Sunday, August 23, 2015


I am knee deep in my own ideas about feminism and modern motherhood these days. The subject overwhelms me, much like my shelving unit which I plan on organizing on some distant day when I can tackle four years of expired batteries, grocery store receipts and leaky pens. Bang in the middle of PhD applications, preparing to go back to work, reading forceful polemic by French feminists and caring for a mama-obsessed, co-sleeping toddler, I realise how many hundreds of times a day I wonder what my own position is on all this.

Starry eyed and pregnant, I was all about the essentialist natural motherhood movement. I will have an epidural free natural birth! I will breastfeed exclusively! I will co-sleep! I will wear my baby day and night! I will take six months maternity leave! I will make my own damn applesauce! Well, I did. Natural birth, applesauce and all. Would I recommend it? Maybe not quite as militantly as before. I wouldn't go as far as those who say motherhood is "all joy and no fun." For me personally, it's a LOT of fun. I like wearing my baby, I like taking him everywhere, I even like the nonstop requests and tantrums of toddlerhood-they make me laugh. But maybe that's because I was lucky enough to read Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Ismat Chughtai and Elisabeth Badinter all in the first six months of my baby's life (remember, this exclusive breastfeeding thing means a LOT of reading. There's only so much time you can spend stroking a baby's head while he goes at you like a baby shark). Feminist literature-whether from the 60s or 2000s-made me simultaneously relaxed about the parenting decisions I made and angry about the pressure to make them.

Two weeks into parenting and I was pissed off at the idea of Total Motherhood. Mind you, I actually enjoyed caring for a newborn and my child was loved and wanted. It wasn't the staying home, breastfeeding or nurturing that was bothersome, it was the assumption of it being superior-the only way to earn my badge of being a Good Mom. All of a sudden, my Facebook newsfeed was exploding with ridiculous memes celebrating how moms stay in sweatpants all day, stepping on Legos and resenting their useless husbands while martyring themselves as chef/nanny/teacher/nurse/driver/insert other everyday task. I couldn't believe how much energy was expended on blogs about playground etiquette (for moms) and sharing sentimental articles about how "all bodies are beautiful" and pictures of celebrities out with their Baby Bjorns. Is this some kind of millennial problem? Are we so used to instant gratification that we constantly crave approval for our most mundane and personal decisions? Or is all of this part of some patriarchal conspiracy to keep women bickering about Bjorn vs Ergo while breastfeeding on their endless maternity leave (because you wouldn't just go back to work and leave your child wailing for more oxytocin, would you)?! Meanwhile, daddy changes diapers on vacation and gets a parade with a marching band. 

This isn't pure speculation, it's fact. Studies show that for every successive child, women become MORE productive at work and simultaneously make LESS money than their male and child-free counterparts. Men on the other hand are REWARDED for having a wife and children, since they are perceived to be more responsible and therefore better potential employees. What exactly did our foremothers fight for if women themselves devote all their time to perpetuating this culture rather than turning it on its head and demanding equal opportunities for financial independence and career fulfillment?

Let me be very clear when I say women DO perpetuate this idea, which benefits nobody but a privileged class of males. I won't use biologically deterministic ideas about what is "natural," but it is normal to want the best for our offspring. We do love our children more than life itself, whether we carried them inside our bodies or not. That's what makes the idea of there being a single successful way (one that not coincidentally relegates mothers to "natural" caregivers) to nurture them so insidious and damaging; it preys on our deepest desires and worst fears of not providing adequate care. 

A point that often isn't noted in the works of earlier feminist theorists is that the natural motherhood movement originally grew out of a a desire for women to reclaim their own bodies from a medicalized male dominated domain. Midwife led birthing, home birthing, exclusive breastfeeding etc. were powerful tools in the fantasy of creating a new, matriarchal world order in which women are allowed to trust their own bodies and take pride in their biological endowments. However, like everything else in the world, this idea has been co opted by a society that remains patriarchal and fundamentally unjust. Male gynaecologists are now making statements at conferences declaring that experiencing the pain of childbirth is necessary for mother infant bonding. A hysterical revulsion accompanies formula feeding or supplementation in mothers' meetup groups, prompting bottle feeding mothers to murmur apologies and explanations to complete strangers. And in the less academic but no less important domain of social media, it is de rigueur for stay at home mothers to constantly complain about how their "full time job" isn't afforded enough respect. On the contrary, nothing in society is given more respect than the work of raising children. But it is a perverse respect, one that rests on the Good Mom prototype (working mothers need not apply) and leaves no room at all for fathers, except as bumbling figures in the background. It is the very reason men who are in fact great dads doubt their own "natural" parenting skills. The cult of total motherhood, of being a mother first and a woman last, of having mom friends who wear mom jeans and do mom things, is damaging to us all. 

I am afraid to publish this blog, which probably says more about the issue than what I've written about it. I'm afraid of being judged, of having to justify that I am in fact a good parent, that I do actually love my child above all else. I just realised somewhere along the way that my incredible kid is better off living in a world where his mother is not expected to forever give up her body, career or self to nurture him. He's better off learning that beauty isn't what defines a woman's worth, so theres no need for platitudes about how pregnancy and childbirth makes you automatically "beautiful." By the time I get around to cleaning that shelving unit, I just hope I have more ideas about how best to raise a feminist myself.