So, What Is Feminist Mothering?

Following up on my earlier post about AP, sacrifice, and feminism, I thought it would be good to try to nail down some guiding (but not limiting) principles for feminist mothering.  Andrea O’Reilly has written tons about this topic; in fact, her new book, FEMINIST MOTHERING, is one example.  Let me quote from the book blurb for a distinction I think is really helpful (I have not yet read the book, but I heard her speak a couple of years ago and she made this distinction then, and I liked it a lot):

“O’Reilly makes a distinction between motherhood as an institution filled with tradition that can possibly lead women to a sense of isolation and feminist mothering that recognizes ‘that mothers and children benefit when the mother lives her life, and practices mothering, from a position of agency, authority, authenticity, and autonomy.’”

So, “motherhood” is that patriarchal institution, essentially, and “mothering,” especially feminist mothering, is a more active, positive place from which to move.  I like this separation because it allows us to critique societal expectations of mothers without getting to a point where the only way out is to jettison being a mother altogether.  It suggests that, dammit, yes, mothering can be a feminist practice, it can be a creative practice, it can be a liberating practice – an expanding practice, as La Lubu suggests.  (O’Reilly has drawn on WOC writing and theorizing about mothering, in fact, in her work, and I think she is informed by what La Lubu was talking about in her comment (55 on the other thread – I can’t figure out how to link directly to it.)

Just as we struggle to move mainstream feminism to recognize issues like immigration and poverty and transphobia as central “women’s issues”, a practice of feminist mothering must recognize that such issues are also central to our parenting.  Yes, feminist mothering means support for breastfeeding so that all women are supported and able to breastfeed (simultaneously, those women who choose not to or are not physically able to must also be supported and not made to feel like they are lesser mothers).  Certainly, feminist mothering means rethinking how we participate in our communities as mothers and with children, and it means demanding that our communities don’t isolate us (childfree folks:  I’m not advocating that children invade grown-up space, but simply that we shape society so as not to exclude mothers from it).

But it also means that we are thinking more broadly, beyond “me and my baby,” and out to the impact of – oh, for example, our diaper use on other mothers who have to live near the trash our communities dump in their communities (yes, I used disposable diapers.  I’m pointing the finger at myself, here).  It means that we support mothers whose children are taken away from them.  It means that we hold child social services to a much higher standard so that poor women and women of color and women who love women do not have their children removed from their care because they can’t afford a crib, or because they have a boyfriend their social service worker doesn’t like, or because they are Black and are held to a different standard than they would if they were white, or because the social service agency sees all sex outside of marriage as evidence of the mother being unfit.

It means that mothers should be on the front lines protesting immigration raids that separate mothers from children (and fathers, too – no need to be exclusive).

It means that the epidemic of incarceration of Black youth is something that all mothers should take personally (and take to the streets).

It means that the first response to a community problem – such as the building of a trash incinerator, a site for a new group home, incidents of police brutality in a particular neighborhood – should not be “here is how this affects my child,” but rather, “how does this affect the other children in this community?  Are there solutions here that will benefit all children?”

It means that we need to be thinking globally:  how does this bottle of water I take to the gym affect the mothers in India, who don’t have access to safe water because Coke has bottled it up and shipped it to the U.S.?

In other words, feminist mothering means, to an extent, that we “othermother,” as Patricia Hill Collins calls it (scroll down) (though I think I may be applying this term more broadly than she does; IIRC, she was using it to describe the kind of helping out and watching out for each others’ children that women in Black communities do, and I’m expanding this definition).  We need to be responsible for, not only raising our own children, but helping to ensure that the mothers around us can raise their children.  We are not only raising our children to make feminist change, but we need to use our mothering to make feminist change.  That, to me, is feminist mothering.

What do you all think?  What is feminist mothering to you?

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32 Responses

  1. Linoleum Blownaparte
    Linoleum Blownaparte August 7, 2009 at 9:08 am |

    So, What Is Feminist Mothering?

    Not having your head up your ass.

    Sorry, bad day.

