Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Motherhood and Feminism (and why I won't watch Juno)

I will confess right away that I am only a fledgling feminist, no real hands on "militant" experience like Dawn, no women's studies classes or certificate like my colleagues from graduate school, a rejected "I am a feminist because" post in a "Carnival of Feminists" back in 2005 (I still like it, though), what else... My scholarship centers on women writers, but not on an obvious feminist framework (perhaps because I dislike theory so profoundly).

My friend Kateri's latest post, though, brought up an idea that I hadn't thought about before. I had only kind of suspected it subrepetitiously under some of the feminist works I'd read. But let me backtrack to give you the context of her diatribe.
~~ ~ ~ ~
Kateri is a birth-mother, an extremely articulate birth-mother (go read her archives if you want to be deeply moved) and I have learned so much from her experience (as well as from Dawn on the other side of the coin as an adoptive mother in an open adoption). A while back Kateri blogged about Juno (if you read her post, do read Cecily's also), and then last week she was interviewed in a Chicago Tribune article about Juno and birthmothers. The comments to this article were deeply troubling to her (I didn't read them because I didn't want to be angry), and then, the hate mail started pouring in... and it was in her post about the hate mail that Kate made a comment that got me thinking... (she wrote another shorter post to follow up).
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Kateri first wrote that feminism has turned its back on birth-mothers, then, she, who has been thinking for a while now of writing a book about her experience, wondered if this book would matter to anyone outside of adoption (and Kate apologized for her "myspace syntax" here):
i'm not sure what i'm trying to say, exactly. there's this missing piece, this leap i haven't made. it has something to do with the question- "why does Juno find motherhood so unappealing?" why did i, at the time? why is that the obvious, foregone conclusion? what's wrong with motherhood? i know all the answers: school! freedom! your own life! blah blah blah.
. . .
there is this underlying belief that the best mother is one who martyrs herself and kills her own dreams.
. . .
the assum[p]tion of this belief as fact is what keeps us from looking at the state of motherhood in the culture.
(bolding mine)
And she ends by questioning why we cannot accept, celebrate even, motherhood in teenage girls.

My comment to her post was:
Hmmm, I think you're getting at the heart of the problem here: "the state of motherhood in the culture." Motherhood doesn't really matter much, does it? Do the feminists really talk about it? They don't! They talk about choice, but it's mostly regarding "choosing work," not having kids and caring for them -- that would be "the old way" or something... It's really sad that motherhood is seen as a stumbling block for everything in life. Is there ever a good time to be a mother? Never, I think!! It's tough on those who work, tough for those in graduate school like me... it's not that different from the situation of a teenager, it's just that women in other situations have accomplished a bit more. Even these older women have to give up on her dreams (e.g. getting a Ph.D.) to become moms... no matter the age, the financial situation, there are always "setbacks."

I say proudly to people that I'm taking 10 long years to get my Ph.D. because I gave birth to two sons in the meantime, but sometimes I wonder if taking this long to finish will not just have killed my chances in academia (there's a great book about this that's coming out soon, Mama, Ph.D.), but I digress... What can we do, though, if being a mother is just so unacceptable to so many "institutional settings" (like academia, corporate America, etc).

Then, in a short conversation with Dawn here about how Kateri should frame her book, Dawn wrote that "she should position the book as a feminist manifesto," but now I'm thinking that perhaps it's going to be a manifesto challenging the feminists for abandoning mothers.

DIGRESSION: I should be working on my dissertation and I was, but I came write this post because I found a quotation precisely about these issues and just had to come here write this post.

In an endnote of this book, the Brazilian scholar Renata Wasserman summarizes very neatly how the feminists have rejected motherhood.
Julia Kristeva explains that since " we live in a civilization where the consecrated . . . representation of femininity is absorbed by motherhood," and "this motherhood is the fantasy that is nurtured by the adult . . . of a lost territory" the representation of which is "an idealization of primary narcissism," feminism [at least French feminism, I guess] tends to "identify motherhood with that idealized misconception and, because it rejects the image and its misuse," it ends up rejecting motherhood altoghether ("Stabat Mater, " in The Kristeva Reader . . . 160-86, 161).
Sad, huh? Note: comment about French feminism above is mine.

My dear friends, feminists, scholars or not, out there, please tell me... what is your perspective on this issue? Has feminism summarily rejected motherhood? What are we to do, if, like Kateri argues, so many deep set beliefs "keep us from looking at the state of motherhood in the culture?" and not only that, but stigmatize young mothers to the point that they simply dismiss motherhood and suffer lifelong consequences...

Edited to add: I'll be back in the comment section this time because I'm hoping we can talk more about this (very loaded) subject.


diber said...

