Radical Feminist Mothers, and Why We Need Them
Marianne Williamson says there is one thing in common with all mammalian species that ensures their survival, and that is a fierce, protective mother. Last time I wrote about a celebration and acknowledgment of the place of feminism in our lives. This time I advocate that we need to become feminists, radical feminist mothers, and that our species depends on it! Really? It may seem from the outside that much of feminism has rejected the role of mothering, because of its associations with being kept ‘in shackles’, tied to the kitchen sink, bound for the drudgery of repetitive, non-stimulating and under-acknowledged tasks, financially dependent, and unable to express ourselves freely in the wider world.
But I say we embrace our role as mothers. If I were a nurse or teacher, and campaigned for better work conditions, no one would think that conflicts with the ideals of feminism, in fact the opposite. Well, I’m a mother, and I put the case that we need better conditions. To fully explain why, I point you in the direction of writer Robin Grille, and his books Parenting for a Peaceful World and Heart to Heart Parenting. To summarise his stance in a sentence would be to say “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”, so we had better look after that hand. In the introduction to Parenting for a Peaceful World, Robin Grille confidently says ‘The key to world peace and sustainability lies in the way we collectively relate to our children. . . the human brain and heart that are met primarily with empathy in the critical early years cannot and will not grow to choose a violent or selfish life.’ He discusses the research into brain development, which shows how neurological pathways are formed during infancy, which create permanent patterns of behaviour towards either peace or violence. He then goes on to discuss the history of childhood – which is very disturbing, and includes quite a lot of infanticide and abandonment (thank god for adequate, safe contraception!).
Horrible examples of past treatment of children, which were quite common, give us hope, as the evidence is that childhoods have, in general, greatly improved. What may have once been considered ‘human nature’ can be shown to be a consequence of childrearing practices. Grille also examines a few case studies of how parenting practices relate to historical incidences – for example twenty-seven years before the French Revolution, with its seeds of democracy and the catch phrase ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’, the concept of ‘family love’ and ‘mother love’ first appeared in French literature, and there were “a flurry of publications urging mothers to keep their own babies at home and to breastfeed them”, as opposed to sending them out to a wet nurse, which was a common practice at the time.
In contrast, in the years preceding Nazi Germany, parenting manuals advocated strict corporal punishment, and discouraged signs of affection. Hitler himself was beaten into unconsciousness by his father.
So, our parenting, especially in infancy and early childhood, is important, and has ramifications on the population as a whole in the not–to–distant future. Can you imagine what seeds we are planting as we claim our children back to home-educate them! Or can you imagine what all those new babies left in child care centres, with only one adult for 5 babies – not enough for even the best carer to give adequate cuddles – would be like in their middle ages, when their generation is responsible for old people homes? Lets hope the people who received attachment parenting as babies are in charge!
It turns out that although it may for some of us feel like we are left in the margins of the world when we stay home to parent, we are actually in the creative centre! It does matter what we do and how we do it. But this is not an invitation for motherly guilt – god knows we get enough of that! Instead it is an invitation to lobby for better work conditions. Our job, collectively, is pivotal.
So lets take a look at the conditions under which our children are raised. My sister worked in a childcare centre in a small rural town. She says that as a home educator my kids are getting the cream off the top – active, interested, involved parents with time to spend with them. For many of the kids she sees, life in the child-care centre for them is better than home life in terms of the quality of the care they receive. In “Children of the Lucky Country?”, writers Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Margot Prior, examine why some Australian children are more disadvantaged than ever before, despite Australia’s current levels of ‘prosperity’, and why we are seeing a rise in chronic diseases such as asthma, obesity, and psychological disorders such as depression anxiety and substance abuse among young Australians. They point out that the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged is growing.
But even in the best of homes, mothers are left for hours at a time alone with baby and small kids. We ‘become cut off and deprived of that sustenance we are meant to receive, so we get exhausted, angry and depressed. Children always seem to do better in societies that surround parents with supportive elders. Isolated nuclear-family parenting is inherently problematic; we are not designed to be able to cope well with it. The more you learn to listen to your heart and your parenting intuition, the more you come to realise how many of today’s parenting strategies are shortcuts that you can no longer accept, and this can be quite confronting. These shortcuts can hurt you and your child, undermine your relationship and lead to behaviour problems. Shortcuts, like early weaning, sleep training, electronic babysitting (television) and early daycare seem to give you, the parent, freedom and support in the short term, but they can borrow heavily against your child’s long-term emotional health and the quality of your family’s relationships. All of us collectively inherit the social problems generated by the fast-food, fast-living, and fast–parenting trend. Humans, and especially children, simply cannot do without regular doses of sustained, loving connection – without it we soon break apart. The classroom, the street and the marketplace become the stage on which the emotional wounds of broken attachment and social disconnection are destructively acted out.’
A friend of mine sums it up when she told me that within a very short time after coming home from a caesarean birth with her second child, her husband said ‘you’ll be right now, I’ll go back to work’ leaving her to care for toddler and baby herself, when she was meant to be resting, recovering from her operation. She told me she had no choice but to lift the pram, baby and child into the car to go grocery shopping so they’d have something to eat, when because of her stitches she shouldn’t have been lifting anything at all.
Can you hear the fierce, protective mother in me begin to growl and roar? It’s not just our own children we need to protect. I bet if you’re home-educating she’s there in you too, in one form or another.
