Monthly Archives: March 2011

of sweets, englishness and campaigns

I was thinking of what to write yesterday while I was at the supermarket, when my muse came to visit in the shape of a tantrum.

What I find almost inevitable at the supermarket is that it takes always a little bit more time than what I expect, and it usually means that some kind of meal or snack time is looming. So here we are, it is ‘elevenses’, as the english call it, and the time that r. likes to have a snack, or even lunch. We are at the supermarket, rushing to get all the stuff I can in the least possible time, pushing the buggy with one hand, the basket dangerously balanced inside the buggy with more stuff than it is probably meant to take, and R. on my other arm (or alternatively running away). We finally get to the till, and the inevitable happens. R. spots the sweets that are packaged and placed strategically so adults and children get tempted at the last minute, while they wait. I am not against eating chocolates and sweets at all, but I do prefer to have some say over when and what it is, while I can, that is. That’s not the case here. And frequently, when she realises that we can’t buy all the bunnies, coloured eggs, marshmellows, the inevitable happens: tantrum at the till.

So what’s new, you are entitled to say. Well, I say, nothing. But that is the problem. People around me don’t really appreciate it, and I think it rather spoils it too, I would rather go without the sweating and flustered movements that come with this moment. So even if people are understanding, most would agree that it would be better if they didn’t have a screaming angry toddler in their face. So? The problem here could be easily avoided if these sweets/crisps/etc could be moved somewhere else.

As we are in England, and one thing that always strikes me, and yes, I find it sometimes hilarious, is that they have a society for EVERYTHING.  So I looked online and voila, a campaign to chuck snacks of the checkout (I quite like the excuses that supermarkets used to avoid doing this). The campaign comes framed with a lot of concern for healthy eating and such, but well, I think we can talk about that another time. For now let’s focus on the important: no screaming, less spending, less sweating, less clothes washing. Ta da!! I am well-inspired today, I say, fight the good fight.


Is childcare a love market?

Carol Vincent and Stephen Ball, 2001, A market in love? Choosing pre-school childcare, British Educational Research Journal, 27, 5, 633-651

This is a bit of an old article, and one which is tentative in that it is a first attempt at looking at a small and limited sample of data, but I liked what they were trying to do here, especially in view of my angst in terms of looking for childcare, and also because of comments that this post sparked in terms of the role of the state in childcare provision. This article explores the way that a group of mainly white middle class women made choices on childcare, and how they ‘operated the market’, in the UK. Most of these women paid for childcare, instead or in addition of using informal arrangements.

What Vincent and Ball show us is that in spite of these women being very good at working the market, by searching different providers, looking for information, getting reviews, going to visit the places and so on, these women did not have much control of the market-based relations that developed, and had to negotiate different tensions and trade-offs between their work, childcare and domestic responsibilities.

What struck me about this article is that it underlines a prominent feature here in the UK, which the article describes as an Anglo-American phenomenon: that childcare for children younger than 4 is considered mainly a private matter, not a public responsibility. This is different from other countries, such as Scandinavia, France, Belgium, and Australia. Families have to cope in their own ways, and have to pay for whatever they can afford for care. The state does not provide, or provides minimally, for this age group. Since this article was written, the state has become a bit more involved, at least in terms of inspections, and offering childcare vouchers and so on, but not much in terms of provision of care. But even if, or because of, this area is left to the market, women find they have to compromise on what they would like for childcare, as they haven’t got the ability, or power to really ‘choose’ the care they want to.

A very interesting part of the article deals with the compromises that women make at the moment of making choices for childcare. Cost, geographies of choice (location and distance of travel, places available, times available, etc), women’s type of work hours and flexibility allowed, different types of care arrangements, are all elements in a giant and fuzzy puzzle that women juggle in their everyday lives. These authors show that there are two key issues that relate to this compromise. They show that even if women manage the market well, they still are forced to accept situations that are not ideal. And that the dissatisfaction is fuelled by their unease about negotiating market-based relationships in search of care.

Women did not have much choice of manoeuvre between one provider or another. They show how it was more of a ‘work with what there is, and what it is’, rather than, as other studies suggest, a continuum of care, or co-ordinated care. That is, the situation was more one in which mothers had to compromise their ideals, or to leave. And women compromised more or less than others, and on different things.

The authors argue that because of this unease with market relations, women attempt to personalise, and bring the affective dimension of care to the forefront. As they show, for these women professionalism is not enough and warm relationships are vital. This is a part of the article that bugs me a bit. In their analysis, the authors highlight how this really is about a financial exchange, and how the other elements are part of a ‘necessary fiction’ that women and providers use to cover this core issue.

