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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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.