  2. Danise
    Danise August 7, 2009 at 9:42 am |

    Right on! I’ve been thinking about this very topic a lot recently and discovered that feminist mothering is what a feminist does when she mothers. I can’t separate my “feminist self” from my “mother self” – each informs the other. Thanks for the great post (and part 1 as well, even though I don’t ascribe to AP).

  3. Lucy Gillam
    Lucy Gillam August 7, 2009 at 10:08 am |

    To be honest, I’ve been focusing my feminist mothering on popular media (a natural outgrowth of my own media fannishness, I suppose). This has included things like an aggressive letter-writing campaign to try to save The Middleman, a show that was about as positive from a gender perspective as I’ve ever seen. It failed, but we tried. I run a community of parents (and others concerned about children) who aren’t simply willing to throw out the TV, but are concerned about how gender representation affects our children.

    I’m fighting hard to raise awareness about how the unequal distribution of labor in the household contributes and constructs inequality in the workplace. I’m sure plenty of people wish I’d shut up about it, but I won’t. I try to hammer home the different standards we hold mothers and fathers to wherever the topic seems relevant (see my comments here about the Kyle and Jackie O situation).

    Finally, I try to be an ally to other parents. Before I was a mother myself, I would frequently take the early classes that parents couldn’t, even trading on occasions. I took tasks for mothers while they were on maternity leave, for no extra pay, just to help out. Still do that when I can. I try to work with students who have childcare issues or will be having a baby three weeks before the semester ends.

    None of this is much, but it’s what I can do right now.

  4. Veronica
    Veronica August 7, 2009 at 10:32 am |

    You should see my copy of “Feminist Mothering.” It’s full of sticky notes because it made me think so damn hard about everything that we consider motherhood, mothering, feminism, raising kids. wow…I love that book.

    I love how she also makes that distinction between motherhood and mothering. I’m slowly adding that into my vocab. I say slowly because I still use motherhood to describe the club us moms belong to. But what we do is mothering.

  5. Rachel
    Rachel August 7, 2009 at 11:24 am |

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been thinking about how to live out my feminist principles in mothering, and as I’m relatively new to both, it can be a little confusing. You’ve given me some good places to start, and I do appreciate it.

    As far as “othermothering” goes – I tend to do that, albeit in a small community, with my friends. I think it is absolutely as important as mothering my own son, and I’m glad to see it as a topic of conversation.

  6. UnHinged Hips
    UnHinged Hips August 7, 2009 at 11:31 am |

    Talking about feminist mothering is good as far as it goes, but I think that much of the conversation needs to be reframed to feminist PARENTING. As long as we keep this idea in our heads that mothering and parenting are the same thing, we’re screwed.

  7. Danielle
    Danielle August 7, 2009 at 11:42 am |

    I don’t know how to define “Feminist Mothering.”

    Let every person for whom labels matter define it for themselves.

    Sometimes, I laugh at the turns my life has taken. As a young childless and single person, I was pressured to not want a family (only a career). I was taught to be a feminist and to see having a family as a negative thing. So, I adjusted my thinking to see their point of view, “stopped wanting” a family, and started making my career goals (which they didn’t agree with either, ha ha).

    My relationship with my husband just “happened”. We got married and had a daughter in 2007. I had always wanted to be a SAHM, but in my pregnancy, it seemed like all the zeal that wanted me to stop focusing on a family and only on career was hyper focused on warning me about how EXPENSIVE and horrible it was to have a baby. The hypothetical numbers that people ran past me on what to expect were very exaggerated. So, in fear, I went back to work. I’m still at the same job I started one year and 8 days before my daughter was born.

    To this day, I see a third shift in zealous expectations of me. Now, people seemed to have forgotten about how important it was for me to not want a family and only a career, they seemed to have forgotten about how babies are SO EXPENSIVE and omigod, you CAN’T afford it!, and this shift I am now seeing is in pressure to be a SAHM and have my daughter with me 24/7. To this day, people still drill me about “Who watches your child?” Most of the time when I say, “Daycare”, this shrill of disbelief and shame follows. I see moms telling me that THEY are with their kids All the time, and would NEVER let ANYONE babysit. They make daycare out to be abandonment. It’s lessened as she has gotten older, but it still happens.