So why am I advocating being radical feminist mothers? Radical in the sense of standing out against societal norms, standing up for what we believe in. I slept with my babies despite being told I was creating a rod for my back – I saw it as an investment. I take my child out of school in a radical leap of faith. I claim that birth is a woman’s hour of glory, a time when her needs are central. When I had babies my husband said I wanted the whole of society to re-arrange itself around me. I said too-right I do! But not just me, mothers. I don’t want financial or other pressures to return to the paid workforce soon after having a baby – my work lies here. I don’t want to look after the house and the rest of the family when I’ve given birth. I want the family to look after me, so I can look after the baby. There’s plenty of time that the mother gives to the family, this is her time. I must admit when I had babies I wondered where all the feminists were. Before then I had felt on equal footing with my husband, but faced with the huge impact on my life of having a baby, the equality seemed to just fly out the window. I couldn’t even go to a yoga class without organising someone else to care for my child, and often that someone else just didn’t exist.
As a fierce, protective mother I ask how can anyone persuade us that any job or task is more important than the care of our young! In our society there seems to be a big debate about whether it is best for the mother to stay home or go back to work after having a baby or while raising children. I don’t think it is an either/or issue, but I do think it is worth addressing since it is a controversial one. What is right will vary from family to family. It is the task of parenting that is the utmost importance. This doesn’t need to be done by the biological mother. It is a role that can and needs to be shared. It is a job worth doing, and worth doing well, worth getting resources and support for, worth getting good work conditions for, if it means paying someone to do housework, bartering for meals to be made, inviting a relative to stay and help out for a period, getting live-in help, hiring a nanny, or however we can get more people involved in the care of our young and our mothers. This role – the care of our children – is worth honouring regardless of what other roles and choices we make with our lives. For example, a position in the paid workforce that honours this role is flexible to the unexpected demands of kids. A workforce that honours this role pays great wages to childcare workers, to encourage the best to stay in the job and offer continuity of care. The decision of if and when to go back to paid work remains the choice of the mother, as suits her temperament. I’m not saying we get turned back into 1950s housewives, but we want to fiercely reclaim and protect the importance of this role as we collectively extend ourselves into all aspects of society. We need to do this, because all aspects of society need women.
Although I advocate the crucial importance of mothering in the early years – and as a home-educating mother, in the middle years as well – I would never say that all mothers should return home. I remember looking with awe at a young woman with a three month old baby talking at an Australian Breastfeeding Association conference. She was as dishevelled as I remember feeling when my first child was that old, but I learnt that she was the then Mayor of Launceston! If she’s got it in her to do that fantastic! And lets give her all the support she needs. I bet Launceston has got a heap of great baby change facilities now. My mother was one who thrived in the workforce (admittedly when we kids were older), and I’m sure she was a better mother for the satisfaction in life and the economic freedom her job brought. We were lucky, when I was a baby (youngest of 4) we had live-in help – a 16 year old girl who lived with us for 5 years. It seems so extravagant to talk of live-in help, but in the past it was quite common. Even the Brady Bunch had Alice. Mostly live-in help has been replaced by ‘labour saving devices’.
I do think that the workforce needs women. I want there to be female gynaecologists, female lawyers, female newsreaders, female politicians. And we can be fierce, protective mothers from the workforce, advocating for the needs of all children through our paid work.
I sometimes think of the radical feminist mother as the third phase of feminism. The first phase of feminism declared some very basic rights, such as the right to vote. The second stage of feminism was to prove to ourselves and others that we can do it just as good as men. So we entered the world of paid employment, and our self-esteem was raised. The third phase is to take this raised self-esteem, and apply it to work that is traditionally feminine, such as birthing, looking after babies, and raising a family.
Lets not have our strength used against ourselves, proving we can work through pregnancies, and after birth, over-coming every obstacle in our way. Lets not just use our strength to cope with the trials and hardships of hours and days alone with toddlers and babies. Lets use our strength to support ourselves, and other mothers, and declare the right to honour this role. Lets reclaim our status as pivotal creators of our world, lets demand from our society the best work conditions possible. Lets not let our pride tell us that we should be able to raise our babies and children all by ourselves. If we were politicians or business people we would employ staff to clean our offices, make our appointments and take over the shop for a while so that we get a break. These people don’t think they have to do it all themselves, so why do we. And lets help our sisters through their journey of mothering as well. No-one else is going to do it. It’s up to us.
This article first appeared in ‘Otherways’ in issue 116, May – July 2008
Footnotes and references:
Marianne Williamson is a well-known American author of many books, including “Return to Love”. This quote comes from her lecture at the Washington National Cathedral, available on her website www.marianne.com
“Parenting for a Peaceful World”, Robin Grille, 2005, published by Longuville Media.
Grille, 2005, p.158
Grille, 2005, p.119
“Children of the Lucky Country? How Australian society has turned its back on children and why children matter”, Fiona Stanley, Sue Richardson and Margot Prior, 2005, published by Pan Macmillan.
“Heart to Heart Parenting”, Robin Grille, 2008, ABC Books; quoted in Kindred magazine, pp57-58, issue 25, Mar-May 2008
For a discussion on policy initiatives promoting healthy emotional development in children, which includes support for parents, see the “Children’s Wellbeing Manifesto”, at: www.our-emotional-health.com/manifesto