This will have to brief. Gotta get the boy to school. ;)

Something to keep in mind--and I know I'm not answering your question--motherhood as you and I practice it is a privilege of our class. In some classes--yes, even in our country--it would be a point of boasting to say that the woman was able to be a SAHM. We're financially secure enough in our class that the notion of sacrifice is almost laughable when you think of the millions of mothers out there scraping a living. I'd love to think/develop this thought more, but gotta run. I'll be interested in your comments on this thread....

Lilian said...

Sure, I know about this huge problem of the petty "mommy wars," and also, women's studies folk out there, correct me if I'm wrong. I cite a "bastion" [intentional ironic use of of a masculine word in French] of French feminism and I'm (superficially) aware that one of the key differences between French feminism and the various waves of American feminism is that the former was/is an elitist, overly intellectualized discourse and the latter an activist social movement that works to change inequality and to point out the inherent privilege that white men, upper class women, etc. have.

I'm not talking about our kind of motherhood here, I'm just acknowledging Kateri's point that since motherhood (any kind of motherhood) is just basically ignored by feminists, and also this country's society at large -- reading The Motherhood Manifesto by the Mother Rising folks makes that clear enough, it is very easy to simply silence birth-mothers and make it nearly impossible for a young woman to become a mother without stigmatization.

And maybe the problem is one that feminism hasn't yet "solved" -- the age old idea that women who have sex (and thus get pregnant) can only do so within certain proper circumstances -- older in life, career in place, either married or in a stable situation.

Shouldn't feminism support any kind of motherhood? But feminism is not concerned with motherhood and neither is our culture.

Erin said...

I'm starting this comment by saying YES I am making blanket statements. I realize that the feminist movement is made of wonderful women who DO fight for some of the causes that I am outlining, and that not all feminists are abondoning women. I'm speaking more of the generalities and how I perceive it.

I see feminism as abandoning LOTS of women. Feminist groups are far more concerned with politics than actually helping women in the shadows of society.

While I'm grateful that I have choices in my life, and I chose to be a SAHM, I will never call myself a feminist. I want to see the rights of women protected, perhaps expanded, and I love that we have provided choice of career, education, voting, etc... for women. But where is NOW or code pink when you start to talk about the rights of women in the Muslim world? Why aren't they speaking out against the atrocities that are being done against women all over the world. It seems they have decided that a political party here in the united states is more important than protecting women around the world. They have become more concerned with politics than actual womens issues.

And yes, I think they see many things as more important than motherhood. They see the WOMAN as more important than the children she may or is raising. They say that women can't be fulfilled without an education and a career. Especially when I lived in the bay area, I was assulted with the idea that I couldn't be whole because I was devoting my life to taking care of my children, my home, and my husband. I am whole. That is my life choice, and I'm happy and grateful that I was able to make that choice

Lula said...

I am some confused by the assertion that young women and/or feminists are rejecting motherhood, or are being pressed to reject it. The majority of young women who become pregnant and don't terminate or miscarry raise their children -- isn't it something like only 1% or 2% go with an adoption? There are many young mothers where I live, Latina and African American as well as white. I don't know how many label themselves as "feminists", but I think it's safe to say that they value their motherhood despite the way they are often crucified in the media as the source of all that's wrong in society.

Definitely young motherhood is denigrated, but I don't know that it's Feminism per se that's failing young mothers. I don't know what people are envisioning when they say "Feminism" -- are people seeing that as a singular academic entity, or a unified social movement that's not meeting the needs of mothers, or what?

For me, this discussion gets into broader examinations of class and racial/ethnic intersections, and what Motherhood and Feminism mean to a very diverse range of US women. Rickie Solinger writes well on this from a historian's perspective, including why there has traditionally been so much pressure for young middle-class white girls and women to have their children adopted. The flip side of that, for some other populations of girls/women, is intense pressure to raise their children themselves.

I think openly feminist teen mothers like Bee Lavendar, Ariel Gore, and Allie Crewes broke terrific ground for young mothers in the 90s (esp. the young white women who've traditionally been expected to relinquish their children for adoption) with their Hip Mama and Girl-Mom resources, and I do think the US in general lost ground on supporting young mothers after the mid 90s, what with Welfare Deform and the backlash via abstinence-only sex education and government support for programs that are simultaneously anti-abortion/anti-single motherhood and pro-adoption. But we're talking about a lot of girls and young women, plus a lot of definitions of feminism, if we want to get into the question of whether "Feminism" is serving or abandoning mothers in general.

I'm not arguing -- I'm just looking for more definition of terms so I can understand what people are thinking.

Lilian said...

Thanks, Lula, that was a very welcome addition to what I hope will become a lively and meaningful conversation!

I think that you're spot on about the fact that it is mostly white young women who have strong societal pressure to give their children away for adoption whereas women of color end up becoming single mothers and being even more stigmatized as recipients of welfare.

