Friday, 9 November 2012

The Feminist Mother


by Kendal

(This article will also appear on www.TYCI.org.uk/wordpress - a brand new collective run by women, for women, exploring and celebrating all things femme)

Many times in my life I have contemplated whether or not I could call myself a feminist. It has played on my mind a lot, and none more so than after becoming a mother, and questioning the way this new role defined me as a person, and the ways in which I did and did not want to raise my daughter.

But this week something happened. After several long discussions about feminism, about what it is and isn’t and what it means to different people, I realised I am, without a doubt, staunchly, unequivocally, a feminist. I told this to my husband who looked at me as if that was the most obvious thing I have ever said to him.

I also realised that feminism is and should be an inclusive, flexible ideology – one that is still fighting hard for women to gain equality in a male dominated, male normative society where all of us, women and men, are often defined by our gender and confined to the roles that go along with it.

Perhaps you yourself don’t identify as a feminist, or maybe the term has too many negative connotations and makes you feel uncomfortable. I understand that. Here is why I do call myself a feminist. Because even though I do not personally face great oppression or insubordination every day in my daily life, millions of women do.

If you are a woman and you work then you most likely get paid lower than your male colleagues. Across Europe alone there is a 25% pay gap in like for like work. If you are a woman and you vote, then you may notice that your gender is still ridiculously under represented in the House of Commons. Only 19% of MPs are female. Women account for over two thirds of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty worldwide, own less than 1% of the world’s property and yet do two thirds of the world’s work.

Here are some things that as a feminist mother, I do face on a regular basis: I face the challenge of fighting for my right to birth freely, of refusing inductions and unnecessary vaginal examinations during labour, or refusing flu and whooping cough vaccinations during pregnancy should I not want them, and I face the challenge of fighting for the right to bond with my baby after birth as I see fit, without constant interruption and interference.

I face the challenge of breastfeeding in a society that is still largely uneducated about the benefits of breast milk, that doesn’t understand or support the need to breastfeed a child beyond the very early months, and that would like me to cover up and be discreet when I am out and about, God Forbid they should see a flash of breast when I feed my baby. (Although, on Halloween, should I want to dress as a slutty nurse, I am welcome to flash my breasts all I wish)

I face a culture that is more concerned with getting me back into shape, getting rid of those stretch marks and getting me back into the office than it is about me bonding with my baby or giving me the time and space necessary to adjust to bringing a new life into the world.

I face a society that tells me, constantly, not to trust my own body, because everyone else knows better. Because even though my body has carried and nurtured a baby for 9 months, it can’t possibly detect the presence of that baby sleeping next to me in bed or feed a baby on breastmilk alone for the first 6 to 9 months of a baby’s life. I face a society that tells me I dress my daughter too much like a boy because she wears navy and red instead of head to toe pink, or T-shirts that say, ‘Cute Little Princess’ on them.

In fact, there are many people, including a number of feminists, who think that stay at home mothers (SAHM) or mothers who practice attachment parenting are somehow betraying those feminists who worked hard to ensure that women do not have to stay at home and look after their children.

This year, a family member actually told me what a shame it was that I’d never done anything with my degree, after studying so long and hard. Aside from the fact that this kind of thinking is infuriating at the most basic level (I did an English degree – I read and write every day), it also implies that the only way to be successful, or productive, is to have a career, a high paying job or at least some sort of job at all.

This is not something I agree with. And it relates directly to my decision to be a SAHM. The idea that money must indicate someone’s contribution to society or define your sense of self worth is of course a ridiculous notion. The fact that I am not ‘doing anything’ with my degree – even though I write regularly, sometimes even making money from such writing – is testimony to how so many people still think.

It doesn’t seem to matter that I have chosen to be where I am, that I have put a lot of thought into the life I am living. To some, still, because I am not out there and working, because I like to sew and cook and spend my days with my children, I am positively backward and frankly, a smack in the face to radical feminism.

But here’s the thing. Feminism must be a flexible ideology if it is to continue to fight for, and achieve, the freedom for women to choose their lives. I understand that in the 60s and 70s, the second wave feminists wanted to throw out their aprons and challenge the status quo as it was then because they really were expected to do nothing but be happy little homemakers, but now we are surely at a place where what we are fighting for is the right to be exactly the kind of person (and woman) that we want to be.

I can be a SAHM and still be productive. In fact, in my new role as a ‘mother’ and, specifically, ‘stay at home mother’ I read and write more than I ever did – more than I did when I was studying English at Durham or creative writing at Goldsmiths, and I certainly feel like I am contributing more to society now than I did in any of my previous employed positions.