This bugs me not because I don’t agree that there is an element of market exchange, and that this brings discomfort and a strategy to bring out the affective, but because it feels like they are saying that the women do not understand this and live in fiction, and thus, for me, it feels dismissive.Secondly, I think that market relations are complicated and more than financial exchanges in any case, and more so in this case.

In spite of this matters, I find that this poses interesting questions: would women be more at ease with their childcare decisions were it not a market exchange? Would public provision, for instance, change the forms of childcare at their core? And thus, what role should the state play in childcare provision? Probably the answer to that would be to see what kind of alternative care, public care or cooperative there was, and if the care relationship would be more prominent in this type of care. I would argue that this would probably not be so clear cut, as childcare providers and workers are mostly under-paid, and probably choose this job in some part because it is something they enjoy doing (this does not justify the low pay, which I think should be part of the struggle for better care). Even so, the questions are good ones, especially at this point in time in the UK, where conservatism and forms of privatisation are rampant.

The next thing that struck is how this is an area where women are the main responsables, in two senses, for worrying, juggling and searching, and also in the sense of being responsible for it to work well. Women are the ones juggling, searching, making compromises, and men are in the background, even though these are, as some of them described, involved in many other areas of care and household tasks. This area was theirs.

It is exactly my case too. I do question myself why is it that I am the one that seems to worry most about childcare, searches options, and thinks of the different ways to combine things. Even though my partner comes to visit places, and was there to interview our nanny, and we talk about childcare decisions, I feel this is my responsibility. As the women in the article also state, there are many reasons for that: my flexibility in terms of my work, the relative less pay, the inconvenience in terms of times and distance for ones who those not work from home, etc, but for me the thing at the heart of this is something else: as much I sometimes fume about this being seemingly my burden, I would not like it if it weren’t. Do I care more than him about childcare? Probably not. But somehow it seems like I am the one that is annoyingly picky about it. Why is this? Not sure. Of course he does other things I don’t do, but it seems peculiar that this is something marked not only in our relationship, but is common and has been the most usual way in which it happens: women keep this matter into their hands. It would be interesting to read more about why this is the case: why is it a mother’s matter more than a dad’s matter? Or a shared one? A good feminist question.

Finally, an interesting point is held, when these authors show the ways that women talk about this process. The women in this study compromised somehow in the range between what would be for them ideal and what would be a horror story. These authors show how this middle ground is then maintained through ‘legitimation talk’, that is, narratives that contain very complex justificatory accounts and schemas, which are also underpinned by the rejection of other options. These authors comment how sometimes it is difficult to tell ‘preference’ from ‘necessity’, as there is a lot of emotional work going on, as these women also explain these choices to themselves through this talk.

I find this to be true, and part of the constant questioning that motherhood and parenthood brings: is this the right thing? Is my son/daughter happy? Could it be better? But also, I found, that this is something that many of my friends do, and probably I do too. For instance, sometimes I am a bit taken aback when something that I was told was great, and worked perfectly well, somehow falls apart. It is only then than some start to talk about their doubts, fears and negative experiences. I know it is hard to admit, to oneself first, but also to others, that one is not doing the best thing, but one that is OK, and works for the moment. I think that this area is one in which a bit more insight or openness might do mothers some good. This is what loads of blogs are great for, so there is something brewing definitely, but the competitiveness and tribalism is also rampant, so it is good to keep talking about this.

You read too much

 When I asked my mother which essential books about pregnancy and mothering mothers read when they were pregnant, she looked at me and frowned. She said that she never read any books about it. All she did was ask her mum for help and advice on most things and follow the doctor’s recommendations about feeding and sleeping, as long as they did not go against her instincts. So here I am, the living product of my mum’s intuition regarding the education, feeding and raising of healthy children.

A couple of years ago I told my mum that a friend of mine with a year-old toddler had started attending classes on “crianza natural” (rearing children naturally). My mum looked at me and laughed, saying “You are very complicated. If bringing up a child is a natural thing, why do you need to attend a course?” She is right. When it comes to raising our children we don’t rely on our feelings and emotions any more. I’m not saying that checking and revising is wrong, but giving a great deal of importance to other people’s opinions might affect our capacity to listen to our son/daughter. In this process of reading and looking for the best advice we lose our spontaneity, our connection with our own children and our awareness of the process we are living through.