    It’s because of all these tri-polar shifts over the years in what was expected of me, that I really think I have “grown out” of needing labels.

    I’m a big beleiver in “Do what you want, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone.” Here’s an idea for all-

    Do what you want! Live your life the way it is, throw away all the labels, do what you *need* to do, follow your interests, open up opportunities for your partners and children to follow their interests, and open your mind to allow other people around you to do the same.

  8. Carla
    Carla August 7, 2009 at 12:14 pm |

    You know what this made me think of? Herland- you know, the book by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

  9. Julie
    Julie August 7, 2009 at 12:55 pm |

    it seemed like all the zeal that wanted me to stop focusing on a family and only on career was hyper focused on warning me about how EXPENSIVE and horrible it was to have a baby. The hypothetical numbers that people ran past me on what to expect were very exaggerated.

    Yes! I’ve gotten this, too.

  10. laprofe63
    laprofe63 August 7, 2009 at 12:57 pm |

    I had my son the year before I defended my PhD. I was 39, almost 40. After having delved into studying masculinity in a literary/historical context, I couldn’t believe I was having a boy. I felt ready to watch for tell-tale signs of any reproduction of male privilege that might have slipped past me undetected had I not had that academic experience.

    Feminist mothering to me means actively working for justice and equity as a professor, without necessarily mothering my students.

    It means doing my best to raise a man-child who doesn’t consider me his personal slave. He once told me that I love my job more than him. Without agreeing with him wholeheartedly, I explained how I feel about my job, and told him yes, I do love it –not more, not less, just differently.

    It means letting him play with the “boundaries” of gender. Not teasing him too much about his first kiss (at the tender age of 5), or about putting on lipstick. It means not getting too weirded out by seeing him play naked in his room (alone thank god!), with his penis ‘at attention.’

    It means having a high tolerance for a messy, even dirty, house. I don’t tell my husband or him to clean anything; I let things get so dirty they finally get sick of it and do what needs to be done (all the while probably thinking ‘why didn’t SHE do it?’). And I laugh to myself.

    It means purposefully not having the answer to ‘what’s for dinner?’ and in fact, asking that question of them as often as I feel like.

    It means not trying to do it all, or do it perfectly.

    But, I just put in an ILL request for the mentioned title to see if I can learn how to expand my understanding of feminist mothering. Thanks for the reading suggestion!

  11. elizabeth
    elizabeth August 7, 2009 at 1:32 pm |

    Allison Crews wrote an essay titled “And so I Chose” (found in the book, “Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation”) that most clearly linked the issues (and acts) of mothering, feminism, and choice for me. The last passage is incredibly powerful, expanding the discourse on issues new mothers (and non-mothers) face. The essay really helped me understand how limiting the focus to reproductive rights, while important, forces us to overlook common experiences women have when mothering. It also helped me understand how women who choose to have children could feel isolated from feminism. Anyways, I highly recommend the essay.

  12. Massive Link Roundup « The Feminist Texican

    [...] Feministe: So, What is Feminist Mothering? [...]

  13. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. August 7, 2009 at 3:36 pm |

    Not to completely derail, but I wish we could move away from the word “mothering”. It seems to institutionalize, even within the feminist community, the idea that only women can be the primary nurturers of children. (Which if we ever want to reach full equality, that cannot be the case.)

  14. Danielle
    Danielle August 7, 2009 at 8:11 pm |

    “I wish we could move away from the word “mothering”. It seems to institutionalize, even within the feminist community, the idea that only women can be the primary nurturers of children.”

    How does it do that? It’s a word choice, and one not made with the intent you describe. Your interpretation of it was just your interpretation. I’ve come to believe that if a debate ends up coming down to semantics, then it wasn’t a very intelligent debate.

  15. Danise
    Danise August 7, 2009 at 10:11 pm |

    UnHinged Hips, you are so right! From now on, I’m a feminist parent. Awesome comment.