Furthermore, I feel as if my choice to have children and raise them in the way we raise them – as attachment parents – is entirely feminist. Like feminism, attachment parenting deliberately refuses the idea of perfection and instead seeks to educate women and encourage trust in their own bodies and instincts. As Mayim Balik writes, ‘We have empowered ourselves and refuse to endure a male-centered obstetric history that has taken women’s bodies and molded them to their preferences for their convenience, their comfort and for their world view.’

My choice not to work was not the result of having my own expense account, courtesy of my husband and his high-flying job. It does not come without sacrifice and without effort. We get by, because we find ways to, but having one salary instead of two means that we do not do several things we used to – like travel abroad twice a year or eat out on a regular basis. We have chosen to live this way because for us, it feels like the best possible thing for all concerned. But it is, make no mistake, work – 24/7, without holidays or lunch hours, and it should not be frowned upon or dismissed as somehow less of a contribution to society.

When I am filling out a form, or asked by someone what it is I do, I shudder at the response I often give – a Stay at Home Mother. The phrase is so reductive and so far off from describing what my life is actually like. I hate that it symbolises an idea of woman that I work hard personally to avoid.

But I was raised never to think of my gender as a barrier – never to even consider it as an issue at all, which is perhaps another reason that the idea of it possibly being an obstacle was one so hard to get my head around. Coming to do things long associated with an antiquated view of woman and their role in the home – cooking and sewing and quilting – I found a great comfort in the thought of generations of women before me having cared for and nurtured their family in these different ways. I did not feel tied down, but liberated by the thought of such skill and workmanship and dedication.

In fact, learning these skills makes me feel empowered. I hope that my daughter grows up to equate learning with empowerment too. To understand that she need not look beyond herself to feel empowered or accepted. Yet every time someone tells her that she is a princess or asks her if she is a daddy’s girl, every time I am asked if she is a little madam or diva, I am reminded that gender roles exist all around us from the very beginning and that it is my job to teach my daughter she is none of those things unless she chooses to be.

My daughter will grow up in a society where the idea that women’s bodies are primarily, if not only, sexual, entertaining, titillating and provocative is everywhere. It is so pervasive that most of us have become somewhat numb to the ‘raunch culture’ we live in. I don’t even blink when I pass Ann Summers and posters of women in teeny tiny spandex outfits, handcuffed and pouting, stand six foot tall in the window.

We are plagued with such images everywhere, and it seems to me that one of the subtlest forms of patriarchy is the idea that women can be powerful as long as they remain sexual. It is something we are taught from an early age. If we do not actively challenge it, we are often implicit in upholding these restrictive gender norms.

My daughter should feel able to celebrate her body in ways that go beyond its ability to be sexual or sexy, in ways that embrace honest sexuality instead of perpetuating the more oft than not male heterosexual fantasy of what ‘sexy’ is. Although my daughter is likely to see thousands of images of women being objectified by the time she is a teenager, she will probably not receive anything close to a comprehensive sex education unless I provide it.

In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy talks about how real lust and eroticism are feared, and instead women are encouraged to ‘reclaim’ their bodies by continuing to use them in perfomative ways. Bell Hooks, in ‘Feminism is for Everybody’, says, ‘If any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency.’

I want more for my daughter. Yes, feminism is about striving for equality with all people, and celebrating a woman’s right to do and be whatever it is she wants. But it also has to be about resisting the subtler forms of patriarchy that we all, men and women alike, face every single day. The ones that tell us it is okay to be whatever we want as long as whatever we want still fits into a larger patriarchal framework where racial, gender and sexuality status quos are maintained.

If I am a Feminist Mother, it is because I want everything for my daughter, I want the world to be one of endless choice and possibility, and the thought that her gender might ever prevent that seems an impossible injustice that I will fight with every ounce of my being to eradicate.






26 comments:

  1. Fantastic post. Well written and powerful. Loved it.

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  2. This is the best post you've written on here. In fact I am going to print it out and give this to my students, with your permission.

    Absolutely spot on, well argued and beautifully written.

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    1. Sure Sandra, that's fine, and thank you

      -Kx

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  3. I think this post is phenomenal. The best yet.

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  4. Excellent writing, as always Kendal.