However, I confess that when E. was little I read a lot, especially about babies’ sleeping, as he was a dreadful sleeper and we would spend hours trying to put him down in his cot again after feeding him at night. However, after reading many books, talking to friends, blogging in Spanish and English on how to get your baby to sleep and some eventual crying out of tiredness and desperation, the only thing that worked in the end was patience and the sense that I was doing my best. Whenever I’ve tried to follow instructions in a book I’ve just got nervous, so I’ve ended up adapting bits and pieces from here and there to make them fit my current situation. In fact, I did just what my mum suggested, but I managed to make it look like a very thoughtful and sophisticated process coming out of a new theory of bonding and attachment. My mum has never commented on this, but I’m sure she’s still laughing at it.

Sometimes I think that all those hours spent reading and searching through Internet blogs and forums would have been more usefully spent with another mum beside me to give me a great big hug and tell me: “This will pass: do what you think best for you and E.: and for God sake, stop reading!”



 Marotta, Martha: “MotherSpace: Disciplining through the Material and Discursive”, in Hardy, Sarah and Wiedmer, Caroline (eds) Motherhood and the Space, Palgrave, New York, 2005, pp. 15-33.

In this article Marotta brings to our attention how built spaces and discourses interact in the field of mothering. Following Foucault, she argues: 

“Contemporary material and discursive spaces of Western mothers reveal the links among the powers, practices, and subjects that discipline mothers to the point of tyrannizing them” (p. 15).

 She highlights how spaces are political in a material sense in that the way we organize them, the activities we perform in them and how we live and move in them reveal discourses and messages about what is appropriate for mothers to do and which spaces mothers belong in. As Marotta puts it, mothers are controlled and subjugated not just by experts’ advice and opinions but also by discourses about what they should and should not do in a space exclusively allocated to them:

“For mothers, material space is arranged in such a way that their presence or absence is immediately visible. Discursive space is organized so that if children are unruly or engage in risky behaviours, mothers are criticized for being absent and blamed if anything goes wrong.” (p. 19)

 Marotta, however, establishes certain assumptions that I don’t completely share. In a first place, she assumes that:

“Most mothers still are not able to be equal participants in the public world since the role of the mother-caregiver continues to put limits on their public presence. That is, as long as mothers are relegated to certain built or material spaces that keep them, except for a few hours a day, at home or with children, motherhood will continue to pose a problem for the equality of women.” (p. 21)

I think it’s the other way around. As long as society doesn’t find a way to accord value and recognition to the mother-caregiver role, women will be relegated and discriminated against worldwide.

Second, housework carries negative connotations for Marotta. For example, she says:

 “Confining mothers to the kitchen not only keeps them home but keeps them on tasks attending to children. The limits on their movements also limit their identity” ( p. 22).

This is true, but doesn’t it also mean that their identity is based on this? It might be part of a couple’s agreement for some years; it might be a joy; it might be a way to survive in certain places in the world or how some cultures distribute work amongst their members – and women may be quite happy about it. I believe that by adding more negativity to the place that most of the women in the world occupy – and I’m not thinking just about white middle-class Europeans but also about women in Asia, Africa or Latin America – will not solve the problem. More to the point, how are we going to persuade men to occupy a space that is culturally and socially devaluated?

Third, it seems to me that most of Marotha’s effort is directed at highlighting the fact that women are not able to work or successfully participate in the public space because home, as a material and political space, isrestricting their movements. Marotta says that changes are needed:

“to redefine “good” workers so that mothers are not penalized in their job space, and changes in the culture and practice of home to redefine “good mothers” so that mothers are not penalized in their home space. These may include reasonable and flexible working hours, as well as more sharing of chores and tasks at home.” (p. 30)

I totally agree. However, overall what I’m missing in Marotta’s approach is the other side of the coin: how can we turn the devaluated and degraded home space into a political and material space that generates the support, solidarity and a sense of dignity that we as parents need to bring our children up in?


Madres y memoria

Ayer fueron 35 años del golpe militar en la Argentina, día que se convirtió recientemente en el día de la memoria.

Me gustaría entonces hacer memoria. Y ya que acá hablamos de feminismo y maternidad, me parece inevitable hablar de un grupo de madres, valientes y luchadores, en un momento oscuro de la historia argentina: las madres de plaza de mayo. Porque esas madres, por ser mujeres y madres, no fueron consideradas una amenaza al régimen, pero sin embargo, formaron parte de uno de sus más poderosos desafíos. Del dolor y la incertidumbre de la desaparición de sus hijos, de la rabia, nace uno de los movimientos sociales más potentes de la Argentina.

