Motherhood, Feminism, and More

When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.

– Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012)

Some time ago Molly at First the Egg did a series of posts about the book Of Woman Born. This book is an excellent feminist classic that at the time during which I read it helped to clarify for me that it is the “institutional” elements of motherhood that I sometimes find so oppressive and binding—it isn’t the children themselves, in the climate of motherhood in which I find myself.

Several years ago I also read Fruitful, by Anne Roiphe. The subtitle is Living the Contradictions : A Memoir of Modern Motherhood. Like Of Woman Born, it was written before the more recent wave of “momoirs” (that is a kind of dismissive term, but it does help me classify the genre) and focuses heavily on feminism and its relationship to mothers/motherhood (so, different from momoirs in that the focus is less on personal experience of motherhood and more on motherhood and its social/cultural/political connections, I suppose). Fruitful is less “heavy” and depressing than Of Woman Born. The focus of the book is on the tension between feminism and motherhood (i.e. can you be a “good” feminist and also be a “good” mother) and she explores that issue throughout. Roiphe is a feminist and yet critiques some elements of the movement’s impact on mothers and motherhood. She is also very pro-father and I appreciated her exploration of men/fathers as people vs. “evil patriarchy—down with them!”

This is a quote about the crux of the mother/feminist issue: “Motherhood by definition requires tending of the other, a sacrifice of self-wishes for the needs of a helpless, hapless human being, and feminism by definition insists on attention being paid to the self. The basic contradiction is not simply the nasty work of a sexist society. It is the lay of the land, the mother of all paradoxes, the irony we cannot bend with mere wishing or might of will.

This reminds me of my journal entry from my early months as a new mother—“is it possible to balance motherhood with person-hood?” I’m still figuring it out! (some days it seems to work, some days it really doesn’t!)

During the time in which I read Fruitful, I also read The Mommy Wars. I almost didn’t read it because I was worried that it would be excessively harsh or inflammatory and I don’t need to bring things like that into my life. However, it seemed truly supportive of women/mothers. It was a collection of essays by various authors (alternating between those who have chosen to be mostly at home and those who have chosen to be mostly pursuing careers) and it quickly became clear that the most real “mommy war” that most of us experience is the one inside of our own heads. There seems to be no ideal/perfect solution. I also noticed that many of the women (including the editor of the collection) had cobbled together some sort of “balance” between working-outside-of-the-home and working inside it–there were lots of part-timers, lots of WAHMs, lots of writer-in-the-spare-minutes, etc. Since I’ve done the same, I particularly identified with those tales of struggle to discover the right balance for your family.

The first quote I wanted to share from this book is with regard to being asked “what do you do?” at a cocktail party: “I find it odd that I’d generate far more interest if I said I raised dogs or horse or chinchillas, but saying, in effect, ‘I raise human beings’ is a huge yawn...It might, in fact, be boring if child care were simply a series of pink-collar tasks–bathe, dress, feed, repeat. But observing and participating in a little Homo Sapien’s development is fascinating to me. Furthermore, being a mother isn’t just a ‘job’ any more than being a wife or a daughter; it’s a relationship.” [emphasis mine and in total agreement with this]

Then in another writer’s essay (the above was from one of the SAHM, the below is from one of the WOHM) came this interesting observation:

I remember reading once that all manner of selfishness is excused under the banner of focusing on one’s family, and it strikes me now as penetratingly true. How many of us don’t do for others because we’re supposedly saving it for our families? and how valuable is staying at home if you’re not teaching your children how much other people (and their feelings) matter?

In another book I have, The Paradox of Natural Mothering, she refers to the “family first” mentality as a type of narcissism and I do see the point.

I also wanted to share some quotes from an essay by a woman who does not yet have children, but is planning to, with regard to talking to mothers who shut down her opinions/thoughts with the, “what could you know? You don’t have children” brush-off. (Which, I personally, have definitely been guilty of thinking on more than one occasion! And, actually did so while reading this essay!):

I want to be able to say that all the judgment and aggression and competitiveness I witness among working and stay-at-home mothers surprises me and absolutely must change. But that wouldn’t be honest. I’ve been party to this one-upping and henpecking and know-it-all-ness my entire life. It’s as if becoming a mother puts us back into a sorority or junior high school, into some petri dish of experience where what other females think and say and feel and do counts more than anything.

