First Loobylu posted on a book that she just finished devouring on this issue: "The Divided Heart" by Rachel Power. The Divided Heart specifically focuses on the challenges of being both a mother and an artist, but I think that the struggle to find balance applies equally to range of other professions. I particularly related to this particular part of Loobylu's post:
[Power] looks at the mythology that surrounds art and (usually male) artists, and she talks about motherhood and domestic life still being feminism’s final frontier [emphasis added]; the fact that our generation has grown up believing that it is possible to do everything (and let me tell you - reading my 80s journal is a blinding testament to that! I was going to be a film making / writer / mother of FIVE according to my 17 year old self) only to discover somewhere along the track - around the time of breastfeeding is the general impression - that despite the best of intentions of all parties, this is not always so easy. Each of the women she talks to have pretty similar struggles - and her point is made so very clearly that it’s a hard thing to be both a passionate mother and a passionate artist.This issue of how mothering fits into feminism is particularly interesting to me. I thought that one of Loobylu's commenters had a great point:
I have never studied feminism so I don’t know much about it, but the issue I have is how little respect mothering (in fact, parenting) is given by society. How many times have I heard women say they go to work to be respected and to be a good role model for their kids: why is staying at home looking after, and bringing up your children not considered a good role model in our society? My mum was telling me just last night that in Poland when I was born, women were given THREE YEARS of fully-paid maternity leave. And women there were always expected to follow similar career paths as men, so mothering was just allowed to fit in with job/career. While I’m sure it wasn’t as perfect as it sounds (for a start, it was a totalitarian Communist regime!) it sounds pretty good!This is one of the big things that I have been thinking about lately. I kind of want to say; well feminism is all about creating choice and so the fact that many women do not feel as though they have the choice to stay home with their kids is partly because feminism has not gone far enough - has not succeeded in changing our very patriarchal workplaces enough to make them sufficiently flexible for such a choice to be made...
However, I think, perhaps, this would be a little bit too simplistic. There are some types of feminism and feminists that seem to have identified the home (and, therefore, children) as the site of oppression for women. According to this version of feminism one asserts one's independence and freedom by outsourcing the drudgery of housework and childcare. If they would just bring in a cleaner and make use of childcare, then women, like men, can be high achieving professionals. Well that's fine, but what about those women who actually want to look after their young children on a full-time basis (or even, gasp, do some housework)? Where do they fit into this particular world-view? Sometimes I get the impression that they are essentially seen as letting down the team - as dupes who have fallen for the patriarchal expectation of women and who are letting themselves become martyrs.
It is almost as though there is a limit to how much you are allowed to give to your children - step over that line and you are giving up too much of yourself or somehow setting an unfair standard. Here I am reminded of a post that went up a while ago on Bitch PhD. The author, Sybil Vane, was writing about her concerns about taking her toddler on an airplane and how it had made her think about her bias "against women who breastfeed longer than a year-ish." She explains that she feels this way: "[n]ot because I think it is in some way 'inappropriate' or 'icky' or whatever dumb sh*t people say, but because I am apt to conclude that the woman in question is more self-sacrificing (of her time, her body, her patience) in the name of motherhood than I think is warranted."
Now, to be very fair, Vane acknowledged that this attitude of her was actually a sexist one. She argues that "I would never dream of judging any paternal behavior in a similar way." However, many of her commenters are not so circumspect:
Re: the breastfeeding thing, I tend to get my hackles up around moms who nurse that long mostly because I've met so many who are sanctimonious and downright obnoxious about their epidural-refusing, home-birthing, cloth-diapering, homeopathic-remedy-researching, vaccine-refusing, organic-puree-making, sling-wearing, Montessori-homeschooling, Dr.-Sears-quoting, Bradley-methoding, designer-parenting, career-deferring ways; and that such moms will usually find some way to unsubtly insult my parenting within 30 minutes of meeting them. Is that sexist? I mean, the whole mommy-perfectionism thing is sexist, yes; but is it sexist to feel defensive because I'm afraid my own mommying is going to be trashed? Genuinely asking here.[Blue Milk also has a great post on this particular post and discussion.]
(Standard disclaimer about I don't think any of those parenting choices are BAD; I just don't appreciate how they've somehow become the markers of moms who have proven they aren't BAD AND SELFISH BY NOT SERVING UP THEIR VERY OWN HEARTS EVERY DAY FOR BREAKFAST!!! After all, you don't HAVE to work, and they're only small for such a short time, and you can never get those years back so why would you even think of having your own identity [emphasis added], etc. blah blah blah bullsh*t.)
With attitudes like these floating around it is, perhaps, unsurprising that not a lot of consideration is put into how we could make the choice to stay home full-time (while still maintaining a strong sense of self-worth, identity, and perhaps even a career to go back to) a viable option. And it is on this very point that another recent blog post really spoke to me. Shannon Breen guest posts on Blue Milk under the title, Reflections on ‘mother work’ by a stay-at-home mother. She writes:
Mother work has been recast into an indulgent luxury. ‘The only women who don’t work are women like you, Shannon, who have rich husbands to support them,’ a well-paid working mother tells me. Her implication is clear. Unlike the Prime Minister’s wife, I have chosen to be an ‘appendage’. [...]Certainly it does seem that economics and capitalism (for want of a better word) is part of the issue here. The dual-income family is such a norm these days - such a necessity almost - that it is simply unthinkable to ask for society to be flexible enough to allow one person to step out of the workforce for years on end. However, surely this is a choice that we have made and, therefore, surely this is a choice that we can question. What is the cost of being a dual-income family with young children? What do you miss out on by having to go back to work when your every instinct is telling you to stay with your baby and nurture them? Perhaps more to the point: what does your baby miss out on?
