Has feminism failed mothers who want to just mother? By Kiran Manral
When I got married over a couple of decades ago, I didn’t think of marriage as a necessary precursor to motherhood. Twenty years later, I still don’t. It took eight years for the biological clock to begin clanging furiously about the need to reproduce and contribute my mite to the global genetic pool. But once I’d heard its clarion call, punctuated with gurgles and baby talk gibberish that turned my uterus to so much mush, there was no turning back.
Has feminism failed mothers who want to just mother?
Having been dealt the hand biologically of being responsible for conception and carrying of a foetus to term, motherhood has been a conflict zone ever since the first wave of feminists began their battle to reclaim our half of the sky. Through the many waves of feminism we have been through over the years, the battle for reproductive right and control has been paramount. By wresting back control of our bodies and reproductive rights from the patriarchy (thanks to the pill and abortion rights), we managed to take back control of our lives and our life paths to a certain extent.
Two days before I was rolled into the operating room, catheterised and given anesthesia, I had been pitching my agency to a potential client, who was terrified at the real and tangible prospect of me breaking my water on their spit polished boardroom floor.
Given that having children is now an option rather than an inevitable consequence of being sexually active, producing and raising the next generation of human beings has morphed into something that isn’t really priority. As Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, wrote in her book Sex and the Single Girl, “Hard work and sex will set you free (as long as you don’t have children).” Psst, for the record, Brown was married and without children. One assumes she had enough of both the factors she mentioned to go helium like into freedom.
Children, childbearing and mothering, somewhere down the line became an inconvenience to female ambition. Did it get vilified? Think of how the term ‘stay at home’ mom is used at times, with a sneering derision that implies atrophied brain cells and grown women speaking only in baby speak.
Betty Friedan in her seminal work, The Feminist Mystique, did in no way state that motherhood was an option subservient to a professional career for a woman. To quote her from an interview to Playboy, “Women are the people who give birth to children, and that is a necessary value in society….Feminism was not opposed to marriage and motherhood.” In The Politics of Reproduction, the philosopher Mary O’Brien states that an individual woman doesn’t need to give birth to identify with female reproduction, because “woman’s reproductive consciousness is culturally transmitted.”
But that didn’t stop the war cries for Beyonce’s scalp when she cited being a mother as her greatest accomplishment. Why didn’t she, they said, mention her awards for her music as amongst her greatest accomplishments.
Why does this happen? The reason is really very simple. We do not attach any value to the very real and important task of ‘mothering’ has no value attached to it culturally and in economic terms. In this age of leaning in, and pushing for more women at the top, are we forgetting about the woman who chooses to stay back at home with the kids, even when our procreative abilities are no longer the only thing that defines us?
Has feminism failed mothers who want to just mother?
When we got the pill back in the 1960s, we made ‘Biology is not destiny’ our war cry. But, almost sixty years later, here are we, still getting pregnant, still going on sabbaticals when are children are very young if we don’t have good child care support, or going back to work if we do and dealing with the humungous doses of self inflicted guilt in the confines of the cloakroom. What we perhaps forget in this is that Mother Nature after all, is a mother. She will not be denied.
My epiphany came when I had my son. All the important work that wouldn’t last a day without me around to supervise it meant nothing overnight. Two days before I was rolled into the operating room, catheterised and given anesthesia, I had been pitching my agency to a potential client, who was terrified at the real and tangible prospect of me breaking my water on their spit polished boardroom floor. Three days later, when they called to discuss taking us on, I was hooked up to an IV drip, a little ball of flesh swaddled tightly next to me, completely sideswiped by the oxytocin and uncaring of whether we got the account or not. I actually did forget to call them back. Psst, the oxytocin did wear off eventually and my itchy fingers got me right back to work albeit freelance. But at that moment, all that mattered to me was to keep this mewling parcel next to me, fed, sated and free of diaper rash. A younger me would have wept at how willingly I’d traded in my power suit for a feeding bra. I didn’t realise yet then that the two were not exclusive. It took me a good few years to figure that out.
Before I’d had my baby I’d arrogantly thought I was like Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born, her 1976 analysis of motherhood as both experience and institution, looking at her mother and saying, “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” How differently was I going to do it, I thought when I finally did marry and have my child? There was no wheel to reinvent. There was only a spectrum of choices, and I, being the glutton I was, wanted it all.
For all that I decried gender roles and the imposition of child care through patriarchal cultural systems, it had never occurred to me that I would voluntarily welcome being a full time carer to the offspring and give up any pretenses to a career while I was at it. Having hung up my advertising and journalistic boots, I became a mommy blogger, the term often used with snide condescension, to imply that there was nothing more worthy one could blog about. I willingly climbed into the mommy blogger box and closed the lid over myself. By owning motherhood I had it would seem, by tacit agreement, narrowed myself into a world view that only encompassed being wombs, milk producers and birth canals.
Wresting control of motherhood from the patriarchy is what empowers this generation of mothers who ‘choose’ to be mothers.
But there’s more. Wresting control of motherhood from the patriarchy is what empowers this generation of mothers who ‘choose’ to be mothers. It also is a signal that far from motherhood downgrading feminism, it has a right to be up there with other feminist issues on par in importance. After all, as feminist mothers, we are intensely invested in the world we leave behind for our children. Contemporary motherhood is a powerful movement by itself. And through its strength, it redefines the experience of mothers in consonance with the renegotiated world we must now mother in.