A Mother’s-Eye View


The due date for the book is 23 September – it is available for pre-order here!

Here is your second extract from Liberating Motherhood.


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          Women have been freed of the expectation of domestic subservience by dint of their sex. Hurray! Put that feather duster down with pride! Yes, things have changed. A bit. Feminism has achievements to be found here and there: we can now talk about sexism as well as experience it; we can demand access to careers or jobs yet are also practically obliged to check in; we can talk about pay gaps in the over-forties without creatively finding ways of rebalancing the books or reframing the debate to talk ‘income’ rather than ‘pay’; and we can still argue amongst ourselves about what to do to improve the lives of girls and women around the world. We now know we can be educated alongside men. At least, in Western culture we can. In some regions it can earn a girl a bullet to the head. We know we can enter the professions, but have to fend off sleaze in professional social networks. We have the vote, just no party that represents us. We know we can secure a safe abortion, sometimes, if we are not shot outside Planned Parenthood or living in a Catholic country. We can demand equal pay, and perhaps get it so long as we behave as an unencumbered economic male with no care responsibilities and with limitless enthusiasm for overtime. But when you become a mother it becomes clear how little freedom you really have.

          Where once I was a feminist, I am now a Feminist with a capital F, since becoming a mother. It became vivid and real to me just how women are devalued when they dare to connect to their female body and power. If feminism is for the rights of women but does not reflect or fully support the rights of a woman as a mother, then it’s letting women down. It is failing to see a huge part of the picture. We are buying tickets for the main show but leaving after the compère. It is not enough to talk work/life balance, childcare, sharing care, flexible working or the pay gap. Everyday Sexism is the tip of the iceberg. If our culture remains misogynistic and premised on patriarchal economics, mothers will have to play by the rules they didn’t write and which fail and exploit them. Sisters, our right to care for our children without sacrificing full citizenship or financial safety is a right yet to be won.

          One could argue that childhood is a recent invention, that parents today invest more time and emotional energy in their children than previous generations, and that our parents and their parents and beyond turned out alright. But we could open our eyes and ears and see a history littered with war, with domestic violence, rape and murder, with neglect and abuse of children, with poverty, with adults with the emotional range of a gnat, with misery and with conflict. We could open our eyes and see patriarchal history, replete with domination and Empire and the oppression of women. We could hope for better for our children. Surely that comes with a greater need for humanity, love and care. Without it, our human futures are going to be pretty miserable.

          So, sisters, feminism must embrace mothers if it is to embrace women. After all, the old feminist phrase got it only half right: the personal is indeed political. But so is the maternal. It sometimes seems that [as Anne Roiphe wrote in Fruitful] “at the place where feminism and motherhood intersect the fires still burn”. Yet, the rights and needs of mothers are a necessary and central force in feminism, if feminism is going to serve women and our humanity and lead to necessary and fundamental social and economic change. It is time for a progressive new movement of women: an energised, humanist, maternal feminism. One which puts humanity at the heart, and remembers to call mum — because, for years, feminists have fought to free women from motherhood … but we are still having to fight to free motherhood itself. For the benefit of mothers and society as a whole. Because [recalling Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born] we are all born to a mother: every human being was grown inside a mother’s body. It is a universal shared experience within our humanity. As Patrice DiQuinzio writes, “being a mother and being mothered are both imbued with tremendous social, cultural, political, economic, psychological, and personal significance”.

         The problem in the twenty-first century is that our perspective as a class — women — has fundamentally changed. We are unaffected by maternity for longer than our ancestors ever were. So by the time the mother problem becomes our problem, we’re so mired in it that any action we can agitate for is too little, too late. For us. The average age for first-time mothers in the West is increasing. It is now into our thirties. What does that mean, in reality? It means feminism is becoming remote from mothering. Becoming a mother later in life brings with it a greater sense of shell shock: we have lived a large proportion of our lives as autonomous, relatively carefree, adults of a ‘post-domestic’ age. We taste economic autonomy, we live equality. Then a baby comes and screws it all up.