It's again a "white middle class" problem like so many other issues in this country. It still REMAINS a problem that should be addressed, though, don't you agree? Why should only (or mostly) oppressed and stigmatized women be championed by either feminism or any other activist movement? (not that I'm right about that assumption -- these are, like Erin said above, blanket statements too).

And, most certainly thank God for young women such as Bee Lavendar, Ariel Gore, and Allie Crewes!

M said...

Here's a short comment since I'm grappling with a lot of these issues myself. I am a feminist, and I am a mother. That said, feminism, particularly in its 2nd wave, ignored (I hesitate to say rejected) lots of women. Feminism, at various moments in history, has been primarily directed at white, middle & upper class women; it leaves lots of women out of the mix, particularly women of color, young mothers, and women from lower socio-economic brackets. This is an issue that feminism as a movement needs to address. I would argue that we need to direct these sorts of questions to the political groups who claim to be working for the rights of all women--like NOW for example. It seems to me that feminism needs to be de-mystified for a lot of young women, maybe young mothers in particular. But then it also needs to be de-mystified from the people who have benefited from it the most in order to make these people understand that feminism is, ideally, meant to help all women regardless of age, background, and ethnicity.

Lula said...

Oh, I'm in total agreement that young middle-class white women get shafted when it comes to reproductive justice, same as any other woman (access to services and other priviledges notwithstanding). This is why I'm asking what people are picturing when they think of "Feminisim", and what they're thinking this. Since I don't personally believe in the existence of an over-arching Unified Feminism in the US, I tend to go into these conversations prepared to think about the ways women can build bridges between very different life experiences and challenges. I don't expect to see one plan of action meeting the needs of all women when people talk about what Feminism is and isn't doing -- that, for me, has tended to lead to burnout and acrimony.

I think the Reproductive Justice Movement is a good example of an activist movement that's trying hard to meet the needs of women of reproductive age, including mothers. Most of the women I myself know who are involved in the RJM are women of color, esp. the members of SisterSong ( ). White women of any class background are just as in need of reproductive-justice activism, but because I come to these discussion from this specific work background, this is always where I start -- women have much in common, but the way our reproductive lives play out against the challenges can differ so vastly and I think the failure to acknowledge this and take everyone's challenges with equal seriousness got us badly tangled during the Women's Movement of the 70s. We're still dealing with a huge amount of fallout from that, so I do consider it a responsibility of our generation to do better.

Whatever social structure prevents women of whatever identification from acting autonomously where their reproduction is concerned... if it's an injustice, it's an injustice, and it needs to be remedied. For young white unmarried women, I agree that we've gone waaaay backward in the last 10-15 years WRT supporting voluntary young motherhood. Fortunately there's broken ground to build upon, much more so than there was for our mothers.

Yondalla said...

Who do you mean by "the feminists" and what consistutes "rejecting motherhood"?

If you mean that scholars who identifying themselves as feminists don't write about motherhood, then I'm deeply confused. Hypatia, the journal for feminist philosophy had several articles on motherhood in the past year. Virginia Held's book "Maternal Thinking" was very well received. Kittay's book "Love's Labour" challenges dominant theories of justice for not taking dependent and their caretakers, which includes mothers seriously. Her work come from her own experience being the mother of a severely disabled child. I just returned to the library several anthologies dealing with ethical issues of motherhood.

If you mean that feminist activists don't support causes that matter to mothers, again, I think you are wrong.

If you mean that feminists generally are critical of attempts to romanticize motherhood, tend to argue against something that might be called the "maternal imperative," then you are probably right, but I'm not sure that is a bad thing.

If you mean that feminists scholars have paid no attention to the issues of coersion in domestic private adoption, I think you are correct.

Summer said...

An interesting discussion! Do you read Bitch, PhD? There's a great post there today that runs along these lines you might enjoy.

I am both a mother and a feminist. Sometimes I do feel that issues surrounding motherhood are pushed aside by some feminists, though I don't think they are deliberate. Motherhood has been beaten over the heads of women for so long I certainly understand the need of some to put distance between themselves and that area. Luckily there are many feminists who do discuss issues of motherhood, and there are mothers who discuss feminist issues.

Anonymous said...

"if you mean that feminists scholars have paid no attention to the issues of coersion in domestic private adoption, I think you are correct."

though this (above) is not specifically what kateri was addressing, per se, nor (if I understood correctly) what this blog's author was addressing, this raises a key point. and i am wondering, as with much of this, why?

i also agree with another poster in her observations about white middle-class unmarried mothers. some feminists seem to think this group is un-exploitable. And i'm wondering what that perspective is rooted in?


