What is feminist mothering for me? What needs to be done?

One of the things that inspired this post was Blue Milk’s questions on feminist mothering. The answers to these questions by different people are incredibly inspiriring, and thought-provoking, so go have a peak. These questions resonated with ones I have had in my head since well before r. was born, but which acquired a different intensity and importance since she’s been with us.

Beware: it is long!

I am a feminist, and I am a mother. Inevitably, my feminism is formed by my motherhood, and my motherhood by my feminism. But, if pressed, I find it quite hard to define what my feminism is about, just as I find impossible to define my motherhood. My feminism gets done and thought through differently, in different practices, events and experiences. The same goes for my motherhood. I can easily say that I have always supported the basic tenets of feminist struggles for equal rights and opportunities for women in different areas. This slowly evolved from a position of not much aware of this as feminism, to identifying comfortably with the term feminism. In terms of mothering, being aware, for instance, of gender constructions/constrictions and its practice in the gendering of clothes, toys and activities; the sexualisation of children, especially little girls; body image and food issues; corporate practices in terms of marketing of formula milk, or advertising, all make me think carefully about the ways in which I/we parent. Being a feminist mother means for me thinking and picking at these issues, trying to find ways of working through them, more than having a clear solution, or blueprint for raising feminist children, and for being a feminist mother. It also informs the different forms of political practices that I get involved in.

Before I had my daughter, I knew that her arrival will change everything, that we will be affected in different ways; that our lives would change. In this sense, I was somehow prepared. I just did not know how, where, what, and especially I did not know how strongly it would feel. Little things, right? One of the things that most struck me as I became a mother is the force, the sheer strength of the feelings, of the ways that motherhood affected me, affected my priorities, my views, my fights, as well as the sense of satisfaction and joy I got out of it (which obviously does not mean that things are always lovely and rosy – the levels of tiredness my body resists amaze me, as well as the levels of patience required, which are not always forthcoming). I embraced motherhood, and allowed myself the time and space to enjoy it, and was lucky enough to be able to do it, and to be supported in the process. But it is here that I feel more work needs to be done, and a different vocabulary created.

Becoming a mother is done through a particularly powerful relation, which deeply affects our relations to others, but also to ourselves. This particular relationship is demanding in many ways, from a person that is totally dependent on others, especially the mother. OK, so my needs at times, many times, took the backstage, my time was interrupted and my presence and nurturing needed. I did not have time for anything. But I think that this, though very hard at times, is not a model for a lifetime. Motherhood is a trajectory. The first years necessarily mean for me, a more intense, time-consuming, relation with my child, where I was indispensable. Breastfeeding a baby, for instance, means that it is inevitably the mother who is needed, who needs to be present (though pumping has complicated and extended the ways of being present), who needs to put the body, who find her time interrupted by other’s needs and timings. I personally felt this was a challenge, but also felt I wanted to do this. Not to listen to this desire, not to let go and follow the flow, not to allow the different temporality, and forms of (not very well recognised) ‘productivity’ of this time, especially the first months, and even year, demanded for me, would have been a struggle. I allowed myself (and was lucky enough to be able to) to do this. I think that this did not mean I was submissive, or a traitor to feminist values. But many times it is framed in this terms, or felt this way. This, for me, is a crucial aspect of mothering which has been in conflict with much feminist thought.I think this has to do with independency being such a fight for women, for the conditions that women had to live in/with for so long (and still are). However, I think that this focus can be damaging too, especially in terms of mothering. Why are we so afraid of dependency? Or more to the point, why can’t we find ways of nurturing and supporting our interdependence in ways that do not push us towards a binary? 

The problem for me was the lack of support from wider society for this task. For me, in this sense, this difference is one to be valued, and of course, this means to create support networks to make this possible. This obviously is not what is out there now. Because of this, motherhood can be isolating and also it turns into a great burden and demand for individual women. The wider societal responsibility for children, has swiftly been turned into an individual problem. Here it is where I think that the personal is political can be important, realising that this is not only an individual problem, your failing that ‘balance’ never seems to be achieved. Many times, this is felt this way, framed this way – hello mother bashing, I’m talking to you. Also the whole constructions of parenting tribes – the media frenzy, but also the practices – is part of this wider individualisation of the problem, and the understanding of parenting in terms of choice. As individuals we are not the problem and cannot change the problem. So I think there is a feminist fight here, to work to do for mothers to feel valuable, respected and for looking after the children to be though as important, and worthy, for its difference to be part of a richer society and richer notion and experience of public space. The fight for this is for me part of my feminist mothering.

One of the issues that complicate this is that feminist struggles for equality sometimes leave out the need for fighting for spaces for difference. Feminism struggles have concentrated a lot on achieving equality, but sometimes this has meant accepting traditionally ‘male’ terms of success and of value. In a way, the female experience of motherhood disrupts this and is many times in friction with these imperatives. To think of feminist mothering has meant a lot of the times the fight for women to be able to work, to return to work, maternity leave, which are all amazing results of feminist struggles. However, I feel more work needs to be done in terms of valuing the work of mothering – and thus putting money, policies, and translating these into actual practices, which means changing very stubborn values and the relations that support them. Though much feminist thinking has been done in terms of trying to tackle this sticky issue, a lot of it uses approaches that I think are limiting. Many of the things I read resonate in one way or the other, but I feel much of it still uses binary thinking, for instance in terms of mother needs vs baby’s needs, power vs submission, production and reproduction, dialectical thinking. I think this way of thinking about mothering produces and frames issues in ways that can be useful for certain strategic political struggles, but that leave too much out for it to be valuable to create other, alternative types of politics. I would like to see different approaches that reflect more on the ambiguities, the non-coherence, on spaces for difference, than what these framings allow. Furthermore, I would love feminism to tackle full-on the issue of motherhood, as a female experience. This is tricky because of the long history of different forms of oppressive types of motherhood, and also of falling into essentialism. But can we find ways of thinking this particular and powerful relation that is motherhood? Can we find ways of valuing this particular female experience without falling into essentialism or oppressive and moralising notion of motherhood? Can we find spaces for difference? I think this is something that is taking place in different ways, and one which as a feminist mother, I would like to contribute.



One response to “What is feminist mothering for me? What needs to be done?

  1. Pingback: Great new blog: maternalselves « blue milk

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