          We have had, what, thirty-plus years of child-free feminism to live and preach. No room for nappies. No room for thinking about ‘non-economic’ contributions to society. No room for remembering that while a woman can do anything a man can do, there are three big things a woman can do that a man can’t: create life, give birth, and breastfeed. We need to proclaim that power rather than be ashamed. We have internalised the message that we do not matter and that these things are inconsequential, or make us weaker, or are things to be ‘offed’. We live identity not bodily reality; our experiences may well be ethereally gender-neutral until a human being makes his way down our vagina and attaches to our breast, covering us in amniotic fluid and connecting us with the life-creating and birthing process of generations of women before us. We have sneered at work (breastfeeding) when it is something only a woman can do, disqualifying it from the very definition of ‘work’ (tell that to those of us who are doing it 24/7 for months on end), seeing formula milk as liberation. We devalue work (child-rearing) when it is work traditionally done by women. We have failed to protect and support mothers or value women’s life-creating power and life-sustaining work. Sisters, we must demand greater support and flexibility for that — not simply the liberation from it.

          As Daphne de Marneffe observes, “every woman’s feminism is a love letter to her mother.” Indeed, in modern feminism, ‘mothers’ feature (especially for the younger and child-free variety) often only in relation to our own mother, to be dreaded, hated, adored or feared. Those who are not mothers, or not yet mothers, do not need to address their minds to what it means, and what the variety of needs might be for those women who have children. There is a lack of solidarity, of common ground and respect, within feminism in the twenty-first century. So, the sister lives the dream, albeit within a sexist society which pretends the feminist fight is won. She fights the battle on the feminist front but leaves mothers in the trenches. Because the thing is, she is not, contrary to her noble ideals, Everywoman. She is not her sister, her cousin, her mother. Women are diverse: the concerns of women vary according to our experience, our class, our race, and more. Her concerns and activism can never speak for all women. Add race, sex, sexuality, disability and education and other factors to the mix and you have an intersectional soup of needs, desires and struggles. And the most infuriating part of it is that it is usually only the Feminist the Younger, or Dissatisfied-with-Mothering-Woman or Capitalist-Woman or Journalist-cum-Politician who is heard, lauded, respected, published, elected and heeded.

          The reality is that many women dream of a life where they could be free from the chains of bondage to the workplace, even for a short time, and retain standing and economic security. Many women who are well-educated and working in the professions might well, at one point, sit down and think, “That’s it, I’ve had it, there is more to life than this”. Traditional feminist thought implies that women are put down and kept down by reason of patriarchy and their sex. As much as I agree with that one, its brother, capitalism, has its fingers in mum’s apple pie and is the Iago in the ear of feminist politics. And it whispers “work till you drop”.

          Yes, it is an uncomfortable fact for many, inconvenient but nevertheless true, that women can, and do, bear and breastfeed children. As many families will know, sometimes — if not often — only mummy will do. Like I said, inconvenient. But ask a hundred mothers who their baby cries for, who their toddler cries for, who their preschooler cries for. Even a grown man dying on the battle field whispers, in his last breath, for “mother”. We lived in her. She is not insignificant. This is not to say that sex is destiny. Feminism has been there, and done that. But somewhere along the line, the rightful protest that we are more than mothers and more than our wombs has led to a failure to remember that we are, still, mothers. We can dissect ‘sociological this’, and rebut ‘anthropological that’, but as human beings we have evolved, and I want to believe that we have evolved for decency, responsibility, joy and love. Mothers remain an important part of that outlook, and it has to have a feminist lens. Maternal feminism in purple stockings, reminding the world to remember the need for love and humanity, and which places mothers at the heart, rather than in the margins.

          The political and economic system must start to reflect this reality and the reality of what many, many women want: to have their work as mothers respected, valued and supported. For their return to employment to be of a time of their genuine choosing, rather than compulsion. We have a long lifespan. With that in mind, we can do better than forced workforce participation for our entire adult lives. For the set-up of a mother’s employment to be based on her wishes and her family’s needs, including flexible or home-working and greater opportunities for fathers to work flexibly and take dependency leave. For a mother’s choice (if that is what she decides) to shun employment but to run the home and care for the children instead, to be supported and for socio-economic policies finally to cut mother-women some slack. We talk about choice. We look at careers. We look at education. We look at employment rights. We look at maternity and paternity rights. We encourage the separation of mothers from their babies, toddler and preschool children. We deride women who stay at home when their children are at school. The only choice we are supposed to make is: combine motherhood with employment outside of the home. There is no other way. No other framework within which to protect mothers’ interests (for example, state stipends, a carer’s income, universal basic income, readjusted pay on return to the workforce to allow for the time out, funding for retraining, investment in community projects and services for the family at home) is tolerated or explored. Choice? What choice?