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  5. I'm afraid I can't help but comment on an issue of feminism. I think my main issue with feminism is that people generally only focus on the west when to me what is happening gender wise in developing countries seems 1000 times more important. I've been doing feminism in my MA recently and my main lecturer represents everything I dislike about feminism in that she happily says anti mail comments and when we are talking about class she has no regard for class prejudice and believes everything is down to gender,extreme to the degree of refusing to say hunters and gatherers but gatherers and hunters 'because what the women were doing is so much more important'. However we had a guest lecturer who actually explained things well instead of ranting and he was labelling her material feminism as something which can be very excluding and that the modern ways of 'gender studies' rather than feminism are much more concerned about equality than 'socking it to the man' as it were. I know there are inequalities in our society and certain pressures but often the ideologies are held by women as well as man. I dont understand when people quote statistics of how many women work part time as if it is discrimination when in reality a lo t of women want to work part time or are happy to have the man as the bread winner. anyway i would like to say more but i have to run to work. I completely agree about the pressures to have a career etc but think that is equal for men, if not more so. here's a book i found interesting http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gender-Trouble-Feminism-Subversion-Routledge/dp/0415389550/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1352452986&sr=8-1

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  6. That's a great point Siobhan - I agree that people seem to overlook developing countries - that's why when someone talks about how things have become so much better for women it's impossible not to point out how terrible many women's situation is across the world. I can't stand anti-male comments either. In fact, I think the wider patriarchal framework I refer to is as damaging to men as it is to women. To me, maintaining tis framework is as much about maintaining racial, sexuality and class status quos as it is about gender.

    I certainly agree that women are as much to blame for upholding those gender norms - in fact I was discussing this last week, and I mentioned that in my personal experience (both with professors at Uni and male friends) - I know as many men who would identify themselves as 'Feminist' as I do women.

    Thanks for your comment!

    -Kx

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  7. Fantastic writing now if we can all agree about what equality is we will live in a great society! I too am a sahm but I usually, proudly, tell people I am an educator and if they ask where I say at home.

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    1. I like to say I'm a professional baby-wrangler. Less snappy than yours, but I might add " and educator" from now on. :D

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  8. 'But it also has to be about resisting the subtler forms of patriarchy that we all, men and women alike, face every single day. The ones that tell us it is okay to be whatever we want as long as whatever we want still fits into a larger patriarchal framework where racial, gender and sexuality status quos are maintained.'

    I completely agree. As a man, it is oppressive to me to live within such a patriarchal society and I think it is important you highlighted that patriarchy is as much about confining men to their gender roles as it is women, in much the same way as it seems as many women as men do their best to uphold them.

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    1. My husband and I were just discussing how unfair it is that men get 2 weeks paternity leave (and this is relatively new) whereas women get 7 to 9 months maternity leave. Another example of gender roles confined by patriarchal norms.

      -Kx

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    2. Rich, it is a truism that I read somewhere but that I (and my husband) have adopted is that feminism will have succeeded when men are free to be whatever they want, however feminine that may be, without shame. When men can be "girly", and the word is no longer an insult but a simple, value-free adjective, feminism wins. I very much agree with you.

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  9. This is the best post so far, I really enjoyed it and brilliantly written. Well done!

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  10. The distinction you make between simply wanting equal rights for all and acknowledging the complexities of living within a patriarchal context is important...to me real feminism is not simply passive but an active refusal to conform to outdated expectations.

    It's always easier to simply go with 'norm' rather than question why things are the way they are in the first place.

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    1. I think that the point in my life when I felt truly comfortable calling myself a feminist is when I realised I wanted to be more active in the way you describe, be it small, every day things like refusing to dress my daughter in a 'girlie' way to bigger decisions we have made, like the one my husband and I made to both have double-barrelled names. Which, by the way, was his suggestion. We got a lot of flack for having my name last (even though that part of the decision was purely aesthetic...Chalk-Mosley doesn't sound good!) but I feel more and more that especially for my children, it is important that they see we choose things consciously, with thought and consideration.

      -Kx

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  11. Amazing, thought provoking post!

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  12. HIGH FIVE! Brilliant post, I completely agree. I feel like there is a lot more I could say but my mind seems to be half asleep this evening, so I'll have to leave it at this :)

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  13. P.S. Are you sure that's the right link you posted? Because it's taken me somewhere quite random about sales goals and Dave Matthews concert tickets!

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    1. ...nope, it was totally the wrong link. Can I blame my somewhat mushy brain? I've updated it, thanks for pointing it out!

      -Kx

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  14. Oh Kendal, I loved this post so much. I've just discovered your other blog and have been religiously reading every single blog post on there and pouring over your mama make store.

    I think you have the most beautiful and unique voice. I also read a short story - flash fiction? - I found online. I think I may be your stalker.

    Keep writing :)

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    1. Thank you - what a lovely comment. I think that was for something called Six Sentences. I have no idea what's online now - apparently my MA poetry thesis is too! Someone emailed me recently to tell me they'd found it through my other blog. Google terrifies me :)

      -Kxx

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  15. Fantastic! What a good read, can't believe I missed this last week!

    Ellie x

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  16. I freaking love this! You are an amazing writer. You always were :) x

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