Saturday, August 02, 2008

Secret women's business

Courtesy of Blue Milk:

  • How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
I became a feminist at uni, which was, umm, about twenty years before I became a mother. Coming from one of those families politicians like to refer to as having traditional values, feminism was eye-opening - 'What, you mean I'm not just on the planet to serve men and God, the Great Big Man in the Sky?'

Feminism is about creating the sort of world I want to live in, and where elements of our selves/community/planet that are perceived as female are valued as highly as those that are viewed as male. It's now also about the sort of world I want to leave to my children. I couldn't be a feminist without also being concerned about the impact of capitalism, and the environment, and racism, and disability issues and - and- and...

  • What has surprised you most about motherhood?

How much I don't resent it. It's still early days yet, but I do feel a large responsibility to put my self on hold for a while and focus on giving the babies the best start in life that I can. I don't think it's unfeminist to be selfless in relation to babies, but I do think it is the responsibility of both partners to be selfless, male or female, and in a patriarchal society there are so many things preventing that happening.

Also, how it is possible to have literally no time to yourself some days. People did warn me of this but I thought, 'yeah, but they nap twice a day, and they go to bed at 6.30pm...' Making the choice to attachment parent means that the sleeping hasn't been as regimented as I'd fantasised. The twins rarely nap at the same time, and when they do, I have a rule of just lying down myself. Forget 'a room of one's own,' what I would like is 'an hour of my own.'

  • How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

Motherhood is making me much more conscious of my feminism. After so many years, it's kind of just been running in the background, but seeing the impact - already - of patriarchy, homophobia and misogyny on my two little people re-politicises me. At this age, I'm mostly aware of issues with clothes, toys, and how people interact with them. I can see advertising looming in the near future.

Mothering a boy is opening my eyes to the sorts of pressures on men to become who they are - sporty, active, unemotional, physical. I'd never really concerned myself with boy/men's issues. I hope that as parents, we have much more impact on the children's development than the world we move through. I'm sure this is the case for the first few years, at least.

  • What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

At the moment, what makes my mothering feminist are my intentions. I haven't had the chance to put much into practice yet. I want to bring my daughter up to be powerful, and practical, and believe she can do anything, and to know that her worth is not determined by how attractive she is. I want to bring my son up to be articulate, and emotional, and sensitive, and to be able to resist the seductions to treat women as sex objects. (Also, of course to value who they innately are yada yada yada, but I don't want them to feel that they can't have particular character traits because they are the wrong sex)

I do do a fair bit of correcting people who are making gender-stereotyped assumptions. Remember, the babies are eight months old. It drives me nuts when people say things like, 'Oh, she's flirting with him!' when Lucky smiles at a male of any age. I dress my boy in pink (plain pink - I can't quite manage flowers, a failing on my part because why shouldn't he wear flowers? Lucky wears trucks) and correct strangers who misconstrue his sex. People can be quite nonplussed - there is a remarkably strong taboo against dressing boys in 'girls' clothes'. Fear of putting boys in pink is misogynist and homophobic, and not what I want to be teaching the children.

Motherhood involves creating people, creating the next generation. There is no way around it, we are actively shaping who these little people are to become. Confident, thinking, critical and creative or mindlessly accepting the status quo - everything I do with them now, every interaction I have with people around me models how the world is for them and how they will engage with it.

  • Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
I'm aware of my own gender-stereotyping - assumptions I make automatically. I caught myself saying, 'Look, Junior, a truck!' and had to add, 'Look, Lucky, a truck!' I don't really have role models of feminist mothers around me so I'm working it out as I go along.

I do feel compromised. I want to allow people to find their own way with the babies; at the same time I'm constantly wanting to say: 'If you jiggle Junior like that, you need to jiggle Lucky too' (actually I'd prefer neither was jiggled, but some people seem to like to toss around and have playfights with boy babies). At the same time, I'm aware that I can't control every interaction they have with the outside world, so what we are modelling in our family will have to be enough.

  • Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

Even at this age, I feel pressured to gender-stereotype my children. My mother appears concerned that my son needs to be 'roughed up a bit' as we are gentle with him - with them both, but it is a particular concern with him. This afternoon a passer-by asked my son, in that stupid tone people do when they are pretending to talk to babies but really sending you a message, 'My, look at you in pink! Are you a bit confused?'

The biggest difficulty is the need to think about everything. What clothes will I put them in today? Which clothes are just too butch and too frilly and going straight into the op shop bag? What toys can they play with? What messages do those toys send? What about the books I am reading to them? What are the girls doing? What are the boys doing? I'm pleased to have a boy and a girl, as they can share many of their toys and clothes, so I'm not just receiving piles of gender-specific gifts. Later on, when they want things of their own, I will have to be much more aware of giving them the opportunity to have the cross-gender item, if they want it.

Another difficulty, I think, is that 'people' (you know, 'people') think I am just being precious. 'There is no discrimination against women any more', they say, as their daughter plays with her Bra*tz dolls.

(I don't know what I'll do when my children want toys that I think are overtly derogatory, like Bra*tz)

  • Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I don't see them as difficult partners. Feminism involves sacrifice - sacrificing social standing, sacrificing approval, sacrificing taking the easy way of getting things through being feminine. In some ways I have found motherhood easier as it has brought me back into the fold of 'normal' women, in the eyes of the general community.

I do think it is easier to be a lesbian mother and a feminist than a heterosexual one. Many of the struggles other women have about division of household and childrearing labour and valuing of mothering vs working out of home take on a different flavour when sex roles are taken out of the picture. My partner works, I look after the kids. When L comes home from work she is 'on' - doing the baths, responding to overnight cries, getting up early with the babies so I can have a sleep in. At the moment this arrangement is practical because I am breastfeeding, so can't leave the kids for any length of time, and she is halfway through her doctorate. When she's finished, we plan to each work part time. Our decisions about our roles in relation to the children are not made with reference to what we are 'supposed' to do because of our sex - even subliminally.

I know not all lesbians structure their family lives this way. In my circle of acquaintances there are at least two women who see themselves as more like fathers - lesbian dads, if you will. They don't call themselves Mum and seem to model themselves on what is expected of fathers in our society.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?
We wouldn't be together if we weren't both feminists! I couldn't have a relationship with a woman who didn't consider herself a feminist. We must have a conversation about this idea of 'feminist motherhood' - I haven't actually conflated them, until now.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
This is another area where I feel I have escaped a lot of soul searching through being in a lesbian relationship. Reading the Sears' books on attachment parenting, I did notice how much emphasis was placed on the mother - the father, when mentioned, was usually exhorted to give more support to the mother so she can get on with the business of mothering. My partner is as committed to attachment parenting as I am; in fact she has been the advocate for the babies when the going got tough. Attachment parenting twins is exhausting at times. What it has brought to my attention is how much our society needs to change to support good childrearing. I would love to live in a small community where there were lots of people available to hang out with me and the babies through the week, instead of being isolated in my suburban house.

Because we are not big consumers, we don't feel compelled to be earning heaps of money, so L takes one day off a week. That's her day to be the stay-at-home mum, and mine to fritter as I please (currently blogging). It energises me for the week - I really notice it if something happens and I lose the day.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
What feminism has always given me is a sense of seeing the possibilities, an awareness of social construction. Things don't have to be done like so, just because you are a woman. (I'm coming from a traditional Mediterranean & religious family background. Get married, get fat, have many kids, cook) This extends into motherhood. The public picture of motherhood is very restricting - endlessly smiling, endlessly patient, endlessly giving and expecting nothing in return. It seems to be modelled on the Virgin Mary, who never says anything, just smiles and looks down at her babe. As a feminist mother, I feel I can examine the options. As a stay-at-home mum, can I resist the devaluing of that role? Can I maintain a positive sense of self in pumpkin-spattered pyjamas at 11 o'clock in the morning? I think it is important for a primary caregiver to be able to stay at home with the children. I don't, at this stage, want more return-to-work choices; I want it to be easier to share home duties: An independent income for those who choose to stay at home. True valuing of the role, not idolising margarine ads.


