On Motherhood and Feminism

Wow. I just looked at the title and realized this post is going to be a lot of work. It is very likely that it will be edited many times over the next few days!

I have been reading and enjoying a feminist blog titled I Blame The Patriarchy, which is extremely well-written and always provocative in a good intellectual kind of way. I also enjoy browsing through Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History (see blogroll), and it was a recent post by the latter author which connected with some of the feminist writings of the first, and prompted me to think about motherhood and feminism.

First off, I don’t know that I truly understand the feminist movement. As a woman, you would think I’d have a better grip on this, but I don’t. I have rarely met a smart, confident feminist in my daily life.

This leaves me with the things I have read by women I have never met (exceptions noted). And my lingering impression of feminism is that it takes one of two forms:

  • We want to make the world a friendly place where men and women wear the same clothes, have the same jobs, make the same money, and wield the same power. Oh, yeah, and no one changes his or her name upon marriage. But we still would like to wear dresses on occasion. We expect you gentlemen to hold open doors for us as a throwback to romantic times, and we’d like you to pay for dates. We want to play at being women when the mood suits us, and don’t you dare tell us what to do!
  • We want to make the world a post-1984, androgynous, technomodern society where everyone is slim, trim, and Matrix-y looking and has a good job and a cool flat. Children will be produced in labs and kept in hamster cages until they reach puberty, at which point they will receive their hip sunglasses, be introduced into society as adults, and enjoy the benefits of a gender-free world.

I am, of course, being quite snarky here. But hopefully you get the point. Maybe it would be easier for me to describe what feminism is not, rather than what it is?

The thing that really sticks out in my mind is the concept of motherhood. Or the lack of it. Whatever your vision or version of feminism happens to be, it seems that becoming a mother is antithesis to it. Which is funny to me, because I do a sort of linguistic associative dance when I think about this: Feminism = female = woman = mother. Maybe feminists decry motherhood because it forces you into a sort of secondary, backseat position for a time, and the beginning of any “-ism” is always “I”, which does not exist in mother. (How about that for a literary pun!)

But I will argue that there is nothing more feminist than motherhood. The problem, friends and neighbors, is that motherhood no longer belongs to mothers. It has been taken over by the patriarchal system at every level. And I think that, if you’re a true feminist, this is what should outrage you- even more than unequal pay scales and old-boy networks. Incomes and careers and such are the patriarchy. They are the rules of a game set up by the men, for the men, and we are angrily stomping our fancy-heeled feet demanding that the boys let us in to play their game.

Why don’t we demand that they play our game? Or, another way, why did we ever let them determine the rules of our game??

Motherhood has been a passionate topic for nearly three years, since my first child was born. It opened my eyes to the misogynistic society we truly live in, made even more awful by men posing behind a wizard-curtain of I’m The Good Doctor, Heed My Advice. (Or Else.). We no longer have circles of women passing along sage advice (and sage, which was once used as a cleansing herb- but I digress) to young women about motherhood. Birth no longer belongs to mothers. It now belongs to the (s)OBs who attend- no, who deliver babies from their mothers’ fautly, helpless bodies. Birth itself is portrayed as a scary, ugly thing that you must endure in order to get to the prize: which is a healthy baby (boy?). And mothers who forgo or delay work and careers to care for their children full-time are often thought of as lazy, uneducated, or gold-digging. To top it all, as a dear friend pointed out, we are considered less than a woman if we don’t have children- which is another example of women allowing the patriarchy to take reproduction (or lack of it) away from us. Feeling incomplete because you fail to meet the expectations of a male-dominated society (i.e. women are for making babies) is – in my uneducated opinion – rather unfeminist.

Let me delve into some of these areas in greater detail. First off, the pre-mother period known as pregnancy is usually a time of hibernation. Part of this is hormone-induced, with a natural tendency to want to turn inward as you focus on the growing fetus. But much of it is a self-consciousness about wandering into public view with your grossly distended belly. And this harkens back to our culture’s issues with wanting – needing – to be perceived as beautiful, which my own naive definition of feminism would reject, on the grounds that beauty is largely defined by and for the male perspective.

No one celebrates the beautiful shape of a woman with child. Pregnant women are a rarity on television and, when they are visible, comments about their pregnant states are carefully avoided, like the elephant in the room. (A marvelous exception is Candice Olson, who gleefully joked about various aspects of her pregnancy in the Divine Design episodes she filmed while expecting. But she’s a rare gem on so many fronts.)

