There have been many societal changes to our understanding of family, but most women will at some point take on the role of mothering, either through natural birth, foster care, adoption, or parenting a step-child. Like everything else women do, motherhood is analyzed and talked about to death. Is there a better way to keep 50% of the population on edge than the constant suggestion that we are failing to follow through on our so-called maternal instincts? The New York Times has begun a discussion about modern motherhood based on a book entitled, “Le Conflit: la femme et la mère” (“Conflict: The Woman and the Mother”) by French intellectual and feminist Elisabeth Badinter. In a roundtable discussion, several female columnists are exploring the good mother/bad mother binary and the role feminism has played in how women perform motherhood today.
If you look through most parenting magazines, you will see an erasure of the experiences of marginalized women, particularly women of colour. Our motherhood has always been complicated by aspects such as social class and racism. When you have to worry about your child being shot for simply wearing a hoodie or children being educated in failing schools, somehow the debates of cloth versus disposable diapers, co-sleeping, and staying-at-home versus working take on a completely different context. I was impressed when I realized that a woman of color blogger and columnist LaShaun Williams recently contributed to the discussion. That is, I was until I read her article.
For Williams, feminism is the singular cause of the malaise suffered by the modern mother because “the present feminist climate pressures women to work. We should question why so many of us are working — single and married women alike. Is it because we bought the feminist lie that we don’t need a husband? Is it because we want to prove to the world that we are worth something? Or is it to live in a ritzy neighbourhood and drive an Audi Q7?” Williams writes. I wonder if the author has considered that some women aren’t married because same-sex marriage is not legal throughout the U.S. I suppose a little heterosexism goes hand in hand with gender essentialism. Oh monolithic woman, how I detest you.
At this point in reading her brief contribution to the debate, I had to pause and wonder about how this ahistorical piece of claptrap thought it could successfully pose a legitimate argument against feminism. This was truly a difficult thing for me because I identify as a womanist rather than a feminist, due to a long history of racism, transphobia, ableism and homophobia engaged in by White, straight, cis gender, temporarily able-bodied, class-privileged feminists. (Yes, I know that was a mouthful.) At any rate, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms that should rightly be aimed at feminism, but suggesting that feminism created a world in which children must be reared in a two-income household — and is responsible for the dissatisfaction experienced by working mothers — is intellectually dishonest at best. It seems to me that the real issue is the demise of the Keynesian economic system. It is worth noting, however, that even in the imaginary golden age of the 1950’s which Williams references — a time when June Cleaver reigned supreme — Williams forgets that poor and working class women, regardless of their race, had to work to ensure the economic survival of their families.
Williams’ gender essentialist understanding of womanhood and motherhood belies the history of Black women having to work outside of the home. When Betty Friedan penned The Feminine Mystique in 1963 — which is largely understood as responsible for starting the second wave of U.S. mainstream feminism — her objective was to free women from their gilded cages, but she most certainly was not addressing women of colour. At that time, White women were largely kept out of the workforce, but there were plenty of jobs available for women of colour as maids in their houses and nannies for their kids. It is only when union density rates dropped, thanks in large part to Reagan’s attack on unions, coupled with his war on the poor and outsourcing became the horror of the day, that White women were able to infiltrate the workforce en masse. The ongoing decline of the social safety network today continues to ensure that women must seek paid labour outside the home. TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which limits benefits to 60 months within one’s lifetime, certainly isn’t helping poor mothers to stay home and practice attachment parenting.
Women started working outside of the home because it became absolutely impossible to raise a family on one income. That’s all, folks. Feminism and other forms of women’s activism has made it possible for women to enter careers outside of the service sector, but even then, the glass ceiling ensures that there are limitations to how far we may rise. If one is a woman of colour, the ceiling is most definitely lower. Getting out of the secretarial pool isn’t exactly the same as becoming a CFO or CEO, is it? A single episode of AMC’s Mad Men correctly illustrates that.
Whether you are a working mother or a stay-at-home mother — with the exception of Anne Romney — parenting a child from infancy to adulthood is back-breaking work. The pressure to engage in this new paint-by-numbers attachment parenting, as well as co-sleeping, going to Mommy and me play groups, etc. may be something that some women aspire to, but it certainly is not something all women want or need for that matter.
I grew up in a home in which my mother worked outside of the home, and from her example, I always knew that I wanted to work, because I wanted to be independent. The need to be financially independent was also underscored repeatedly to me by my aunt, who was forced to flee and emotional an abusive relationship, and had to depend on family largesse to make her escape. “Always remember” she said, “women’s lives are hard.” No matter what fairy tales we tell ourselves about the joys of finger painting for hours and breaking up fights in the sandbox, the current rate of divorce tells us that depending on a man to support you is not only financially irresponsible, it’s also potential economic suicide. Even if you happen to be one of the lucky few with a wonderful, happy, stable relationship, there’s nothing like a falling piano, car accident, walnut in the windpipe, or other act of God to throw a wrench in your best-laid plans. Good supportive partners do occasionally die young, so where does that leave the stay-at-home mom with the hunk of Play-Doh in her hands?
Modern motherhood is tough, not because of feminism, but because the economy is not constructed to consider women’s nurturing work. We shouldn’t have to choose between being the kind of mother we aspire to be and the demands of corporate America. The further we move into an economy that is built around 24 hour consumption, the further we move from making women, our needs and responsibilities a priority. Perhaps it’s time that we remember that the common denominator here is patriarchy and capitalism, not other women.