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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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.