Saturday, July 19, 2014

RE: "Why It’s Ok to Want to be a Stay at Home Mom" OR, Let's Change the Conversation about Feminism and Motherhood

The morning began like any other. I was sipping coffee in my living room, alternating between my Facebook news feed and the current updates on my handy New York Times news app. Suddenly, my hand froze. The familiar face of one of my most avidly conservative friends smiled back at me from her small thumbnail profile picture, and next to it read the status update:

The thing is, no matter how much we strive for it, men and women aren’t equal. We get the opportunity to be something men can never be- and that is pretty awesome.”

Feeling my feminist hackles beginning to rise, I immediately clicked on the link to the full piece on Total Sorority Move (which by the way, does in no way redeem itself). I tried to let the article go, but have gone back to re-read it several times since its initial publication…and after the hundredth visit, I feel compelled to respond to what I see as a fundamental lack of education on the part of the author.

I understand that the internet is a beautiful and nuanced equalizer of opinions, allowing the publication of not just my opinion, but those who believe differently than me. However, if this woman is going to identify in the feminist camp (which she does, somewhat sarcastically, about halfway through the article) there are several things about the cause I support of which she should be aware.

The article begins by revealing a perpetual and frustrating reliance on the gender binary, and the notion that, “girls do certain things/boys do certain things”. She writes, “We did it all. We were the fearless females who could compete with the boys, but still be in our play kitchen in time to make dinner.”

Here, I run into several points of contention. Haven’t we moved away from a style of parenting, and for that matter a viewpoint on the world, that asserts women must be the ones to cook dinner at night, and men must be the ones bringing home the bacon? In a world of flex-time work schedules, co-parenting models, and family leave provided for not just women, but men as well, can we disperse with the tired stereotype that women wake up in the morning each day with enough energy to take care of the house, work a full-time job, and have a fabulous dinner and a beer waiting for her man at five o’clock? Nobody can do that, which is why teamwork is important, and roles subject to flexibility. Two people supporting the other’s dreams is what makes for a successful marriage and a happy couple (unashamedly progressive AND idealistic…)

Another important point of contention arises when the author writes, “As little girls, our parents told us, ‘you can do anything if you set your mind to it because they wanted us to reach for the stars, dare to dream, and live out all the other hopeful clichés you can think of.”

Here, I respond that yes, some people are this lucky. Some people do have parents that encourage them to live out their dreams, but some of us don’t. Feminism is a cause that empowers those women too, defying class, gender, and race stereotypes that assert that certain women can achieve whatever they want, and others are relegated to a second class position. It’s about the success of all women, not just you. And also, why take such a cynical, mocking tone about these dreams your parents had for you? These “hopeful clichés” are some of the greatest blessings you could ever have. Not all of us have parents on our sides supporting our dreams, and you have no idea what kind of a difference that solid foundation can make in the life of a child. So please, don’t brush that off like it’s nothing. It’s offensive and inconsiderate to those who would have given anything for a home like that.

The article proceeds to describe the author’s journey through college, and how at the end of her four years, long-term relationship and diploma in hand, she decided that her primary goals in life were going to be embodied in the phrase wife and mother. She writes, “Now, before you start throwing flaming pieces of hate mail at me, give me a second to explain…just because all of us don’t play football and compete with boys, it does not mean that our gender as a whole can’t…” This line was a breath of fresh air, a nice nuancing of femininity. In my first pass of this post, I almost let myself calm down. But, she proceeds onward.

“…the fact that we can create another human being inside our bodies AND bleed without dying for seven days, we can obviously do anything. The sheer willpower it takes to even leave my bed when  I take those little brown pills at the end of the month should be reason enough to never again hear the totally dated ‘men are superior’ argument.”

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I resent my power as a woman being limited to my reproductive organs. This is simply another perspective on the, to borrow our author’s word, dated perspective that reduces a woman to what is going on between her legs.

