The fabulous Blue Milk, feminist mother of a girl and a boy, has a long-running series of 10 feminist motherhood questions. This is my response to her questions.
1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
My feminism is about empowering women as they are, not telling them what they ought to be. I’ve been feminist since I was a girl; I learned it at my mother’s knee. I think one of the earliest manifestations of my feminism was a poem I wrote at school when I was about 14. We were studying ballads, and we had to write one, so I chose to write a protest ballad. A judge in New Zealand had given a man a more lenient sentence for physical violence against his partner, because she was living with him, and thus she was no good trash anyway. I can’t find the case on the web, and I don’t have the poem any more, but I think that was one of my earliest experiences of being feminist. So I was a feminist long before I became a mother, but my motherhood has informed and changed my feminism.
2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
The huge and unconditional commitment to another person.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
I’ve become more accepting of the differing ways of being feminist and less doctrinaire. I think that’s in part because of the huge compromises I have had to make, as most mothers do, between my ideals and my reality. I’ve had to learn to become much more flexible, much more inclined to go with the flow, to adjust to what my children need.
4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?
Perhaps because I am a mother of daughters, I have focused on helping my girls to learn to stand up for themselves, and to be independent. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve started working on deconstructing fairy tales and media stories and social events, talking about the way they create and reinforce stereotypes. I’ve encouraged the girls to choose for themselves. I have avoided, as much as possible, all the “girly” things, but sometimes my girls have overridden me. That’s been a little difficult; on the one hand, I loathe Barbie, but on the other, when one of my girls chose to spend her carefully saved pocket money on a Barbie doll, I didn’t want to stop her, because it was her choice, and at that stage, I was pleased that she was asserting her independence.
I’m not sure that all of this would differ from a non-feminist mother. I guess that most mothers want their children to be able to stand up for themselves. Perhaps the big difference is in the content of independence; in our house it’s about being able to look at the society we live in, and choose to go our own way, rather than being strong in that society.
I’m a feminist every day, all the time. It permeates my parenting, so I find it hard to work out how it impacts on my parenting. It just is.
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
Yes. I feel compromised right now; I’m not working much, and I tend to describe myself as a housewife. I don’t think that models independence and self sufficiency very well. On the other hand, I think that we do quite well in modelling an equitable relationship of give and take, where what we are working to create is a family.
Failed as a feminist mother? Of course! I’m a human being after all. I occupy a very traditional role – I run the house, and do most of the cooking and cleaning and child care. That all enables us to function as a family, but it also enables my partner to go full tilt at his career and his job, but my career is non-existent, for the next few years at least. What we are doing is good for us, but it may not be so good for me in the longer term. On the other hand, I think it will be good for the girls in the longer term.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
No. I’ve been feminist for so long that it was never even an issue.
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice. How do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
I’ve already talked about that a bit, I think because the compromises are what occupy me most at present. Yes, it is a sacrifice in some respects, of some of my own ambitions, but motherhood is my own chosen path too. I value being a mother, and I value motherhood. I think we need to value what women do, not just what we think women ought to do.
8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?
He’s supportive, and involved, and committed. He’s happy to rear our daughters as feminist, and he very much sees our parenting as a partnership. Early on, he spent about six months at home with our eldest daughter while I worked on my thesis, and that was tremendously empowering for him. It gave him, and me, a lot of confidence in his parenting.
9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
Hmmm… that’s a long time ago now. Those early years passed in such a haze that I can barely remember what we actually did. As my daughters have gotten older, I’ve found that they need me more, and I have tried to respond to that need, and to be here more for them. Physically here – just about and present in their daily lives, collecting them after school, making a snack for them, supervising homework, cooking dinner. It’s no longer “attachment” parenting, just “present” parenting. I feel happier about going down this route than the alternatives, for the time being, but it does mean compromising my own ambitions. Mind you, I’m not sure what my ambitions are.
10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
I don’t think mothers are valued yet, by wider society, if not by feminists. I’ve seen some pretty nasty stuff about mothers and mothering on some feminist blogs (none on blogs down under in Australia and New Zealand!), and that has astonished me. Feminism is a large tent, so I don’t expect all of us to agree with each other, but I find it very distressing when some feminists attack other women for doing and valuing one of the most important jobs there is, that is, bearing and rearing children.
I think feminism has given mothers confidence to stand up for themselves and their children – the pro-breastfeeding protests in Western Australia recently were fantastic. I think it has also given women the freedom to choose to be mothers, or choose not to be, ‘though of course, they still get criticised no matter what they do. It has also enabled women to choose to do something as well as mothering. But of course, that’s easier said than done, and I know that I have ended up, for the time being, in an uneasy compromise between autonomy and meeting everyone else’s needs first.