On My Mind: Feminist Mothering

by Rachael on March 7, 2011

Mondays at The Variegated Life: links to some stuff I’ve liked. Today, we have a theme….

As I reported last week, I finally got a copy of Feminist Mothering* by Andrea O’Reilly. Since then, I’ve read the introduction and have sort-of-read, sort-of-skimmed O’Reilly’s chapter, based on an interview with her daughters. I’ve also had an epiphany of sorts.

I’m taking up this book with a number of questions: What does it mean to be a feminist mother? Am I a feminist mother? Why am I, who have identified as a feminist from the moment I first heard the word feminist, even questioning whether or not I am a feminist mother? The epiphany has to do with that last question and came to me as I was reading the following passage from O’Reilly’s introduction:

Empowered mothering … calls into question the dictates of patriarchal motherhood. Empowered mothers do not regard childcare as the sole responsibility of the biological mother nor do they regard 24/7 mothering as necessary for children. They look to friends, family, and their partners to assist with childcare and often raise their children with an involved community of what may be termed co-mothers or othermothers. In most instances, these mothers combine mothering with paid employment or activism, and so the full-time intensive mothering demanded in patriarchal motherhood is not practiced by these mothers. In addition, many of these mothers call into question the belief that mothering requires excessive time, money, and energy, and thus they practice a mode of mothering that is more compatible with paid employment. Also, they see the development of a mother’s selfhood as beneficial to mothering and not antithetical to it as assumed in patriarchal motherhood….

The passage goes on. I hadn’t even gotten yet to the part in which O’Reilly distinguishes feminist mothering from empowered mothering (“… while in practice the two seem similar — demanding more involvement from fathers, insisting on a life outside of motherhood — only with feminist mothering does this involve a larger awareness of, and challenge to, the gender (among other) inequities of patriarchal culture”), but already I understood why I have such a hard time seeing my feminist mothering: Nobody has ever suggested that I should take up 24/7 mothering, that I should not combine mothering with paid employment, that the development of my selfhood is fundamentally selfish, etc.

Not in person, anyway. (No trolls here as Catherine at Her Bad Mother must fight, as she does in this post that you really must read.) But, silly, silly me, how could I have forgotten that the belief that I and just about every other mother — no, woman — I know should be living our lives very differently than we actually do pervades the very structure of our society?

Apparently the GOP is out to remind me. First, I read “Abortion Legislation and the New Congress” by Valerie Young at MomsRising, which begins:

The new Congress has immediately taken up several pieces of legislation which will restrict women’s ability to obtain safe abortions in certain circumstances and change the current law in several significant ways. Policy watchers were surprised by the speed with which the Republican majority in the House brought reproductive rights to the fore, because the new GOP leadership had said that jobs and unemployment were to be the first priority.

The italics are mine; alarm bells went off in my head when I read that sentence, because it brought to mind Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas argument (“The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes”) — but in reverse. Katha Pollitt (as she does again in this column) pointed the fallacy of his argument years ago, when Frank’s book first came out.

Then I read Joanne Bamberger’s summary of current anti-woman legislation at Politics Daily, in which she points out that the “forcible rape” language has not actually been removed from H.R. 3.

Then I read (via Blue Milk — what’s a Monday post without a “via Blue Milk”?) Lisa Belkin at Motherlode, reporting that Human Rights Watch is calling out the U.S. on its failure to provide paid leave and work-family supports. The 90-page report, Belkin summarizes:

looks at realities known to all American parents — i.e., “little or no paid family leave after childbirth or adoption, employer reticence [sic] to offer breastfeeding support or flexible schedules, and workplace discrimination against new parents, especially mothers” — and describes them as human rights violations. The lack of such policies have “grave health, financial and career repercussions” for parents, the organization concludes, and urges reforms that will bring the U.S., which is now “an extreme outlier” in line with the rest of the world.

Belkin concludes that it is up “to those of us here at home to pick up this particular baton.” I don’t know what to do with it, though. The way I lead my life is one form of resistance. But what else could I be doing? What more could my feminist motherhood be?

* Link provided for information only; I am not affiliated with SUNY Press.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Seonaid March 7, 2011 at 11:58 AM

Keeping the conversation going is a huge contribution. Just think how much harder it would be if all of us were simply leading our lives without any support network of others who are trying to do the same thing.

At the same time, though, the upsurge in conservative values frightens me. I don’t know how such backwards looking ideas gain so much traction. I mean, yes, I see how wealthy white men who are entrenched in the current power structures want to make sure that they maintain power. But I don’t know why the large fraction of the population supports it. What is so threatening about women/mothers as fully operational human beings that it is still contested this late in history?
Seonaid recently posted… What Are You Reading


Rachael March 17, 2011 at 10:47 AM

You know, though I agreed with you theoretically about the importance of keeping the conversation going, I’ve had doubts about the value of my contribution. As a WAHM, I feel doubly isolated: isolated in my work, and isolated in my mothering. And then I read Kecia Driver McBride’s essay in Feminist Mothering, and now I’m won over to the idea that telling our stories is important. I just finished the essay yesterday evening, so I need to digest. And then, I hope, write about it. So thanks for pointing me toward the way.

As for the upsurge in conservative values, is that going on in Canada, too?


Seonaid March 17, 2011 at 5:44 PM

Oh, my goodness. There’s this ongoing conversation here about eliminating our social safety net, privatizing our health care, increasing all our tuitions, replacing all educational grants with a system of more and more loans… Our environmental policy is humiliating, and we will go down kicking and screaming to preserve our right to continue polluting just as much as we “need” to to maintain our place of privilege in the world. It’s a different *kind* of conservatism, but it is certainly taking hold fiercely despite all polls to the contrary. I am perplexed.
Seonaid recently posted… Being the Good Enough Mother


Rachael March 22, 2011 at 10:27 PM

Ah, so Canada isn’t really the escape that so many U.S. progressives imagine that it is? Though I’ve never been one to say, “If [fill in the blank] gets elected, I’m moving to Canada!” It may be because I’m a New Yorker and live in my Gothamite, not-quite-like-the-rest-of-America bubble.

I have a half-baked theory about why this sort of conservatism might be taking hold. Don’t we progressives come off as hopeful with all our ideas about how to make the world a better place? Whereas conservatives are all like the shitbird, telling us this is the REAL WORLD and it’s a TOUGH PLACE and we ought to give up our dreams (and our social safety net, and our health care system, and so on …).

Like I said, it’s a half-baked theory.


Anita March 7, 2011 at 3:40 PM

Great, thoughtful post. Thank you for writing it and for linking back to the MomsRising blog! We appreciate it.

Anita recently posted… Making Time to Protest Colorado’s Budget Cuts to Education


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