·         19th Century Victorian Science: Women are the weaker sex because their nervous system is actually linked with their vaginas, hence Hysteria.
·         The Madonna/Whore complex: A woman is either perfect and untouchable, and therefore fragile and in need or protection, or she is a slut worthy of mockery and shame. These two categories are the sum total of her identity.
·         American Politics today: Women are too weak to run our country because they may be PMS-ing at the White House! We can’t have that kind of rash, emotional consciousness running our country!!
·         Total Sorority Move: The only reason women are worthy of respect is because we can make babies.

I’ll move on.

The article progresses and I begin to notice a trend. Throughout the remainder of the piece, every time women are mentioned, the focus of their lives and experiences are entirely wrapped up in someone other than themselves. This, for me, is a problem.

The author first writes, “I went off to college and had the time of my life drinking, partying, and playing with boys’ hearts…As predicted, by senior year, when most college students start actually becoming adults, my views began to focus and change. I was in a serious relationship…”

Here, the author sums up her experience in college- the time of your life when you are given four uninterrupted years to define who you are and where your passions lie- in the boys she dated and the parties she attended. What happened to ambition, experience, and education?

I worry about what is not being said. Do you really want to be a wife and mother, or did you spend four years attending the parties searching for the serious relationship everyone in the South expects you to find, and at the end of that time, found that you had nothing else to show for yourself? I’ve been there. I attended the Southern Liberal Arts School, and felt the pressure every day from my mother to settle down. But I also chose to ignore that.

She then proceeds to herald her mother as “an angel” and essentially a superhero for carrying her for nine months, driving her places and buying her clothes, making her favorite meals, smiling and powering through every single day of her lives without a thank you.

I’m not denying the truth of any of these points. My mother was that superhero too, and throughout my childhood, I told everyone that I wanted to be a mom as well, because she was the most amazing person in my life.

However, then I started to grow up, and examine my mother’s life more closely. I realize now the incredible sacrifice my mother made in the act of putting her children first in her life, and I argue it is a sacrifice no woman should have to make. My mother has nothing left in her life now that her children are grown. They were her goal, her ambition, and her life…and three adult children and one divorce later, I have to ask, was it all worth it? A woman’s life should never be reduced to her child’s needs alone, just like a woman’s body should not have to succumb to carrying and birthing a child without it being a choice. Being a mother involves sacrifice, change, and growth, I understand that. But it also does not have to be the end all, be all of any person’s life. A woman can be a great mother to her children, and also a goal toward which her girls could strive. An example of passions lived out, of challenges overcome, and of goals met. I want to be that kind of mother for my kids, not just the kind that has a killer recipe for spaghetti sauce or whatever.

The author further writes, “Why is it that a job that is of the utmost importance is also considered ‘embarrassing to strive for?’ Can you imagine someone asking what you want to do with your life and answering, ‘I want to be a great wife and mother?’ No, because we would not only be ridiculed, but we would be made to feel like we’re settling for less than what we can accomplish."

Here is where the article frustrates me most. Here lies the unexamined and demeaning generalization of feminists that paints us as she-monsters who hate all women who do not burn their bras and never return to the kitchen.

That’s not what feminism is about. Feminism is about choice, freedom, and the liberty of all people to define their bodies and circumstances uninhibited by the boxes of identity created for us by gender, sexual orientation, race, and/or class. Feminism opens doors, it does not close them. If motherhood is a calling on your life, as a feminist, I support your choices. I hope to one day be right there with you. But, I also encourage you to think very clearly about what it is you hope to accomplish in your life. Author, if you dream of being #famous as you say in the article, go for it. Don’t let some tawdry assertion that you cannot accomplish your dreams and also have a family keep you from trying to squeeze all the marrow out of this one existence that we have. Find a partner who supports your dreams, and change the world together.

Overall, I respond to this article thus: as women, we are the bearers of one of the most blessed burdens in life. However, it is unnecessary to justify that privilege through masking feelings of gendered obligation in feminist language of choice. Being a mother is and can be part of a life well lived, however the great thing about feminism is that we believe a woman’s life can be so much more than just the children she has. It’s about breaking down the gender-based limitations this article so desperately seeks to shore up.

And that is pretty awesome.

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