And if some of us are made to feel uncomfortable about our physiques during pregnancy, wait until the gestational timer dings and it’s time for baby’s egress. For most of us, labor and delivery is and will remain a mysterious ritual, unfathomable and unknowable except by doctors and their acolytes. We are physically present for it only inasmuch as we would participate in our own appendectomy. Birth is something that happens to us, not something we do. The work of birth, the full female sexual power of it, is no longer trusted to the mother and her sisterhood. It has been stolen, ripped away by the male-centric medical church and its apostles (many of whom are now women). As such, we have begun to believe that birth cannot happen unless we are in the saviour-hands of a doctor. We even use the language of subjugation, by saying that our babe was “delivered by Doctor Such And Such” instead of the assertive “I birthed…”. Several generations of women now have learned not to trust themselves or their bodies. Instead, we rely on a misogynistic mediculture – even when this very same patriarchal system contradicts its own dogma – to tell us if we are in labor, or when to labor, and certainly how we should do it. Never mind that most of the principles of labor management are written by men, who as such cannot fathom – let alone account for – the myriad physical and emotional nuances that a laboring woman experiences. I would argue that it is the failure to consider these subtle but important signals from our bodies, combined with fear, the unnatural immobile and supine positions necessitated by clinical labors, and a lack of common birth knowledge gleaned from previous generations, that makes modern Western labors so painful.

Once our babies are born (delivered), they are stripped from us immediately to be washed, weighed, catalogued, critiqued, and generally dealt with in a brusque, unmotherly fashion. And this is just the beginning of the patriarchal wedge driven between mother and child. A cacophony of advice, none of it instinctive, will incessantly din in our post-partum ears, telling us how and when to feed, clothe, sleep, dress, vaccinate, educate, and remediate our child. The patriarchal medical culture and popular media will tell us that our breasts are insufficient to nourish our babies, that our arms cannot be trusted to hold them, that we ourselves are a danger to our own offspring, and therefore we need to utilize “scientific” artificial infant milks, or cribs, or pacifiers, or [insert commercial product of your choice here]. We dare not rely on our instincts, unless they can be verified or at least validated by a reputable source (read: a male-centric perspective).

If you got through all the mumble-jumble I’ve managed to spill out this far, you might hopefully see through to my murky point, which is simply that it is not unfeminist to choose motherhood. Nor is it feminist not to choose it. However you define feminism, I suspect it would include something about autonomy over one’s own body, and freedom from subjugation – including and perhaps especially the insidious kind that our culture is steeped in. But modern western motherhood rejects autonomy and embraces subjugation. Therefore, it is our own fault that it is this way, for we accept it generation after generation, only rarely without question or fail.

And though I might not be able to exactly define what feminism is, that, in my opinion, is not it.

But what do I know? I’m just a mother.

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3 thoughts on “On Motherhood and Feminism

  1. Wow.

    Where do I start?

    The fact that you think that highly of my opinion? Wow.

    The fact that you’ve made me think about my own stance on the lack-of-baby in a whole new light? Wow.

    The idea that we’ve ‘got here’ through our own actions, taking some responsibility instead of whining about the status quo. Wow.

    The great linkage between the patriarchal religious church and the medical church? Wow. And HAAHAA. Bastards, all of ’em.

    Rock it, bad ass! Awesome post.

  2. Very well stated, and I agree with most of what you expressed. Although, I do have to caution you to remember, there is a time, when problems develop, that doctors, with their medical knowledge, are needed and should be welcomed prior to and at the birth site. I agree with you that today’s prescheduled birth days, down to the hour and, for the most part, C-section method is outragious. The natural fetus development cycle, not the doctor’s schedule, should dictate when a baby is born.

  3. Hey Mama! Womens studies was my minor in college and it is a HUGE topic to cover in one post! Good for you for stepping out into the fray and taking it on and sharing your journey.
    I know I am so often frustrated at the lack of women who are willing to learn and then stand up and say I AM A FEMINIST. Most women shuffle around it, refusing to commit. You are right, it is confusing to pin down exactly what it is, but the truth of the matter is the basic idea is that we want/get the option to do whatever we choose, we are capable of making that choice for ourselves instead of having it imposed on us by society, culture, men, etc.
    Feminists want the choice to choose motherhood or not and still be valued for who they are in society based on the fact that being a woman is enough.
    Normal birth is a huge feminist issue b/c most of the current practices ARE based on a patriarchal paradigm that definately harms us all, I absolutely agree.
    Great discussion

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