Why do we expect so little? Reflections on a week of reading motherhood theories

This is the final of three posts that I am re-blogging from my tumblr, where I have been reflecting on my return to academia and the first few months of my PhD research. This post was written in April 2015.

A mother and her young son, looking at each other

I’ve spent the week steeped in academic texts about theories of mothering and ideologies of motherhood. As well as a slight headache and tired eyes (I’ve mostly been doing my reading on screen), I’ve come away from the week with a noticeable sense of lightness, like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

As a politically aware, feminist mother of two, who believes that what we accept as normal and natural is socially constructed, I thought I was in a good position to resist some of the social pressures of motherhood. I believed I was finding my own path through the wild woods of mothering.

But spending the week immersed in maternal theories (particularly this anthology by Angela O’Reilly) has driven home just how socially constructed our mothering realities are. Not just that, it has also made me aware just how many of my assumptions and expectations have been formed by contemporary dominant mothering ideologies. Reading theorists who place Black, Latina, lesbian, indigenous, and disabled mothers at the heart of their motherhood theories, threw into sharp relief how much of our (my) understanding had been shaped by white middle class late C20th-early C21st experiences of motherhood.

I know this is nothing particularly revelatory but that’s my point. I was surprised that I was surprised. I had accepted more of my reality as a given than I had realised. I had judged other women’s decisions by an ideology I didn’t really realise I had (and I’ve tried so hard to resist making judgements of other mothers). And I had judged myself.

The contradictions involved in the doctrines of “intensive mothering” and “good mother” ideologies mean that success by these standards is literally unachievable by any mother anywhere. And yet the expectations and assumptions are so ingrained in me (even though I consciously resist those I am aware of) that I still use them judge myself and others. They are at the root of the “mothers’ guilt” we’re all meant to constantly feel.

On top of interrogating the social construction of these expectations, certain concepts have jumped out at me and fired a desire to change the way I think about my own mothering.

Firstly, Andrea O’Reilly’s explanation of feminist mothering, which has given me an alternative way to think about my mothering practices:

“A theory of feminist mothering begins with recognition that mothers must live her life and practice mothering from a position of agency, authority, authenticity and autonomy. A feminist standpoint on mothering affords a woman a life, a purpose and identity outside and beyond motherhood; as well it does not limit childrearing to the biological mother. Likewise, from this standpoint, a woman’s race, age, sexuality or marital status does not determine her capacity to mother. A feminist theory on motherhood also foregrounds maternal power and confers value to mothering. Mothering, thus from a feminist perspective and practice, redefines motherwork as a social and political act.”

In some ways, I cannot believe that this quote sounds radical, but in the context of today’s mothering ideologies, it really does.

Secondly, a concept alluded to by O’Reilly in that quote but explored more fully by bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, that of collective mothering and othermothers. The notion that other people can provide mothering care for my children and seeing that not as an “outsourcing” of care but a legitimate way of providing a caring network (or community) in which to raise our children. Raising our families in isolation places huge pressures on women. And while women of colour (e.g. bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins in the same anthology) have pointed out that raising children in isolation has often not been an option for Black women, perhaps it’s time for other women to admit that it’s not really an option for us either, given the huge toll it takes on women’s lives, our mental and physical health.

Linked to that is the role of fathers. This post was written after a good night’s sleep because my husband volunteered to take our children away for the night, specifically so I could sleep (and work). Men need to step up more into roles of active fatherhood, women need to allow them to do so (or demand they do) and society needs to restructure to allow and encourage men to do so. There are some specific moments of mothering which are distinctively experienced by women, for example pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, and these should be respected and valued. But you can be a mother without having done any of these and they really aren’t an excuse for men to play less active roles in the lives of the children they father (where that’s possible and appropriate and not made dangerous by violence for example). Where there are two (or more) parents, it is not inherently the case that one of them (the mother) should be taking ultimate responsibility for the childrearing.

While more men claim to share parenting equally, or think they want to before they actually have children, statistics tell us that the vast, vast majority of parenting is still undertaken by women, even in households which were not overtly structured along gender lines before children came along. So it seems men can choose to be active fathers, within the constraints of socioeconomic policies and cultural expectations, but the default is that childrearing is done by mothers, because they are women.

“Men will not share equally in parenting until they are taught, ideally from childhood on, that fatherhood has the same meaning and significance as motherhood.” – bell hooks

In an article elsewhere, O’Reilly tells an anecdote about the conference she attended on empowering mothers, where one of the leaders suggested the delegates (est 90% women) should email photos to illustrate the state of disarray their homes would be in because they had been away for two days. The delegates laughed, bragged about how messy their homes would be, what state their children would be in, and most of all, accepted the premise. As O’Reilly asks: Why do we expect so little? Or, to extend her question: why do we expect so little of others and so much of ourselves?

In decades to come, I think we will look back at this period as a deeply conservative one for mothers. I hope we can do something to change that for the mothers who come behind us.


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