Estas mujeres lograron idear un brillante y, ahora icónico, sistema de protesta. La forma que encontraron fue la de construir su identidad a través de usar un pañuelo blanco en la cabeza, e ir de dos en dos alrededor de la pirámide de Plaza de Mayo. De esta manera evitaban la prohibición de reuniones grupales, así como también la sospecha de estar parados mucho tiempo en un lugar público. Con movimiento, rituales, y formas de identificación, fueron lentamente creando un espacio de protesta en un momento y lugar en que era peligroso hacerlo. Y así fueron creando un poderoso movimiento social que lucha por los derechos humanos, que termino siendo clave en términos de crear lazos locales, nacionales e internacionales, dar a conocer la situación en la Argentina, recuperar en lo posible la información del paradero de sus hijos, así como hasta el día de hoy son un grupo clave en la lucha por la memoria, y por recuperar la identidad de los nietos que fueron robados.

Así que desde acá, lejos, brindo por esas madres, y por la memoria.

The materials of mothering

Boyer, Kate and Boswell-Penc-, Maia, 2010, Breast pumps. A feminist technology, or (yet) “More Work for Mother”? In Layne, Linda, Vostral, Sharra and Boyer, Kate (eds.) Feminist Technology, University of Ilinois Press, 119-135. (Women, Gender, and Technology)

Boyer and Boswell-Penc enquire in this chapter whether breast pumps can be considered a feminist technology. I find this article interesting in that it focuses on one example of the stuff, that is,  the materiality, which makes up modern motherhood and examines what roles this technology play, what does it enable, and what are the risks that it brings, through analysing  the cultural context of its emergence but also by analysing its use in practice.

Their work focuses on the use of breast pumps in the waged workforce in the US, one of the countries where women have less maternity leave in the world. One of the questions which frames this study is understanding if the breast pump is a feminist technology or if it is it another device which, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) argues, creates ‘more work for mother’, as many other so-called labour-saving devices.

In this chapter they look at the cultural context in which the breast pump emerged – a time (60s-70s) where there was growing awareness and advocacy for the benefits of breast milk over formula, and a moment when higher number of women were returning to the waged workforce. The latter practice was due to different reasons ranging from economic restructuring, the need for double wages, and the fact that women were occupying better managerial positions. They describe how, in the 1990s, the technology evolved to be lighter, portable and cheaper, and jumped from being mainly hospital-based, to being available for retail.  

The argument for it being a feminist technology stems from the way that using this technology allows more mobility, more temporal and spatial freedom to the mother. The breast pump can bring a much needed break for mothers and it allows for mothers to break the cyclic time loop that new mothers who breastfeed are in – the two hour window to do things!- as well as the necessary proximity to the child. It also expands the choices that women have in terms of infant nutrition, as well as serve other important purposes, such as relieve engorgement in mothers who choose not to breastfeed, and help initiate breastfeeding for mothers who adopted an infant. Moreover, its use in waged workplaces could help push the boundaries of the private/public, by bringing to work an activity normally done in the privacy of the home.

However, these authors point out that much of its liberatory potential in terms of waged work is constrained by attitudes about pumping (and general lactation), issues about the technology, workplace design and the politics around actual pumping. Breast pumps, thus, have to be understood within its actual use, which is something that these authors delve into. They show how attitudes to pumping at work make women who pump, as well as the breast milk itself, feel ‘out of place’. The strong feelings that breast milk brings out is seen, for example,  in the case where women were fired for leaving their breast milk stored in the communal fridge. For women who pumped at work, the search for privacy and the sense of embarrassment around pumping, made them look for different strategies that would allow them not to be seen or heard (electric breasts pumps can be very noisy!), such as going to feed to the car, in the medical centre, in an unused office/conference room. Other constrains also include finding the time for it, as often employers do not structure extra breaks for this. What this shows is that the responsibility of finding a place and a time for this activity is down to the individual. Moreover, it highlights the reasons for the uneven distribution of its use, in terms of class especially, as the possibility of having this extra space and time is most likely to be in middle income jobs, rather than low income ones.