The one thing my stay-at-home and working-mom friends share in the country of motherhood is a superiority gene, some may call it a gift of vision, that convinces them that women who don’t have children are, despite their educations and accomplishments, dumb as doorknobs. I’ve sat through many a heated conversation…during which I’ve been silly enough to offer an opinion only to be shut down more condescendingly and viciously by wise Goddess Mothers than I ever have been shut down by any man.

FWIW, I would not call this a “superiority gene” or “gift of vision,” but a “voice of experience”…I think most of us have been in the position of ourselves being the “just doesn’t get it” woman without kids! And, after you have kids of your own, you suddenly realize why “those mothers” were condescending to you.

On a somewhat related subject, I also enjoyed this post by Dreaming Aloud about the silencing of mama anger.

6 thoughts on “Motherhood, Feminism, and More

  1. This was a great post and I have several points I want to respond to! 🙂

    1) I think the crux of the feminist/motherhood paradox is that we still primarily think of *motherhood* as an act of sacrifice instead of *parenting* as an act of sacrifice. The truth is that to be a good parent you must give up parts of yourself. Even though I’m the primary caregiver and have sacrificed some aspects of my career my husband has sacrificed *equally but differently*. This is a growing reality but has not always been the way parenting is balanced. I think the only way to reconcile motherhood and feminism is to recognize that we MUST include men’s roles in the discussion and start to look at how we view *parenting* instead of *motherhood*. (I’m using the * to cap the words since I can’t italicize or bold in a comment.)

    2) I have a post in my drafts folder about motherhood as job/relationship. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s both. Just like at work I have jobs and relationships- co-worker, employee and teacher are all relationships I have while the minutiae is my job. My home life is the same (but even more so and with more emphasis on the relationship than the job). For example, it is my JOB (ie: responsibility) to feed my kids. However, because motherhood is not just a job but also a relationship I also care if they enjoy the food and are nourished and energized by it.

    3) I think that for some people it is a “superiority gene” but that it cuts both ways. Some women without children also suffer from this. I think the difference between superiority and experience is whether or not the opinion/advice is offered as an alternative point of view or as a way to *dismiss* the other person’s POV.

    I didn’t mean to make my comment nearly as long as your post but it’s such a fantastic topic I couldn’t help but chime in! 🙂

    • Great thoughts, Hope! This was one of those posts that was a bunch of stuff I’d been saving to post about, but hadn’t because I didn’t have time to really *explore* all of the ideas, just share the quotes. I agree that we need to talk about *parenthood* and feminism.

      Re: motherhood as a job. It FEELS like a relationship, not like a job to me, but the irony is that tasks related to the relationship fill most of my waking hours and absorb a lot of my energy and then I’m left wondering why I don’t have “enough time” for everything! 😉

    • And, yes, there does exist a superiority gene. And, probably all of us have some touch of it! When I read that quote though, I immediately thought of times in my pre-motherhood life when I felt dismissed or marginalized by women who were mothers AND how after I had my own kids suddenly I “got it” and realized they hadn’t really been off base in dismissing me after all and that, in fact, it was more likely that *I* had been naive and possibly a bit assholish.

      • I definitely have those memories as well and think I didn’t “get it” about many things which experience has changed. But I also have a memory from my children’s literature class in college when I was objecting to censorship when several of the parents in the class completely dismissed my thoughts- as in they initially responded that I’d change my mind when I was a parent and then completely ignored anything else I had to say! They collectively decided that no argument I could make had any validity because I was not a parent. It infuriated me- and I think rightly so. (And as a parent I have most definitely NOT changed my views on censorship.) That’s what I was referring to with the superiority gene.

      • I have a similar memory about talking about homeschooling (with non-homeschoolers). I was objecting to tv ads that portray back to school as this delightful time…for parents (kids walking behind miserably while “it’s the most wonderful time of the year” song plays and parent is skipping down aisles. I think it was a Staples ad?) I still think that is a horrible ad even though I have a better understanding now of the need for “a break.”

        As a young person, I also have had people be very condescending to me about the difficulties of marriage–in a way that never came true for me.

        However, I also plead guilty to thinking dismissively sometimes about the patenting “philosophies” of those who only have one infant!

  2. Pingback: Non-Advice Books for Mothers | Talk Birth

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