as well as being an available and attentive parent. However, there is an inevitable tension in trying to carve out an equal relationship in a non-equal society. “Lean in” feminism emphasises the need for a supportive partner; but the limits of individual action in working around structural problems also apply to the concerted actions of a couple. He wants to support my career, but doesn’t want to sacrifice his. That’s fair enough. Why should either of us have to? Why can’t employment conditions accommodate family life for both partners? Yet, they don’t. So we intend to find some way of realigning the division of labour once we’re through the early years of parenthood (in which I want to be at home with my babies). Watch this space.

He took four weeks’ leave when bubs was born, which was really really fantastic. I’m now passionate about the feminist importance of paternity leave. There was a revelation in that month – he “gets” household management now. Five years of living together, I’ve done more than half the domestic load, but since bubs arrived that has changed. All it took was four weeks in which I completely abdicated responsibility for everything other than breastfeeding… He’s back at work now, and while our relationship may look very traditional at the moment, in many ways it’s more equal than ever (we’re both exhausted). I’m really grateful to be able to spend a full year at home with bubs. In an ideal world, we’d have better maternity leave provisions, so that women’s ability to do this doesn’t depend on the work status of the father. In the meantime, I’m pretty glad to have a breadwinner spouse just now.

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

When I first started telling people I was pregnant, one friend asked what sort of parenting style I was going to adopt. Um, I thought, use my own upbringing as a starting point and mix it up as much as it suits us?

I’m loathe to say I’m following some parenting plan other than an amalgam of what feels right. But an outside observer could definitely say we’re on the spectrum of attachment parenting. Breastfeeding on demand, having bub sleep in our room, eschewing cry it out in favour of cuddle it out, me taking a year of maternity leave, carrying bub in a wrap if he wants closeness and we want hands (like now): we’re doing all these things and so far they’re working well.

Overall, my parenting philosophy insofar as I have one is based on the idea that babies and small children are people. People who are in a strange and confusing environment and can’t communicate all that well. People with genuine needs and wants. If a baby wants cuddles, fair enough. I’m grown up and I still like cuddles.

How does this approach align with feminism?

I think they’re entirely congruent. If we have a class of people whose needs are minimised and ignored and made to fit in with someone else’s agenda, we’re not going to have a society in which everyone can flourish. That’s true whether the class of people is mothers or children.

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

The main thing that feminism has given mothers is the ability to have a fuller life beyond motherhood – this is really important, and that contribution should be lauded. But there is a risk that this has come at the cost of giving mothers a better supported life as mothers. I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but nor has it gone far enough in making society work well for mothers. In particular, a feminism that says to women “hey it’s all good, you can act like men now” is inadequate.

There have been moments since my husband’s return to work that have been mundanely desperate – alone with a screaming baby, body aching for sleep, conscious that it’s mid-afternoon and I haven’t cleaned my teeth yet, and suddenly struck with guilt that my soothing is getting pretty darn perfunctory. Then bub will be asleep on my chest (like now) and an hour will disappear while I stroke his lovely soft hair and just breathe him in. I feel like I’m in a weird time vortex, an afternoon can last forever, a day can go by in a blur. Then, my mother will visit and I’ll see my baby through her eyes, and she’ll burp him and change his nappy while I have a cup of tea, and everything will be much steadier. And I’ll realise the bad moments exist because it’s just not good that mother and baby should be alone. It is the most unnatural thing. Yet it has become the social norm, at a great disservice to both mothers and children. Feminism exists in part to challenge damaging social norms: this is one that needs to be expunged.

As I said above, at the moment both my husband and I are both exhausted. Me spending all day and night looking after bubs (last night I got two chunks of 3 hour sleep – WIN!), him spending the day at the office but also putting in the second shift when he gets home. I don’t think he has it easier than me, which tends to suggest that equality within relationships is nice enough, but the fundamental problem is a lack of social support for families. Feminism must not abandon that fight.

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