Feminism and mothering
Once upon a time, women didn’t have options. We were expected to learn domestic arts while living in our father’s house, then to be “given away” by him to another man, whose house we would keep and whose children we would bear. Our sexuality was tightly controlled through shame and restriction of freedom. Clergy thought that the pain we often feel in childbirth was only our due as daughters of Eve, and to alleviate it was a sin.
Feminism started by asking, “Can’t women enjoy what men have?” We’ve made huge strides toward that goal. Women can get an education and choose a career path just like men. Women compete in the job market and do work that was once considered only for men. Women own their own property, make their own financial decisions, and are more frequently the primary breadwinners in their households. We now have legal and social freedom to express our sexuality, along with the access to birth control that makes that freedom practical to exercise. We’re still fighting for equality and freedom in many areas, from wage equity to abortion access, but we’ve come a long way.
And yet, it seems to me that “female things” are still considered second-best, even by many feminists. Is it feminist to buy into the idea that the roles traditionally reserved for males are desirable, powerful, and of value, while the roles traditionally reserved for females are undesirable, disenfranchising, and without value? As part of our (relatively) newfound freedom, women wear pants, work for a wage, and need not be shackled to our fertility – roles and behaviors that once belonged only to men. But if a man wants to become a nurse, or be the primary caregiver to children, he’s laughed at, or assumed to be marking time until he can find real employment. God forbid a man want to wear a dress or other traditionally feminine clothing – at best, he’ll be laughed at.
Is it possible we’re ready for a new wave of feminism that is about valuing traditionally female things as much as male things? On one level, the availability of baby formula is feminist because it frees women from the need to be close to their babies all the time. But wouldn’t it be more radically empowering to also have a default assumption that workplaces need to accommodate female reproductive biology by routine availability of long maternity leave, and on-site daycare and excellent pumping facilities to facilitate breastfeeding? Shouldn’t we see going back to work and staying home with a baby as equally challenging and empowering options? If femaleness is equal to maleness, caring for young children should be seen as just as exhilarating and valuable as being a high-ranking executive.
On one level, the availability of pain relief in labor is a decidedly feminist victory. But even modern hospital practices can be horribly misogynistic, betraying an underlying assumption that a woman in labor is by definition a hysterical, dangerous, incompetent who must be managed and directed by the more capable medical staff. Doctors and nurses all too frequently talk down to, bully, and even physically assault laboring mothers in the name of protecting their babies. And that’s another problem – discussions of where and how to birth so often focus only on the outcomes for the baby, ignoring not only the comfort and autonomy of the women involved, but even their health risks. The message is loud and clear: “Your needs are not significant; you are only valuable as a vessel for a baby,” and isn’t that an attitude we’ve been trying to do away with?
Nursing in public is a big debate currently, but I don’t think many in the “anti” faction appreciate how big a feminist issue this is. Acceptance of nursing in public is about female empowerment on two levels. First, it diminishes the objectification of women. For so long, breasts have been all about sexuality and the male gaze. To acknowledge that they aren’t just about arousing the prurient interest of men is to elevate women beyond being mere sex objects. Second, nursing in public is vital to allowing mothers full access to social life. As more women are nursing, trying to do the best thing for their babies, more women will be out and about and need to nurse. Only someone who hasn’t nursed an infant would ever say, “Just time your excursions for when the baby doesn’t need to nurse,” or “Just pump some milk and use a bottle,” or “Just sit on a public toilet for 20 minutes and nurse.” These are not practical solutions. What is practical is to get over our societal perversion about breasts and allow mothers full access to life outside their homes by supporting, or at least ignoring, public nursing.
And that leads to my final thought – the Mommy Wars are largely due to a double bind women are put in. Nursing is a great example. All the experts say it’s important for your baby’s health to breastfeed. Women get hammered with the message that they need to nurse to avoid exposing their babies to unnecessary risk. But society leaves all the onus on the moms; when it comes to actual, broad-based cultural support for these allegedly vital behaviors, our institutions suddenly get very silent. All the messages to moms are “YOU need to do this for your baby,” never “here is what WE’RE doing to help you help your baby.” Those on-site daycares, pumping facilities, and welcoming places for nursing in public are few and far between. This leaves mothers with all the burden of giving perfect infant care, without any of the necessary support. So moms feel guilty, frustrated, and angry. And then we accuse each other of being negligent or intolerant, selfish or holier-than-thou.
Is it possible to truly value women’s choices, no matter what? To find power and worth in mothering just as much as we do in employment? To give women real options, with any decision being greeted with respect and care? To turn all that guilt-induced infighting into demands for societal support? I think these goals are just as important as fighting for equal pay and safeguarding control over our fertility.