Anonymous said...

I think it was Germaine Greer who said that the best tihng a feminist can do is have sons. so i had two, to make me a doubly good feminist!

Polly said...

Hello! This is my first time seeing your site (I'm an admin over at and saw you linked there).

This is an utterly fascinating series of responses to Blue Milk's utterly fascinating questions. As a lesbian parent, and a ole timey feminist, I've lapped them up, of course.

The wee contribution I want to make to the conversation is regarding how I take on the role of "lesbian dad," in response to your noting that you have friends "who see themselves as more like fathers - lesbian dads, if you will. They don't call themselves Mum and seem to model themselves on what is expected of fathers in our society."

I use this term for myself, as well as the diminutive "Baba," as my parental moniker, simply because my experience of my gender, relative to male & female, is such that some altenative to mother felt more comfortable.

But I hasten to note: there has to be something like a feminist fatherhood, otherwise I fear we're all doomed. Or some such. I certainly split domestic labour more than half with my partner (I'm at home right now, with our 1.5 & 3.75 year old kids), due to various reasons, and she's out to work. We do labour at home in the same egalitarian, feminist way we always did in the decade before kids entered our lives and home.

One of the most interesting things about "butch" lesbian parents who make connection to men, or co-opt some aspects of fatherly nomenclature &/or roles, is that we have the opportunity to "school" our brothers, as it were, showing how masculinity and nurturance are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think we give the lie to non-participation, etc., far more powerfully than we might had we been more feminine parents, if that makes sense. (I.e, we can be just as aghast at the floral print diaper bags as the next man, but kneel down and diaper your kid in the middle of the grocery store like the next gal.)

I think this is particularly for we "social" (as vs. "biological") parents, since, like men, we did not birth nor did we (usually) nurse our kids, but we're still (I would argue, most of us) bonding to and caring for our kids as if we did. Adoptive mothers of course live this out, too. But I think it will take a lot of us undercutting the assumptions about that with femininity comes biological predispositions toward nurturing parenthood, and with masculinity comes a "natural" (of course I'd say "naturalised" aversion to nurturance (and in its place: some characature of protection and providing or some such).

This is a lot more subtle than I'm able to muster in a comment box, alas. And sorry for going on so! Clearly I have a ton of thoughts on the matter. Mainly I want to be sure to note that female masculinity does not equal traditional patriarchy, by any means, and the emerging generation of "lesbian dads" may well be providing a critical path out of the morass for men. Methinks. Or at least, me tries.

Polly said...

Do pardon the typos.

Also, I'll be linking to your post tomorrow! Thanks again for the fabulous stuff you have here!

Mikhela said...

Katya, I think that is true. It will be fascinating to see what sort of men your gorgeous boys become, with such good role models!

Thankyou Polly. I haven't actually discussed the idea of lesbian-dadhood with the women I know. In my younger days I went out with a couple of butch-identified women who basically imitated the worst of masculine identity, and were always quite scathing of anything 'feminine'. (I know, a few tragic relationships, but now is not the time to go into this...). I can see there is a lot of potential in drawing on the best of both gender roles. I know Katya's partner would see himself as the same sort of 'dad' that you identify. I like that: 'female masculinity does not equal traditional patriarchy' - and I think that some men I know manage to model that masculinity in general does not equal traditional patriarchy.

Maybe the generation of boys raised by feminists will have something to add to that!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Great answers, interesting discussion. On this comment from Polly (hi Polly):

"there has to be something like a feminist fatherhood, otherwise I fear we're all doomed."

I actually adapted Blue Milk's questions into "10 questions on profeminist fatherhood," and took a crack at answering them on Daddy Dialectic.

In the comments, I link to Fly My Pretty.

Joy! said...

Thanks for sharing your answers on your blog. As a parent-to-be, it's prompting me to think more specifically how I'll raise my kid of as-yet-undetermined gender. Good stuff.