  16. La Lubu
    La Lubu August 8, 2009 at 7:51 am |

    I like the phrase “feminist parent“, and I use it at times….but as a single parent, I also like to claim feminist mothering as my descriptive term, to counter the view of single mothers as…broken, lesser-than, pathological…what have you. It’s a small way for me to counter the ugly stereotypes.

    I never made a list of feminist mothering practices; I like laprofe63′s list! I also feel I can’t separate my feminism from anything else in my life, and that my ethnicity, class, orientation, etc. all influence the ways and means of my feminism. All one big pot of sugu.

    I model feminist practice to my daughter. I let her know both verbally and nonverbally that she doesn’t need to make less of herself in order to make anyone else (including me) comfortable. That she doesn’t need to confine herself according to dominant sexist thought. That she should give full range and full play to all her talents, including the ones women aren’t “supposed” to have. I give her/read her books by women, and point out accomplished women in every venue.

    I let her know that a spirituality that doesn’t recognize women is no spirituality at all. That despite all the folks she will meet in the U.S. that insist that God is an old, bearded, angry white man, that isn’t true. That what is feminine/female is also Divine.

    I model that feminism is about justice, and take my daughter to gatherings and demonstrations of others working towards justice—whether the base group is primarily focused on labor, racial justice, women’s rights, etc. (and as bfp mentioned in the other thread, sometimes this isn’t so easy. some folks aren’t feeling the need to educate our young people in this manner. that’s a damn shame.). I take her to the voting booth with me. I take her walking precincts with me. I actively discuss politics and history with her. Oh yeah, history. I am giving my daughter a grounding in the history she isn’t going to be taught in school.

    I actively work to counter the toxic messages about female bodies she is and will continue to receive. I try to give her pride in what her body can do, and encourage her to explore the motion and feeling and pride of her body. I will do my damnedest to raise her with a healthy feeling of her beauty and sexuality. That she owns her body. I tell her she is beautiful. Now, some feminists disagree on whether that is a good thing; feeling it reinforces the idea that we (women) are our bodies or that our physical appearance is all we have to offer, but I think she already has a good grounding (even at this young age) in the fact that isn’t true. Meanwhile, she’s moving into her preteen years, and I know as sure as I’m breathing she’s going to need some backup to counter all the “ugly” messages she’s gonna get. I sure could have used that in my youth.

    I am teaching her about the various forms of manipulation she is going to encounter as she walks through this world, and especially those forms of manipulation that are female-specific. I’m teaching her that when someone with power over you is trying to shoot you down, it isn’t just because they want to keep their power all to themselves—it’s also because they recognize your power, and they fear you for it.

    Like laprofe63, I have a messy house, too! And it’s ok. A house filled with stacks of books and art supplies and toys and music is a happy house.

    I’m teaching my daughter self-sufficiency. She will know how to cook and make repairs, not just bring home a paycheck. I’ve taught her a love of learning so she’ll never be bored. I’m trying to teach her to lead a life of…wholeness, balance…but I think she’s doing a better job of teaching me that.

    She has taught me patience. When to keep my temper. That it’s ok to be a bleeding heart (as is evidenced by our three cats, the laziest cats on the face of the planet). She is teaching me to pay attention, despite the fact she inherited a massive dose of space-cadet-ed-ness (yeah, I know that isn’t a word!) from her mother. She has taught me to spend more time in nature. She gets me out of the house when I would rather stay in, and that’s good for me. She talks me up when I’m feeling down. She makes me read books to her (still), and that’s good, because I get to know a lot of cool kids’ stories that weren’t around in my age (we’re currently reading “Lionboy” by Zizou Corder, because my girl loves all animals, and cats in particular).

    Like other commenters, I also try to assist other mothers. Even if it’s just a short conversation at the post office or whatever. Mothers who are having a hard time with angry or tired kids….just to let them know that they’re not alone, and that it’s ok if you’re not a Stepford Mom.

  17. Jha
    Jha August 8, 2009 at 9:25 am |

    I was reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel, Herland, which she characterizes as a nation of mothers, where everything is geared towards the betterment of children’s education, to produce the best people possible.