Furthermore, these authors also highlight some of the risks that this technology can bring to feminist struggles. By providing a technical and individualised fix to the question of how to combine lactation with work, it might keep employers off the hook in terms of providing other, and maybe better, alternatives. In addition, as these authors show, this technology has something in common with other technologies, such as communication technologies, in that they give more mobility, more spatial and temporal freedom, but it also raises the expectations of what can be done. The authors show that as much as this technology increases choices and provides flexibility, there is a risk that it could be used against efforts for longer maternity leave or on-site care, for instance.

What I found fascinating is that this article makes me think about the different things that make up the practices of mothering, and how each of these things are performative in more than their utilitarian sense. They work to highlight questions of race and class, as it has been shown in this article. I would say that things and technologies also play a role in identity formation, as they act as markers of inclusion in certain groups. In a sense, I think that they are also part of the ways of evaluating a mother’s performance – I am thinking here of the pressure I felt the first times I tried to put up or down the buggy in public, for instance!

We are surrounded by stuff in our practices as mothers: buggies, breasts pads, sterilisers, cots, nappies, dummies, bottles, special clothes for breastfeeding, high chairs, car seats. And the list can go on and on. Leaving out the stuff of motherhood would impoverish our understanding of the politics of motherhood/parenthood, which is why I find what these authors do, that is, questioning the theoretical possibilities but also the complexities that seeing and thinking these technologies and things in practice bring about, is a crucial exercise.

Women in academia

I was reading this article, ‘Gains, and Drawbacks, for Female Professors’, by Kate Zernike in the New York times,  sent to the radical geographer’s list, and straight after that I read Natalia’s review. It was inevitable that I talked about this, you see.

This article tells the story of gender progressive change in the School of Science of MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It shows the attempts at overcoming gender inequalities, but also, how this brought about a different set of thorny issues.

This is the story. The starting point for this change was women who were fed up with the situation, who reached out to other women. This wasn’t particularly difficult, as the article points out, because there were only 15 women with tenure, compared to 197 men.

I love the way they set up to prove this inequality:

Women undergraduates outnumbered men in some departments, but the percentage of women on the faculty had remained relatively flat for 20 years. The school had never had a woman in any position of leadership. [..] The women gathered more data — crawling on the floor with tape measures to compare lab space for men and for women. They took their concerns to the dean, Robert J. Birgeneau, who did his own study, which backed up the women’s conclusions that there were wide disparities in salary and resources and a general marginalization of women.

And this is the university’s president wise conclusion, an admittance which created waves in other universities. 

 “I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception,” the university’s president, Charles M. Vest, wrote in the 1999 report. “True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance.”

Satisfying to hear it admitted like this, isn’t it? It kind of makes me want to get my tape measure out…

So what happened? After 10  years of gender progressive policies, there was impressive change. The numbers of female faculty nearly doubled, there are now many women in positions of power (president, deans and department heads). It has become very family friendly, as the university provides a pause for a year in the tenure clock, and everyone gets a term-long leave after the arrival of a child. There is day care on campus and subsidies for child care while travelling on business, and  ‘inequities in salaries, resources, lab space and teaching loads have largely been eliminated.’

But. There is always a but…

  • One of the main concerns is that because of this aggressive push to hire more women, and to include more women, there is an impression that women are given an unfair advantage, when actually this is not the case, as nobody is hired without at least 15 (!) recommendations outside MIT, as the article states. But women undergraduates keep asking for advice on how to handle the ‘you are just here because you are a women’ kind of remark.
  • Because the rule is that women have to be present at every committee, and there are still less women in the faculty, a lot of their time is taken in this bureaucratic work, in detriment of their research time.
  • Even with generous family policies, which meant that families are now the norm, parenthood remained a women’s issue, rather than a family one, and women, not men, are often invited to speak about their work-life balance. Moreover, men use family time to do outside work, which increases professional inequalities. 
  • Stereotypes about women remain: there is an acceptable range of behaviour for women, which women describe as not too aggressive, but not too soft either. And biases are found in letters of recommendation for tenure, which for men tend to focus on intellect while women’s tend to dwell on temperament.

Because of this progress, the faculty now struggles to accommodate two career couples, while ten years ago, women with tenure ‘tended to be married only to their careers’.

I find this story fascinating. To see what can be achieved when you really go for change. It is impressive. And how, as always, new things come up, or as it turns out, some things that were good in principle, such as women participating in committees, turned into burdens and a new source of inequalities. But it also shows how change has to be wider than what can be done at one faculty or university. As one of the professors there states:  

‘The more fundamental issues are societal, and M.I.T. can’t solve them on its own’.

True, oh so true. But there is no changing things unless small/big changes take place. So hurray for this.