Later, I reflect on her accusation. I do volunteer work, and study part-time. Why do I have to justify looking after my children? In short, my choice not to avail myself of long-day child-care so I can add another (paid) job to my already busy life challenges the orthodoxy; distrust of long-day care is a heresy. Daphne de Marneffe writes in her 2005 book, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life, ‘In the current climate, one reflexive reply to (a mother’s) emotional concerns is that they are the luxury of the few; for most, economic realities preclude such subtle objections.’ De Marneffe argues women’s feelings of unease about leaving their young children are not considered ‘reality’, and concludes, ‘…one sometimes gets the sense that economic reality is invoked to shut us up.’
The real difficulty that I see is that somehow asking these questions seems to immediately cast you as being an anti-feminist conservative who wants to turn back the clock and 'put women in their place'. But why is it that it is children whose needs have had to be compromised in order for feminism to eek out a little bit of progress for women? Are they just easy targets? Is it simply because it is so much harder to change the rest of the world?
Perhaps it was thought that in an ideal (feminist) world we would have a society that was truly supportive of mothers (of all parents, in fact) - one in which workplaces were far more flexible places; work hours were far more reasonable; living costs were far more affordable on a single income (or two part-time incomes); child-rearing far more respected; children far more welcome in public places (including places of work); etc. but that since that wasn't going to happen any time soon the easiest way to achieve equality was to make childcare accessible and affordable (though that certainly hasn't happened anyway). The other goals were simply set aside as being too hard, too idealist... (Or maybe they were never on the agenda? I don't really know.)
Breen deals with this issue well:
There’s no doubt the early second-wave feminists claimed the family was a potential source of oppression, and that women had a right to equality in the workplace. They’re still right on both counts. If they made a mistake, it was in underestimating the joy, satisfaction and (to use a 70s phrase) ‘self-actualisation’ many women achieve through mothering. Today, the fight for equality in the workplace has overshadowed the right to ‘choose’ mother work. But they needn’t be mutually exclusive. Melbourne academic Marty Grace argues for a ‘third wave’ feminist movement to ‘recognise that caring for children is valuable, not only because it is precious, important and worth doing, but because it takes up time.’I think that it is true that there certainly is a stream of feminism - let's call it 'third wave' - that is actually taking on the challenge of fighting for 'the ideal'. It is certainly this wave of feminism that I most relate to - although I must admit to a real lack of understanding as to its dimensions before I became a mother myself. I knew that I would find the task of balancing motherhood and paid work (or 'public' work) difficult. I also knew that I wanted society to value and support the work of mothering far more than I thought that it did. However, I also thought that I would be happy to put Lily into childcare (part-time) at the age of 6 months in order to get on and finish my PhD. I thought that I would need to "do something for myself" away from her for significant amounts of time in order to feel like a balanced person. It was in this that I was quite mistaken. As Breen puts it, I underestimated the joy, satisfaction and ‘self-actualisation’ that I could achieve through mothering.
That has been the real eye-opener for me. I really didn't expect to find mothering so satisfying all by itself. Yes, it can be unrelenting and utterly exhausting. Yes, it can be isolating and even tedious at times. However, it is not my time with Lily that I really resent - it is the time that I am forced to spend away from her.
Actually, that isn't a completely honest picture. Certainly it is useful to take a little time to 'recharge the batteries' so to speak. An occasional coffee with a friend (uninterrupted by requests for a 'feed' or a story), a yoga class (yet to be achieved, but certainly on the agenda), a couple of hours teaching at university, a quick blog post, even a bit of my PhD. But all of these things I can do while I know that Lily is napping, or happily in the care of her father or another close family member, and within a time period that doesn't compromise our connection or our breastfeeding relationship. For me, anything else would not be pleasurable.
Of course, I don't wish to question the right of other mothers (other parents, in fact) to find a different balance that works for them. For some that does include childcare. For some it may include full-time work. What I am challenging is the idea that the option to look after my child full-time is some sort of cop out - that somehow I am being both self-indulgent and a martyr who is letting down the feminist cause on all fronts.
I am reminded of a friend of mine who chose to go back to work one day a week when her son was around 12 months old and found herself accused of being lazy. She didn't want to work more than one day a week because she wanted to spend the time with her son who she could see was growing up incredibly fast. She also didn't want to put him in childcare and one day a week was a reasonable amount of time for her husband to be home to look after him (given his current position, etc.). She certainly wasn't doing it because she was lazy. She openly admits that she looks forward to her two half work days because work is so much easier than looking after her son all day. Full-time mothering is bloody hard work. However, to many people working only one day a week wasn't a valid choice. Instead they saw her as being lazy. Surely there is something really wrong with that.