    It really made me think, and if we considered children Important People because they’re the next generation, we’d probably invest more in their education.

    So…. in a sense, any feminist who pitches in to help with the raising of children, whether or not biologically theirs, directly or indirectly, is a feminist parent.

    The saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

  18. Safiya Outlines
    Safiya Outlines August 8, 2009 at 10:15 am |

    I would relate to this much better without the finger wagging over labels.

    Motherhood vs Mothering?!

    Ugh.

  19. laprofe63
    laprofe63 August 8, 2009 at 12:39 pm |

    @ La Lubu, who writes:

    “Now, some feminists disagree on whether that is a good thing; feeling it reinforces the idea that we (women) are our bodies or that our physical appearance is all we have to offer, but I think she already has a good grounding (even at this young age) in the fact that isn’t true.”

    For me anyone who attempts to disengage being from embodiment is doing nothing more than reproducing the very thing that hegemonic masculinity has tried to do: argue that somehow we can separate mind from body (and spirit).

    This is rhetorical BS that has been used to convince us that somehow white male authority is Universal and can be objective.

    Women may choose to be mothers or not, but we are embodied beings, and to some extent develop according to that physical experience (in its beautiful variety). Men are too, whether they want to admit it or not. There is no escaping the influence physicality has on being human. Why not pay more attention to its (potential) wisdom?

  20. Jake Aryeh Marcus
    Jake Aryeh Marcus August 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm |
  21. Nick
    Nick August 8, 2009 at 2:48 pm |

    I’m with Jha and La Lubu, as well as the original article — feminist mothering is community mothering, village-first mothering, and what makes the idea powerful is the vision of a group of mothers related to each other by political solidarity and mutual empathy. For Americans, the way that we can contribute most emphatically to this right now is through vigorous support of a public option for health insurance. This 2002 article estimates that almost 6 million mothers were uninsured — and that’s before the recession.

    Past our moral imperative to insure the uninsured, public health insurance is a feminist policy — because some wives and mothers are forced to depend on the employer of their spouse for insurance, our antiquated health care system directly produces gender inequities.

    Please visit my blog for more, or write your congressperson in support of a public option for health care. And maybe, if we’re lucky, one of the gifted bloggers here will look into gender inequality in insurance coverage on the behalf of all us eager readers?

  22. Noble Savage » Blog Archive » Smart reads Sunday

    [...] @Feministe – “So, What Is Feminist Mothering?” [...]

  23. MomTFH
    MomTFH August 9, 2009 at 5:56 pm |

    Feminist mothering is not winning a square on Mommy Wars Bingo.

  24. Katherine
    Katherine August 10, 2009 at 2:11 pm |

    A small part of my feminist mothering is fighting a small battle against uber gender colour coding. Pink pink pink vs blue blue blue. Argh! We tried to be as neutral as possible, then found that we had ended up dressing her in boys’ (not blue) clothes – all the orange, green and purple clothes were boys’ clothes. And that seemed even worse – male as neutral!

    I know it seems petty, but I think this “girls like pink, boys like blue” thing is very damaging

  25. Sailorman
    Sailorman August 10, 2009 at 3:52 pm |

    I had always thought that feminist women did more parenting than mothering: “mothering” as distinguished from “fathering” implies that there are a lot of sex-specific differences in practice. Which, once you’re past the breastfeeding age, are not mediated or required by gender.

    So why go there? While i am a father, I mostly think of myself as a “parent” and not a “father figure.”

    Even those who attribute traditional values to men and women understand that they’re both parents, and therefore pretty much anything gets lumped into potential parent action. If you’re going to try to change things with semantics, parenting is a better choice of neutral term.

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  28. La Lubu
    La Lubu August 11, 2009 at 6:47 am |

    If you’re going to try to change things with semantics, parenting is a better choice of neutral term.

    But we don’t live in a neutral world. We don’t live in a world where the contributions of women are viewed as important, valuable, or correct as the contributions of men—even when they are the exact same actions. Women are still seen as inferior, still seen as needing the guidance and headship of men.

