This week the Telegraph ran a piece that purported to ask the question “has motherhood ever been so political?” Beneath the obligatory “pregnant woman in boring, inexplicably tidy office” photo, Judith Woods outlined the hard choices faced by mothers in today’s deeply unequal society.
Few people realise, for instance, that when mothers choose to stay at home “it’s not about luxury”. Nor is it about not having a job, or only having one that’s too poorly paid to cover childcare expenses. According to Woods, for these mothers “it’s about replicating the secure, traditional upbringing they had”:
In the process, they forgo holidays abroad, avoid glossy magazines full of the latest fashions they can’t afford and drive battered cars worthy of Only Fools and Horses.
I know, I know, it’s heartbreaking. But don’t use up all the tissues — there’s worse to come:
I have one girlfriend who even held a small, slightly tongue-in-cheek ceremony in which she lit a candle and “made peace” with the avocado bathroom that she swore would be torn out when she and her husband moved into their terraced London home a decade ago.
Three children later, their house has doubled in value, they have no cash for anything as fancy as a power shower, never mind a full refurbishment. But their children never go without properly fitted school shoes, and somehow the fees for violin lessons are found.
Shattering. If I didn’t know those poor children were getting violin lessons already, I’d sell a kidney to pay for them (I guess I could always buy them a violin — perhaps the world’s smallest?).
I don’t mean to be entirely snarky here. Motherhood is political and Woods touches on what is perhaps the biggest issue faced by all mothers, regardless of their social status. Caring work is largely unpaid, yet parents and other carers have exactly the same needs as other workers. Moreover, most carers are expected to be — and indeed usually are — women. To my mind, this makes motherhood, alongside caring in general, a feminist concern. But avocado bathrooms? Not having a power shower? Is this really the best way to portray the problem?
I don’t doubt that an absence of “holidays abroad” and “the latest fashions” distress those who grow up to have certain expectations from life. For the majority of us, however, this is alienating. Moreover, as long as the challenges faced by mothers are portrayed in this way, all mothers will suffer. Mothers’ issues are dismissed as trivial, frivolous, self-centred witterings. Stay-at-home mothers in particular are seen to be cut off from “real life” concerns. The actual conditions of many mothers’ lives — poverty, depression, loneliness, discrimination, violence, stress, overwork — are overlooked.
In a society focused on paid work, motherhood creates isolation, and the media portrayal of the mother as privileged and inward-looking reinforces this. Mummy things – mummy blogger, mummy porn, mummy tummy – are considered cutesy, trivial and more than a little annoying. People still don’t want to listen to mummies. That’s why, in part, I think internet communities such as Mumsnet have flourished.
In the Mumsnet feminism survey 2013 40% of respondents described themselves as “more likely to think of themselves as feminists” since joining Mumsnet. 58% described themselves as “more likely to consider the feminist perspective on everyday issues,” 53% “more confident about expressing feminist viewpoints” and 55% “more confident about pointing out sexism”. I find this utterly heartening. After so much dismissal — that toxic mix of cold, hard discrimination plus all the sly little digs about cupcakes and Cath Kidston — more mothers are finding a voice. I’d count myself among them.
And then this morning the Guardian reported on the Mumsnet survey. While most of the comments I saw in my twitter feed were positive, there were several negative ones, reiterating all the usual mummy stereotypes and expressing dismay at how regressive mainstream feminism must be if mere mummies could be considered the vanguard. To those complaining, motherhood is an affliction of the upper-middle classes, therefore no one has to listen to mothers. To be honest, I doubt these people spend much time on Mumsnet. Their view of moaning mummies comes straight out of the Telegraph.
I’d seriously question whether those who write off strong, vocal communities of mothers should consider themselves feminists, let alone intersectional feminists. If you do not believe there should be space for the issues that concern most of the world’s unpaid carers, then your view of women’s experience is very limited indeed. Not all mothers are stay-at-home mothers (I’m not one). Not all carers are mothers. But all mothers have the right to make a contribution to feminism and to be viewed as individuals who might face other, intersecting disadvantages (which extend beyond having to put up with an avocado bathroom).
We should be glad that more mothers are finding a way to engage with feminism. If anything, the hostility they encounter shows just how much the movement needs them, not just to change the perspectives of others, but also its own.