As a parent, with five full years of parenting experience behind me, I’ve come to hate one thing in particular: people who refer to being a parent as though it offers them some divine insight into the meaning of life. “As a parent …”, they will begin, before going on to tell you how the arrival of Jake and Isabella totally changed their worldview, finally making them aware of what really matters. These people don’t mean to suggest that non-parents are inferior, but they do so anyhow. In addition to this, they make all other parents feel crap, since if we don’t agree with their “as a parent” positions, this somehow suggests we’re not doing enough to rise to the parenthood challenge. It drives me mad, this fake parental insight; just the sight of one Calpol “if you’ve got kids you’ll understand” slogan is enough to have me spitting feathers (as if non-parents are incapable of understanding that giving kids pain relief might mean they’ll be in less pain). Yes, I’m a sodding parent, but I don’t need this constant ego-stroking. Give me cheaper childcare and I’m happy.
Parenthood is life-changing, but the impact is not without its limits. This applies even to motherhood. We can debate whether or not motherhood itself counts as “an identity” (both Lynn C Schreiber and Claire Kirkpatrick write interesting posts on this), but it does not rob you of all the beliefs and principles that you might have had before. For instance, if you are a feminist before you have children, you’re unlikely to renounce feminism afterwards. Your perception of what feminism means might change – and your experience of sexism will – but to me, the idea that feminism and motherhood are in some way incompatible or have always experienced a troubled relationship does not ring true. Feminism has long had a strong focus on mothers because while women are disadvantaged before they become parents, they also are disadvantaged if and when they become parents. What’s more, they are disadvantaged because when those who identify as women become parents they become mothers and not fathers (and this particular disadvantage still has an impact on women who choose not to reproduce, due to assumptions made about what they could and should potentially do with their lives).
The Feminine Mystique and The Women’s Room explore in painful detail just how much assumptions about motherhood can destroy the lives of even the most advantaged women. Campaigns for free childcare were a significant feature of second-wave feminism. Much of this is now misrepresented as feminists simply not liking motherhood and wanting to erase the experience from privileged women’s lives. Yet feminism has also engaged with the need to reward domestic labour and make others understand that what women who “don’t work” (as in “don’t earn”) do has a social and economic value. As a feminist who is a mother, it frustrates me when feminists who aren’t mothers or mothers who aren’t feminists claim there is some unbridgeable gap. We live in a society which appreciates neither the physical demands placed on those who have a female reproductive system (hence dismissive attitudes towards abortion) nor the psychological and financial pressures placed on female parents in particular. And yes, the Daily Mail would blame feminism for the latter, trotting out endless clichés relating to how all we need to do is “value” motherhood once more (and by “value” what’s meant tends to be a pat on the head or at most a tax break for the head of the household, as opposed to any genuine reward). I don’t blame feminism, though, although now and then, I do blame the odd feminist for falling for this myth.
In response to Netmums’ ridiculous FeMEnism survey, the Vagenda editors have written a piece explaining that “motherhood is anything but passive”. They have hit upon this rare gem of wisdom not from the simple fact that the world is chock-full of mothers who aren’t passive – pretty much everyone has, at one time or another, had one – but from Amma, “an Indian spiritual leader who uses the act of embracing people to bring women to the fore”. I am not what you would call a spiritual person and I will be honest – I do struggle not to take the piss out of things like this from the word go (especially when the Vagenda editors note that “apparently Amma has hugged over 32 million people worldwide, and, considering the furore over our last New Statesman article, we are in desperate need of a cuddle”. Rather than a cuddle, I’d recommend a fruitful, open engagement with feminists such as Flavia Dzodan, but I guess that’s just the materialist in me). Anyhow, I tried not to be cynical but then I came to this:
Motherhood has always been a sticky issue for feminists. A recent Netmums study claimed that women of child-bearing age are rejecting the “feminist” label in part because of a perceived lack of respect for the mothering role. This is something that Amma appears to agree with. As she throws her arms around her followers, she talks to us briefly about her interpretation of womanhood. While Amma firmly believes in gender equality [...] she expresses frustration at the idea that, in gaining rights, women have lost much of the respect that should be afforded to motherhood. It is motherhood, after all, that “sustains the world”. [...] Particularly Amma says that, in the struggle for equality, “women should be careful not to develop an inferiority complex. That can kill their spirit, their courage, and their strength.”
It does seem to me relevant to point out that Amma is not a biological or adoptive mother herself. She is “is considered a mother to everyone, actively seeking out those in need of embracing and bringing what she considers to be “divine love” to them through the power of her own affection”. Hence she is a metaphorical mother, which is fuck all like being an actual, real, live, vomit-and-snot-smeared, guilt-ridden, compromised mother with real, live little people who don’t sod off and leave you in peace once you’ve given them their “spiritual” cuddle and words of wisdom. Real, live mothers often find it hard to offer “divine love” when they’re dealing, not with followers, but with self-centred toddlers who just don’t yet know how the world works. Being a real mother is rather less impressive than being a spiritual leader but we tend to muddle along, although not merely thanks to “the power of [our] own affection”. Hugs are good – I give them lots, too – but I bet Amma never finds herself resorting to behaviour charts or naughty steps (name me a spiritual leader who hands out Peppa Pig stickers for good behaviour and I’ll follow him or her in a heartbeat).
The Vagenda editors go on to offer the following musings:
It’s possible that the reason motherhood has lost its social reverence is tied up in the idea of female passivity. Yet here, in the centre of the gigantic hall, as we wait to be hugged by her, Amma seems anything but passive. She is not domineering, and yet she appears to hold an undeniable presence that demands respect. Perhaps the contrasting proactivity of the Amma phenomenon – and its resounding success amongst the world populace – speaks of a forthcoming change in perception. Everyone who’s been a mother knows that it’s certainly an active job, and that demonstrating a mother’s love is an active process (hence why, like many natural mothers, she only sleeps three hours a night).
Perhaps, “like many natural mothers”, I am just sleep-deprived but I find this passage baffling. I don’t see any liberation in being told that “demonstrating a mother’s love is an active process” – what is the difference between this and fatherhood? And if there is a difference, why does it exist? What boundaries should we set and what support should we offer? As a mother, I don’t want to hold a “presence that demands respect”. I find this patronizing and meaningless. And above all, here’s a sentence that really strikes fear into my motherly heart:
Amma seems to practice equality in everything that she does, yet always on a foundation of the “feminine virtues” of compassion and nurturing.
No, no, no! The very expectation that mothers should have superhuman “feminine virtues” of compassion and nurturing – virtues which we all possess, but not in limitless amounts – is what’s oppressive. I mean, seriously. Give mothers a break. They do enough hugging and nurturing and whatnot to begin with. Stop paying lip-service to it and start ensuring that they’re not longer doing it at such great cost to themselves. Language like this is a cop-out and ensures existing inequalities remain ingrained (it’s easy to say nurturing is women’s work, far harder – and far more obviously offensive – to link it to what this actually means in terms of hard, unpaid graft).
The Vagenda piece ends on with following observation:
Being mother to everyone must be a difficult task – but of course, even those with fewer than seven billion in their brood are worthy of society’s deep respect.
Well, as a mother, allow me to say: I’m not. I am neither worthy of or not want “society’s deep respect”, and that’s not just because I only have 3.5 billionth as many children as Amma (although I bet mine are the most annoying). I don’t want respect, certainly not when what it really leads to are ongoing imbalances in domestic labour distribution. I want feminism, I want equality, I want parents to be able to choose for themselves. And yes, if we’re really getting into it, I want Peppa Pig stickers, too.