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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.