It’s been my observation that there is an uneasy truce between some feminists and mothers. Like two sisters who publicly get along but can’t help making the slight dig.
Feminism looks at mothering and wonders, “But I did so much for you! Why aren’t you out there ruling the world?” Mothering replies, “I did exactly as you wanted. I exercised choice.” They then both get cranky, feeling unappreciated and unable to control the actions of another.
It’s something I recognise in the work and socialising I’ve done: some mothers just get their hackles up whenever the “f” word is mentioned. I’ve had mums tell me how they feel looked down upon by feminism, and that any criticism, no matter how slight, feels like saw on flesh.
If feminism has a new front that it hasn’t fully pioneered and supported, it is in the family home.
This came into the spotlight when Michelle Obama made a speech at September's Democratic National Convention, signing off with this now-famous phrase: “Let me tell you something. I say all of this tonight not just as First Lady, no, not just as a wife. You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still 'mom-in-chief'.”
Oh, you were so awesome until you reminded me you shot a baby out of there! It’s like you can feel your feminist membership rescinding
Oh, how everyone shuddered. And American blogger and feminist writer Jessica Valentin tweeted: “I long for the day when powerful women don’t need to assure Americans that they’re moms above all else.”
It feels like some feminists look down on mothers. I’ve lost count of the times when some childless friends drop their shoulders and sigh when I’ve mentioned my daughter. Oh, you were so awesome until you reminded me you shot a baby out of there and now have to become intimately acquainted with stain remover! It’s like you can feel your feminist membership rescinding.
Last week I was at a panel where a woman repeatedly stated her distaste for kids. I completely respect her right to do that, given society’s pressure on her, and refuse to judge anyone for their familial state. Women in particular are treated terribly when they choose to not reproduce, and making a stand to say that you are more than your ability to squeeze out a kid is momentous.
By the same token, I also respect my right to not feel like a braindead idiot for the fact that I do have a child.
I dislike defining myself as a mother; I find it insulting and actually incredibly embarrassing sometimes. I feel that there's the implied notion that I am nothing without my children (or, when talking to other feminists, that I’ve betrayed them somehow).
There’s a reason why it’s insulting and annoying. After giving a deft and soaring speech, Michelle Obama positioned herself as “one of the girls”. She traded the intelligence she is known for with the emotions she's expected to market. It's understandable on the campaign trail, but upsetting for others who expect more from her.
When we focus on a woman’s ability or status as a mother, the signal is that we're trading the intellect for the emotional. We’re focusing on her ability to shoot out a baby and her ability to show emotions and care for the child.
On the other hand, this has needed to be said for a while:
Mothers are not doing the hardest job in the world.
Motherhood is not about mystical sacrifice (career and finances, apparently so.)
Mothers are not special, unique creatures who are quietly guiding humanity like benign guardian figures who require yearly chocolate and flower tributes.
Mothers are – and I really want this to sink in – just women who are raising children in partnership with another person, or by themselves. Mothers are no more unique than fathers, mothers have no superpowers, mothers are not mystical queens of spiritual power who look over their flock, and mothers do not have vaginas that act as new age wind charms that emit soothing music.
Yes, becoming a parent changes your life. It has a direct impact on your finances, time and, unfortunately, career. It can give some added perspective to how you see the world or yourself and others. But to suggest that it is the prime defining aspect of a person does a disservice to gender, families, and our notions of intellect and personality.
People may be mythologising motherhood because it makes them feel good about what they’re doing. Others are mythologising motherhood because they think it’s something that only a woman should or can do, which insults men and women alike.
Are there motivated, organised and generally great feminist mothers who are proud of their nutball children? Yes. Without a doubt. I’m one of them. You may be too. Many of my friends are. This woman totally is.
Feminism and mothers need to broker some sort of better arrangement.
Mothers, take off your capes; we are not supermums, we are parents.
Feminism, families aren’t betraying you. Open up those arms. We need to work together.
This article first appeared on dailylife.com.au.