Friday, May 11, 2012

Feminist Mothering: What Does a Feminist Mother Look Like?

Do you know about Blue Milk? You don't? You should.

Several years ago, we're talking 2007, Blue Milk posted a list of questions for feminist moms to answer (What Does a Feminist Mother Look Like?). As I've been starting work on my masters thesis on heteronormativity and heterosexuality, I've been struggling a great deal to intellectually understand the ways in which I mother; I always feel like I have to defend my actions, even the choice to have a child, and then, with even greater vigor, the fact that I am a stay-at-home mom. A feminist? At home?

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother? 

Feminism is my religion; in the same way that Christianity will shape an individual's worldview, thoughts, and choices, so feminism is the core of how I interpret reality.

I became a feminist in high school. I won't say that the particular brand of feminism had much merit, but I became aware of the real differences in how men and women were treated, and became very interested in gender and its relation to sex.

37 Weeks Pregnant
What has surprised you most about motherhood?

Of course you know that you will love your child, so the fierce, tiger-mama love I have for my baby was anticipated. For me, all of the small moments surprised me and give me so much joy. Here is this beautiful little life, and I am witness to every new sound, every new movement. It is a pleasure to see her develop, and to know that my body, up to this point, has sustained hers 100%. I didn't expect to be so enraptured with everything she does.

How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

My feminism has become much less political over time; I believe we need actual social reform. While certainly our government can implement helpful changes, these actions will not resolve the underlying sexism.

Now that I'm a mother, I'm much more sympathetic to stay at home moms (especially as I am one, currently). I used to think that staying at home was a sign of weakness and that these women always adhered to traditional (read harmful) feminine ideals. While I think it's wrong to assume that women should stay home (or should be the ones to give up their careers or be the ones to always sacrifice their desires and needs), there is something fantastic about spending so much time with my baby and knowing she's getting the very best I can give.

I'm also more sympathetic to moms in general; being a parent is hard, and I think that women are often unfairly burdened with a majority of the childcare and responsibilities around the house. I'm much more aware of all of the time and effort goes into raising a child. What can look very easy from the outside is incredibly difficult. The work is often unrecognized and unrewarded. Our society places little to no value on parents that choose to be stay at home parents.

Five Days Old
What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

Felicity does wear a lot of pink. Most of it was given to us, but I will confess to purchasing a pair of neon-pink shorts with ruffles on the ass a few weeks ago when I found them on clearance  (we call her "Lord Rufflebottom" when she wears them). I do try to stay with gender-neutral colors and baby items.

We are careful to not put any feminine stereotypes on her when singing, talking, and playing with her. We read books about girls and boys (our very favorite series are the "How Does a Dinosaur..." books by Jane Yolen, and we interchange "he" with "she"). We tell her she is both beautiful and strong.

But feminist parenting is so much more than avoiding pink and blue, girl and boy. I come to mothering very aware that gender and sex aren't the same thing, and I don't assume that my child will be straight. We are raising her to be intelligent, questioning, loving, caring, and confident in herself and her abilities, both as a person and as a woman (if that's how she chooses to identify). Feminism is as much about knowing and loving the self as it is about fighting against inequality for those that have been marginalized because of their sex, sexuality, gender-identification, nationality, skin color, economic status, or beliefs. I want her to be aware that every action has a consequence, even the simple actions and non-actions.

8 Weeks Old
Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Sometimes I feel like I don't do enough to be a conscientious parent. For example, we use disposable diapers because we couldn't afford the start-up cost of cloth diapering, and we have to pay too much per load of laundry to justify the long-term financial savings. That and I absolutely hate doing laundry and we can barely keep up with what we have already! We also can't afford to eat in an environmentally healthy way, not on one income in New York City.

Sometimes I think that I could do more to raise her less identified as "girl," but I'm not sure how to go about this.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

I actually had a really difficult time justifying my desire to have a child with my feminism. We laugh about it now, but I was reading books on why not to have children when we decided to get pregnant. Although my friends in my Women's and Gender Studies were happy for me, my professors were significantly less so (one actually encouraged me to wait to have children until I had my PhD and a secure job when I discussed the possibility of it with her before I got pregnant).

I felt like I constantly had to defend my decision to be a mom, and now have to defend my status as a stay at home mom, which many feminists believe to be a fate worse than death! I may be a stay at home mom, but I'm no housewife!

3 Months Old
Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I do struggle with the juxtaposition between the independence and strength that a feminist identity encourages, and the ultimate selflessness and sacrifice that motherhood is. It is really hard to see a large portion of my identity so strongly tied to another.

I think, above all, feminism is about love, love through equality and justice. When I step back from the daily grind of mommy-hood, I recognize that we are raising her with as much love as we can muster. We love her enough to question ourselves constantly, which, more often than not, leads me to spend way too much time reading parenting books and blogs. Sometimes I have to remind myself to put down the book and pick up the baby - she's only this little once! 

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

Oh, thank the good lord that Ian (husband) is a feminist! He is a fantastic partner in every sense of the word. Really, he would make a better stay at home parent than I do. He is a considerate and thoughtful man and does so much to help me realize my dreams. Even though he's working full time, he does over half of the housework and steps into the primary-parent role several times a week so I can get out of the house to work on my thesis (and maintain my sanity). He changes diapers, he rocks to sleep, he would feed her if he could, he would've carried her for at least half of the pregnancy if biology would've allowed it.

We moved to New York City because we both decided that we wanted to, as a couple, as a family. Although my previous employer transferred me to a position in the city, the new position was underpaid and much more stressful. When we looked at childcare options, my whole paycheck would have covered a nanny or reputable day care, and the job was making me feel like a crazy person, and I didn't have time work on my thesis. So we decided together that it made more sense for me to stay at home. And, when Ian's two or three years are done at Columbia, we're going to find a place to move where I can pursue my doctorate and he can teach. (See what I mean though? I constantly feel like I have to justify what I do, because of these negative stereotypes about what it means to be a stay at home parent.)

First night not in her co-sleeper - seems healthy enough!
If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

Attachment parenting is interesting in that it really divides feminists into two camps. On one hand, there is something really beautiful about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, and the environmental, physical aspects of attachment parenting that mirrors the relationship humans have with the earth (and some would argue, that great female spirit that is a life source).

On the other hand, it is seriously hard to have a baby attached to your boobs all the time! The first several months I joked that I was within a six-block radius of our apartment, even when it was "Rachel Out" time. (I think I only ventured beyond this radius to attend counseling, to complain about my six-block radius).You have to be completely accessible and available for your baby, and this can be really difficult when you're trying to remember who you were before you had a baby. Oh, you were an independent woman who didn't break down in tears five times a week and didn't have spit up on all of her (very dirty because there isn't time to do laundry) clothes! Oh, you had other things besides baby poop to think about and talk about!

In the end, I do whatever I can to make Felicity as happy as possible,  but I also do what I need to do so that I am a functioning, happy adult that can raise her as best as I can, which sometimes means doing what is second-best for her (but not at all damaging), like having her sleep in her crib so I can spoon with my husband, or leaving her with a sitter if a night-out is needed. It's all about balance. I need to be healthy and happy so I can raise a healthy and happy child.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

This is a difficult question. I think there are certain strains of feminism that are more anti-mothering or pro-mothering than others. Feminism can create additional challenges for women when it seriously questions putting children first over the self  (like my old stereotype that stay at home moms were unthinking women - not necessarily so!).

On the flip side, how wonderful that feminism has given mothers choices about how to raise their children and go about their lives, like the freedom to work, if that is what a woman wants, or the freedom to not work, if that is what a woman wants. Choice is a wonderful, beautiful thing.