    Use of the term “mothering” isn’t about claiming a different set of practices based on some essentialist version of parenting. It’s about claiming a female identity along with authority. And as long as any world I live in still has an issue with female authority, I’m still going to simultaneously claim my female identity along with my “neutral” (not!) human identity. I fully agree with laprofe63 that we are embodied beings, and that our bodies are perceived differently. I want to change the perception of a female body, a female mind. And I can’t do that by solely using “neutral” terminology.

  29. Sailorman
    Sailorman August 11, 2009 at 9:13 am |

    I didn’t even post here until the thread was almost dead, because I’m–surprise!–not a mother. So if you’d rather keep this mothers-only, just say so and I’ll bow out.

    Anyway:

    # La Lubu says:
    But we don’t live in a neutral world. We don’t live in a world where the contributions of women are viewed as important, valuable, or correct as the contributions of men—even when they are the exact same actions. Women are still seen as inferior, still seen as needing the guidance and headship of men.

    No debate there.

    I am confused, though, about how this paragraph ties into the paragraph below.

    It makes no sense to treat equivalent actions as more or less valuable based on the gender of the person doing them. But it is fairly reasonable to treat different actions as more or less valuable because, well, they’re different.

    Use of the term “mothering” isn’t about claiming a different set of practices based on some essentialist version of parenting. It’s about claiming a female identity along with authority.

    Are you claiming an identity which can be defined as “the parenting style which I believe should be universal, as practiced by someone who happens to be female”? Or you claiming an identity which can better be defined as “the style of mothering, as it is inextricably linked to femaleness?”

    If you are choosing to distinguish your identity as a parent based on your gender and not your parenting choices, then you lose a lot of your claim that there shouldn’t be any good/bad distinctions made on gender. Obviously there should never be a “women bad men good” dichotomy, but to the degree that you support parenting identities based on gender then it would be unsurprising if different genders were evaluated differently.

    And as long as any world I live in still has an issue with female authority, I’m still going to simultaneously claim my female identity along with my “neutral” (not!) human identity. I fully agree with laprofe63 that we are embodied beings, and that our bodies are perceived differently. I want to change the perception of a female body, a female mind. And I can’t do that by solely using “neutral” terminology.

    You are not capable of being neutral, but words are certainly capable of being neutral.

    If you choose to define genderspecific terms like “mothering” and “fathering,” and within those terms include or exclude selective characteristics, then you are fighting against neutrality.

    It seems fairly obvious to me that we will as a society generally continue to reach different value judgments about different things, and this seems to be an eminently appropriate act. If you are supportive of the concept that women will sometimes win and sometimes lose in such a comparison, then there is no need for neutrality. But I am having trouble fitting that into my admittedly limited knowledge of feminism.

  30. La Lubu
    La Lubu August 11, 2009 at 1:36 pm |

    Sailorman, you are misreading me. I am merely claiming that my being female is not a detriment to my parenting. Specifically, that my parenting as a single mother is not inferior because my parenting isn’t taking place under the direction of a male (which is how essentialists view co-parenting between male and female partners—they assume the man is “in charge”. Ick, I know.)

    There is a pre-existing dynamic that assumes that everything done by a women is inherently inferior to the same action done by a man. And yes, that even comes out in parenting, even with the sexist trope that men are all thumbs when it comes to raising children (especially babies/toddlers). Mothers are not seen as having sufficient authority to raise children effectively.

    Single fathers do not experience the questioning of their parenting skills or practices the way single mothers do. And for that matter, in areas of discipline or education, married mothers can get the same questioning of their parenting that single mothers get. When it comes to performing the day-to-day scutwork of parenting (what would be called “unskilled labor” if it was done for pay) mothers are seen as doing a “naturally” fine job. When it comes to what could be called “skilled labor” parenting decisions, all of a sudden a mother’s word isn’t good enough.

  31. Amy Joy Coolbrith
    Amy Joy Coolbrith August 14, 2009 at 8:02 pm |

    My son’s father raises my son. Forget the whole working/mothering/SAHM debate, what about those of us who have chosen to forge our own path, whose children live with their fathers full-time?

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