Feminism and the Mummy Mystique: Why being a mother isn't the "full stop" on my life

If you see yourself as a mother to the exclusion of all other roles, I think you become dependent on your children. You need them to need you.

Feminism is not here to make you feel good about yourself. It does not want you to swim in a warm soup of self-regard. Feminism’s job is not to reassure you that you are a “good woman”. Feminism is here to question what we mean by “woman” and ask whose version of “good” we’re adhering to.

The ultimate goal of feminism is not choice, however often people claim that it is: feminism shouldn’t need to laud you for making a decision while being a woman. Feminism is not your mum, here to take pride in everything you do and gently mop up your accidents.

Feminism is a political movement for the safety and equality of women. Stating that is the easy part. The hard part is defining what safety and equality will look like in practice, and how they can be achieved – and to answer that question, we (women, feminists) must become critics of our own lives and the context in which we live.

To reduce feminism to the feeble flag-waving of “celebrating choice” is, simply, to refuse to do the work of critical thinking. As Michaele Ferguson writes in her essay Choice Feminism and the Fear of Politics, it is to reject the possibility of change, which is to reject politics, which is to say that the cosy sloganeering of “choice feminism” is no feminism at all.

This weekend, I went to the excellent Mumsnet BlogFest and took part in a panel on the question “Can you be a ‘mummy-blogger’ and still be a feminist?” My feelings on this are fundamentally uncontroversial: yes, you can be a “mummy-blogger” and still be a feminist. At first sight, this could be one of those null questions of feminism: can you be a feminist and wear high heels, can you be a feminist and a stay-at-home mum, can you be a feminist and shave your pubes?

The answer to all these things is yes, because none of these things can possibly represent the whole of your political existence. There are broader questions a feminist could ask of all these phenomena and why they are particularly female, but none of them is inherently anti-feminist. Nor does deciding to do any one of them qualify as a feminist act just because you made the decision to do it. It’s simply a thing a woman has done, and as Glosswitch says, that’s as it should be: “one objective of feminism should be to help women’s decisions become less loaded. It’s oppressive to have to represent a whole sex in everything you do.”

Actually, though, I think “mummy-blogging” more interesting than that, which is why I agreed to do the panel. I think the act of blogging about motherhood and discussing the domestic in a public forum is potentially powerful for feminism, because it brings the hidden labour of the household into view and allows women to share the joys and pangs of the unpaid and often unregarded caring responsibilities that still fall overwhelmingly to female hands.

That’s “mummy-blogging” as cultural criticism or mass observation. But there is, of course, another form of “mummy-blogging” which is about cultivating a certain image of motherhood: they are often pastel, picturesque and present the work of mothering as the totality of the author’s life. They are a sort of fiction – particularly if the blog is a commercial concern, because anyone who works on the internet can tell you that you spend much more time worrying about stats and chasing PRs than you do exchanging tender moments with your subject matter.

In Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, she points out the incredible hypocrisy in the fact that those women journalists of the 50s and 60s who expounded the surpassing pleasure of domestic femininity (and Friedan was one of them) were not living the life they propagandised. They were working mothers, whose work was telling other mothers to find fulfillment through total immersion in home and family. To borrow a Moran-ism: they were Vichy France with tits.

Yesterday, inadvertently, I ran face first into the 21st-century feminine mystique. This is how I did it: by saying that motherhood should not be a full stop on a woman’s life, and that I am glad that I went back to university and finished my degree after having my first child, partly because I think having interests and ambitions that were not my child has made me a better parent.

A section of the audience reacted very strongly to that statement. This included: hissing, being accused of believing that less qualified mothers are bad mothers (I don’t believe this, not least because I’ve met so many stupid graduates) and someone saying that being a mum was a “full stop” for her and she was “proud” of that.

A woman can, of course, choose to disavow all involvement with the economic, social, intellectual and political world beyond her children. But I fail to see how declaring the end of your personal agency and development is something anyone can take pride in. I don’t think the full-stop mother is a bad woman (I don’t know her, though judging by yesterday, I think she might be a rude one) but I do think that her choice sounds like a bad one. As a feminist, I would never advise any woman to declare that her capabilities had topped out with reproduction.

In fact, I’d call it a heinous waste of human potential and suggest that it puts an alarming amount of pressure on your children to support your ego. I often think of parenting as like one of those perverse games where the aim is to shed all the cards you hold as quickly as possible. You win (or succeed would probably be a better word) when your children have achieved their full potential for independence and let go of your hand. But if you see yourself as a mother to the exclusion of all other roles, I think you become dependent on your children. You need them to need you: the cult of self-abnegating motherhood is ultimately one that gives more prestige to the mother than benefit to the child.

My children are still young, but in them I can see the lineaments of the adults they will become. I know that one day, surprisingly soon, my children will cease to depend on me and I imagine that day as a happy one. As a mother, I very much hope my children will accomplish more than just providing me with grandchildren. I am ambitious for them – as distinct from being ambitious through them.

I hope that, in whatever way they find, my boy and my girl will continue the work of debating the world we live in and doing what they can to change it into a better one. Change is frightening when you are comfortable. But that’s OK, feminism is not necessarily here to make you comfortable. It’s here to redistribute power equally between men and women. And if you don’t want that, you cannot simply “choose” to be a feminist.

This piece first appeared on sarahditum.com and is crossposted here with permission

The cult of self-abnegating motherhood is ultimately one that gives more prestige to the mother than benefit to the child. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.