When my youngest son was in nursery, staff would allow toddlers to dictate messages for the Mother’s and Father’s Day cards. I’ll never forget my son’s choices for 2018. For my partner: “I love my daddy because he plays with me.” For me: “I love my mummy because she buys me things from the shop.”
To be honest, I don’t even know what was meant by “things from the shop” (possibly Freddo bars from Sainsbury’s?). In any case, reading the card made me feel like the mother in one of those eighties films, in which mummy’s a career-obsessed bitch who needs to learn the error of her ways. It would be the kind of film Susan Faludi writes about in Backlash, in which the main character is played by Glenn Close, Diane Keating or Rebecca De Mornay. That was me, only less successful career-wise.
Since then, however, another idea has crossed my mind. Last week, in response to some meanie feminists objecting to an ITV news piece in which “the typical mother” was portrayed by someone male, one wise man stepped in to declare that “‘mother’ can describe whoever is fulfilling the gendered social role we associate with mothering”. Well, that’s obviously not me. Am I in fact a dad?
The evidence is compelling: first, there are the cards. Then there’s the fact that my children refer to swear words as “mummy words” — surely “daddy words” would be more appropriate? I am rubbish at housework, baking cakes and all that “knowing when people’s birthdays are” stuff at which mums are supposed to excel. My partner is a primary teacher, so he’s the one who spends the school holidays looking after our children. At this very moment, I am writing in the study — my “mum cave” — whilst my partner is doing something nurturing with our seven year old.
What is a mother, but a bunch of crass stereotypes bodged together
All of this would indicate that I am a dad, and my partner is a mum. The only reason I still call myself “mum” is because I am a parent who is also a woman. Then again, maybe I’m not a woman? I have short hair and use the title “Dr”. I might have given birth to these children, but what does that even mean? After all, if giving birth has anything to do with being a mother, what does that say about adoptive mothers? Or people who’ve given birth and don’t want to be mothers? What is a mother, but a bunch of crass stereotypes bodged together by Twitter’s finest thinkers?
Sod that. I’m being a dad.
As you might have guessed, I don’t really believe this. I can think of few things more traditionally sexist — more fundamentally anti-feminist — than telling women that their status as mothers depends on how closely they conform to a “gendered social role”. I grew up in a household in which being a mother was strongly associated with social stereotypes. It’s one of the things that made me a feminist. There is nothing trivial about suggesting that “mother” should be defined by gender roles rather than biology, not least when that which is imposed on female people is merely an opt-in for males. The conscript does not experience the “gendered social role” in the same way as the ITV-endorsed volunteer.
In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich distinguished between “motherhood as experience and institution”. Her point was that motherhood, as constructed under patriarchy, did not capture the inner lives, desires and needs of mothers themselves. A better, more humane way of mothering was possible. It drives me slightly insane that right now, it is being suggested — in the name of progress! — that there’s nothing wrong with the institution after all. If it doesn’t measure up to your experiences, maybe you’re just not a mother. Same goes for being a woman — the stereotypes are here to stay. Non-feminine uterus owners, you know where the door is.
I was in my forties and had been a mother for almost a decade when I first started reading feminist texts about motherhood. Until then, I’d experienced great anxiety that being a mother might trap me in the stereotypes I’d tried to reject. My knowledge of “feminists doing motherhood” amounted to “Betty Friedan noticed that middle-class women get really bored when looking after babies”. When I finally began exploring more, what I found shocked me.
Maternal feminists have devoted an enormous amount of thought to the question of how mothers, as female parents — that is, members of the sex class who gestate and bear children, regardless of whether the child an individual mother raises is biologically hers — might construct motherhood on their own terms. This thinking takes into account the differences between women, as well as the reproductive biology that connects them.
Like so much women’s work, it can be dismissed in an instant
Rich wrote about mothering as a lesbian, without the presence of a man to serve as definitional foil. Writers such as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Roberts have explored the status of mothers of colour in societies where the “gendered social role” of motherhood is fixated on white femininity. Nancy Chodorow and Sara Ruddick have used the experience and practice of mothering as a starting point for articulating a feminist ethics of care. Recent writing on motherhood, in works such as Lucy Jones’ Matresence and Marianne Levy’s Don’t Forget to Scream, does not describe a pre-existing social role that certain individuals simply choose to march into. It describes mothers as human beings. Their humanity is the starting point, not an inconvenience to be worked around.
All of this work is so rich and so important, yet like so much women’s work (particularly mother’s work) it can be dismissed in an instant. To reassess what motherhood means, how it does and does not relate to the specific things only female bodies can do, is a tremendous challenge. It is absolutely fundamental to feminism.
Yet now we have a bunch of men coming along and telling us, “Nah. Being a mum is just being the parent who likes the mumsy things and does the mumsy stuff.” Seriously? [Mummy word] that.
I am no less of a mother — none of us are — for rejecting the norms imposed on us. The word “mother” is taken, and it’s taken by women who are far too diverse to conform to stereotypes.
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