Kateri said...

kendra, that was exactly my point in my original post. feminist scholars seem to think coersion in adoption is something from the past, and today's birthmothers are simply excersicing another "choice". there is this idea that legalized abortion ended the exploitation of young unmarried mothers. that's what i menat when i wrote "feminism has turned it's back on us".

and judging from the anti-mother undercurrent in the discussion of the recent feminsting post that summer linked to via bitch phd, it's not a surprise that feminists don't question a choice where a woman rejects motherhood. to the uninitiated it seems like an empowered choice instead of an exploitative loss.

Lula said...

I think there's an aspect of modern feminist mindset that is very afraid of acknowledging vulnerability, whether it's in regard to reproductive choices or domestic violence or any other place in a woman's life where she can end up in hard places seemingly as a result of her own choices. There's that whole fear-based mindset of "Well, she's just *stupid* if she didn't notice that person was abusive early on in the relationship" or "Well, she's just *stupid* if she denied she was pregnant until it was too late to get an abortion", etc. That vulnerability strikes fear in the hearts of women who want to believe that THEY will never get caught in such a situation -- they're be smarter than that; they would recognize and leave an abuser right away; they would never get pregnant at a bad time, or if they did they'd get an abortion if they felt less than 100% ready to be a parent. That's what the Second Wave was about, right? That and access to higher education and high-status careers.

So women who want to talk openly about how being smart isn't always enough to keep yourself safe from exploitation or violence are a threat to that mental security fence. They're blowing the myth that the Bad Days are all over now, and that women are no longer caught in complex webs of gender socialization (or at least the smart ones aren't) where their reproductive choices are concerned. Women who expose how much work remains to be done in the realm of women's empowerment must be silenced, 'cause they scare the sh*t out of other women.

Also I think very few people who aren't first parents or adopted themselves really have any idea how complex the whole social construct of adoption is, and what factors influence girls and women to consider having their children adopted in the first place. I honestly don't think many people, feminist-identifying or not, consider factors other than "She must have had no money" or "She must have been on crack."

Kateri, I think a big part of the reason why you're getting so much hate mail right now is because you ARE bright and personable and attractive, and therefore someone that other women might want to identify with. If someone like YOU could have made a decision at 19 that's left you feeling exploited and traumatized today, it could happen to anyone -- and again, I think that scares the boots off a lot of people who want to believe that nothing bad can ever happen to them because of who they are and what Life is supposed to be like for them.

That's another blanket statement to add to the pile. :) Plus, as you and Lillian have already said, bright attractive personable young white middle-class women aren't *supposed* to want to become mothers before age 30 -- it's just not the cultural norm. I believe this is why practically no college campus provides child-friendly family housing for undergraduates, which would be a big help to young parents who want to attend college.

Lilian said...

Thanks *again* Lula for such an articulate and thought provoking comment! If I weren't in the middle of writing a dissertation chapter that is due tomorrow, I'd try to write more, but I hope the discussion continues!

I just wanted to add to the comment about college students (and my institution does have a WONDEFUL day care for all students and faculty) that even for graduate students -- many of whom are already over 30 like I was (after a couple of years in grad school) -- there's very little accommodation that's done. I was almost threatened with not teaching on the semester when my son was to be born, but thankfully other graduate students from the department -- virtually all of them MALE, UNMARRIED, younger than me (most women didn't really give me much support at all!!!) backed me up, volunteered to teach for me and to also to fight for my right not to be discriminated in the workplace just because I was pregnant.

OK, gotta go finish the dissertation stand up to those who say that mothers cannot succeed in academia ;-).

Sarah Sometimes said...

Lillian, just stopping by not to comment on feminism and motherhood but to say thanks for your recent comments at my place. And yes, the next time you come to NY I would love to meet you and your family!

Ally said...

I just discovered your blog and I'm excited to read your words. I'm a 32-year old mother of a 14-month old and I got my PhD (actually DMA - doctor of music) last year. Also, my husband is Brazilian and an academic and we're raising our son bilingual.
No comments yet on the feminism thing, except that maybe I think that the state of self-proclaimed feminists of today do embrace motherhood (MomsRising).

blue milk said...

I really don't believe feminism has failed mothers.

But now that you've decided you're a feminist mother perhaps you'd consider a post on these 10 questions of mine, I'd love to read your thoughts.

Do let me know if you do get around to posting on these, so I can link to your response on my site along with all the others.

Yvette said...

Great discussion! I, too, have more I could say but will hold off for now. (I have a post in my "drafts" folder about the feminist "victories" of some working mothers at the expense of other, lower paid women who are taking care of the first group of Moms' kids while they complain about bumping up against the glass ceiling...)

One observation about academia and children: No matter how "work-family" a department or university claims to be, notice how most building bathrooms do NOT have changing tables?

(I recognize that there are some universities that are exceptions. Actually I think we should compile a list of those!)