Almost three years ago blue milk posted “What does a feminist mother look like?”. She flung ten questions on feminist motherhood out into the blogosphere and ever since mothers have been answering. There is a mountain of answers, both short and long, impassioned and uncertain. So many little windows into the lives and minds of other mothers. On face value it seems a simple thing, ten questions, like a chain email that you can answer in a bored moment, or one of those magazine quizzes that slot you into one of three categories of girlfriend/shopper/lover/mental health diagnosis, and when I first read the post a couple of months ago I was all set to slap down my answers, fingers hovering over the keyboard, half-drunk mug of tea at the ready. But nothing came out. It wasn’t so simple. A great big jumble of words just sort of clumped up on the other side of the door to my mind. Like a huge and awkward social event where no-one really knows anyone else and there’s just a lot of milling around, people drinking cheap wine and the woman in the corner rearranging the contents of her handbag in order to look busy. So the questions sat on my desk and in my mind, poking at the jumble with little sticks until words got to meet other words that they liked and eventually they all got on so well that they formed an excitable line and came conga-ing out the door.
1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
I can’t remember not being a feminist. I didn’t have the experience of some women, of being born into a life of struggle and oppression, an experience that sparks off the urge to fight and speak up. I was born into the privilege of a white, middle-class family of Quakers. You can’t really be a Quaker and not be a feminist. Quakers are all about equality, peace, tolerance and social justice. With a few glaring exceptions, these values have percolated through my mother’s side of my family for generations. There is never an assumption that children, of either gender, born into the family will follow a set path or that a path would be unavailable on the basis of gender, just the assumption that they will work hard, be aware of the world around them and not expect to be handed anything on any kind of platter.
2. What has surprised you about motherhood?
Constantly being proved wrong. About everything. And not minding. My lovely midwife friends (the LMFs) have heard me declare many things with great certainty (‘teething’s a crock’, ‘of course he’ll take a bottle even if we don’t offer him one until he’s seven months old’ and so on) and have kindly refrained from saying ‘I told you so’ every single time.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
My initial reaction to this is to think that my feminism hasn’t changed, that it’s just an immutable part of my personality, but this isn’t true. My reactions to the abuse and oppression of women have grown more and more fierce. Working as a midwife has exposed me to just a selection of the myriad ways that women are abused, even educated, privileged, middle-class white women. And every day I think that if they are subject to abuse because they are women, what the hell must it be like for the non-english speaking, the homeless, the illiterate, the substance-addicted and the young women that also walk through our doors to have their babies? I would also like to think that my feminism has become better informed, but the more I read and the more discussions I have, the more I find there is to know and the more revoltingly privileged I feel.
4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?
Motherhood. Hmm. When I emerged from the fog of giving birth and absorbing the fact that I had borne a son I recall feeling lucky. Stupidly I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t yet have to worry about helping a girl-child negotiate the modern hyper-sexualised world, teaching her how to find and keep her sense of self-worth. Then I realised that not only do I still have to do that for my son, but that I also have to teach him how to respect and love the girls and women in his life, how to be a better man than so many of the men in public life. I don’t focus on specifically parenting in a feminist way but I don’t see how I could separate the two. My parenting will always be coloured by my feminism. It’s not just about not saturating his world with trucks and blue t-shirts, it’s about striving to model the values I hold and about filling our world with other people that model these values. I feel blessed to have a partner who is also a woman – I think it’s very freeing for us as a family. There are no set roles for either of us, except that at the moment I’m the breastfeeding one, so our children will grow up seeing (hopefully!) that being a family is about sharing responsibility and negotiation to meet everyone’s needs, not about gendered parental roles or unequal expectations.
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
I haven’t yet felt compromised or a sense of failure as a feminist mother. Still, the small one is only one year old, so I’m sure there’s plenty of time for that.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
Yes. Being the type of mother I am and the type of person I am means that fitting in with other new mothers has been a challenge at times. My ‘wanting to be liked’ side conflicts with my ‘opinionated and judgemental’ side. Yes, I want to be tolerant and respect other people’s choices, but I also want to speak my mind without being pigeon-holed as the freaky-hippy-lesbian mum.
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
Everything involves sacrifice. I don’t buy into the notion that anyone can have it all in any context. Being in a relationship involves sacrifice, being a child or a sibling or a friend involves sacrifice, just being a person involves sacrifice at some point. For me and my family, it’s a matter of trying to acknowledge and balance everyone’s needs and having a very long-term perspective. Yes, having a baby means life is all about the baby in the present. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more space for other people’s needs later. Perhaps another part of mothering as a feminist is teaching my children that everybody has needs, including mama.
8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?
As I said in Q4, my partner is a woman. She’s pretty on board with the whole feminist motherhood gig. She’d just rather I didn’t want to talk to her about it so much.
9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
We are attachment parents, plural. Yes I breastfeed our son, a lot, but there’s nothing else that my partner can’t do for him equally as well. I could make a great long list about all the things we share responsibility for, but it’s simpler to say we just share everything. My partner goes out to work more. I stay in to work more. When the small person is awake he’s not far from either of us.
10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so, how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
Yes, I feel feminism has fed the unrealistic expectation that women can have it all (see Q7) and that hasn’t helped anyone, women or men, but I also feel it’s like any process – the pendulum swings from one extreme to another before it settles. As for what we have gained – I think feminism has made mothers feel better about wanting more than mothering. Mothering is great, but it’s not all that and a bag of chips for every woman. No one should have to feel that they are a bad mother, or a bad woman, because they want to go back to paid work or even because they want ten minutes a day to eat biscuits, alone, on the couch, uninterrupted.
So, there it is, a little window into the life and mind of this mother.