          I was a woman: a professional. Then I became a mother. And things changed. I found myself needing to communicate with other mothers about what is going on in our culture. I couldn’t be the only one, surely, who winced every time mothers at home mentioned that they ‘didn’t work’. The implication being that we are doing nothing. We know this is unfair and untrue: I know it now and I knew it when I hadn’t slept for more than a two-hour stretch, had kept a baby alive and growing on my milk alone, whilst managing to keep a toddler happy, fed and safe, preparing three meals a day, and two loads of laundry before every.other.thing.I.had.done. I knew I couldn’t be alone in wondering why the work of mothers is seen as a lifestyle choice equivalent to keeping poodles. [A concept explored by Nancy Folbre – children are not pets].

          I started my activist and writing career in the snatched moments between a toddler at the breast, tantrum calming, sibling negotiations, moment-to-moment care, reading, phonics, baking, loving, with a particular agenda: to discuss, in a professional manner, The Politics of Mothering. That was the name of the 2015 political pamphlet I wrote, taken from a chapter of a first draft of this book. It was well-researched yet careful. In it I was to remain cautious, fearful of appearing judgemental, worried about offending anyone, and astute to use acceptable English prose at all times. After all, I had been schooled in the law, tutored in decorum and raised as a female — to know my place.

          However, humble and polite requests only get you so far. I researched the issues, talked to varied groups of activists, campaigners, feminists, academics, psychotherapists, volunteers, writers and mothers and realised that I needed my book to speak to mothers first and foremost. Because, at times, we can feel like we are on the sidelines, listening to political discussion about our lives and shaking our heads because it simply doesn’t speak for us. I had to lay it on the line: I couldn’t face this becoming a book gingerly tiptoeing around the issue, apologising for the message out of fear of causing offence. Women do enough of that, already.

          As I wrote this book, I found myself blogging, writing, speaking at the Feminism in London Conference and the “Caring, Survival and Justice v The Tyranny of the Market”, International Women’s Conference in 2015. In between, I became involved with the Women’s Equality Party UK (WEP) as a founding member. I contributed to a policy working group in which I headed a sub-team of myself, Global Women’s Strike and Mothers at Home Matter. We advocated on behalf of the many women who would like to see greater recognition and support for their desire to look after their children. We needn’t have bothered. Instead it demonstrated through its policy launch that it was the Women Employee’s Equality Party (and did I WEEP). “Some women are more equal than mothers” might have been an accurate strapline.

          So when I talk of mothers at home (or mothers who want to be) being personae non grata, I can tell you that I experienced that feeling first-hand in my subsequent dealings with the party: I had had the cheek to talk about the economic vulnerability of mothers who want to care for their children and about the injustice facing women who were deprived of the opportunity to. I had spoken heresy in the house of capitalist equality.

          This demonstrated to me just how urgent the need is for a radical shift in the way in which motherhood, child-rearing and family life are viewed in Western culture and how, as a result, they are treated socially and economically. It requires fundamental change. Because what will the world be like without motherhood? We are starting to see already … Our culture is separating the reproductive function of mother from the caring, nurturing aspect of mothering, which the state insists can be performed more efficiently and expertly by paid carers thus adding to GDP by paid services to childcare-workers. It frees up the ‘wasted labour’ of well-educated mothers as well as the ‘cheap labour’ of less educated women. Call me cynical. Turns out rebellion now resides where my placentas had once been.

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Liberating Motherhood, Birthing the Purplestockings Movement, out 23 September 2016 from Womancraft Publishing. Available for pre-order now.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/margaruiztemprano/7009439289/in/photolist-bFpd6x-HfUQgK-b1hnna-obRKwx-fJJT37-dJqLMc-a41hz8-8QgWDT-9T4FjU-9T4HLG-hNu3mX-nUHfM7-wPe3L8-aarCDT-7KuZN4-7Pa8ZZ-5xoSbR-ATUXUf-ASMNUL-AW8oqc-AW8g3X-ACv9ZY-rnV8aE-7H9sHW-6st1oC-cU3oK-9T4JGE-2XEuw1-8cawik-fd41q5-c8WrjW-6a9EsX-ACuiKf-ASNyLd-zY4CXq-zYeeoR-6fmSsz-4ZsbFC-34KaHY-7n51hx-diDQHo-nMcUpv-9T1SbP-9T4Ecf-4LcpH1-d87wkj-no5AGK-BmN7LZ-6TCu44-zY5pou



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