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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day Thoughts

Mother's Day. It's a Hallmark Holiday, but nevertheless, a good day to think about mothering. Here at the Abortion Monologues, our motto is "Every Mother Willing, Every Child Wanted." This is still a dream, but it's good to dream and to work towards that dream.

Roadblocks to achieving that dream include some of the myths we have about mothering. Our mothering myths transmit values, norms and patterns that become part of culture. They determine how we feel about ourselves as mothers and as women, how we feel about our own mothers and the other mothers around us. And as always, the personal is political. Our feelings and beliefs inform the kind of social policy we make.

One of the first things I think about when I consider the current myths of motherhood is that whole crazy Super Mom thing and all it entails. Recently, Super Mom not only makes her own baby-food, has children with good grades and future professional careers, children who excel in gymnastics and piano and math, she is also Super Mom with a great body. She's the yummy mummy, still sexy with a nice tight vagina after the birth and rock hard abs. She's doing her kegels, rocking the workouts, all while rocking the cradle. We praise the woman who has "lost the baby weight" and deride the one who ends up with lumpy thighs, a bumpy tummy and no waist. She has "let herself go." I don't even need to say what's wrong with this. You already know. So stop participating in it.

It's worth taking the time to deconstruct what we think about mothering beyond the body, and to dig into the cultural belief systems that make mothering such an difficult job for so many of us.

One thing our culture likes to do is think about mothering as something we know by instinct, not something we learn. Unfortunately, the babies are never born with an instruction manual. I don't know about you, but I didn't know how to do anything, in spite of my diligent reading. Breastfeeding came about as naturally to me as sky-diving. Our feelings of self-worth plummet when we don't magically "know" what to do with these lovely pudgy needy crying pooping little people. This is kinda funny when at the same time mothering is lauded as THE MOST IMPORTANT THING A WOMAN CAN DO.

I got more training to be a cashier than I got for mothering. I had to get a license to drive. But mothers receive precious little, if anything, by way of training, and what we do receive is extremely prescriptive and simplistic, as though there is only one way to mother correctly. The fact that this one true path changes periodically (look at what has been said about breastfeeding over the last century as an example of this) shows there are many paths. There are trends in mothering, just as there are trends in anything. Family Bed. Cry it out. They can't both be right. Mothers need non-judgemental education that offers evidence-based best practices for things like nutrition and safety, lots of options, examples, case studies, discussions, and the freedom to apply this learning to their own unique situations as they see fit. But when we are in the thick of things, and our baby is crying, and we begin to wonder if we really should implement the family bed, or if our neighbour is right and we should let the baby cry it out, we feel pressure to perform our mothering tasks according to the latest trend. This often means conforming to the loudest, most judgemental voice closest to us. It's in all of our interests to remember mothering is not all instinct, that it is learned too, and that we must support mothers in their learning. Don't treat mothers like they are idiots when they don't know what to do. Offer help and support. Present your help as possibilities, not prescriptions. "He might be more comfortable if you change his position. I've seen some women hold their babies like footballs, and others put the snuggly on their backs." See what I mean?

Along with this, we tend to think of mothering as an act of love, not work. This has huge implications for us as women. I will say, Of Course We Love Our Children (even as I know some of us do not, but we're totally not allowed to talk about that, but someday we will) but this does not mean that raising them isn't also work. There is this false notion out there that if we love what we do, this is reward enough. No payment is required beyond that. Occasionally, a study comes out saying that if we paid mothers market value for all of the tasks that they do, they would earn (insert shockingly large amount of money here). We are always surprised by this. This recurring study makes us feel... what? Important? Because we know our importance in this society is measured by the money we earn? Sad? Because we are not making that much money? Used? Because we're doing all this for free and no one bothers to say thanks? How does it make us feel? You decide. But what I do know is that mothering for me is both love and work. Just because I love my child doesn't mean she hasn't been a heck of a lot of work to raise. And it makes me take a hard look at our culture and what is valued as work. Saying someone shouldn't get compensated with actual pay if they love their work is a ridiculous notion.

As the great feminist economist Marilyn Waring points out, we only value what we count. I just finished filling out the long form census (oh, sorry, we call it the National Household Survey now) and there was not one question about household unpaid work or unpaid work of any kind inside or outside the home. This is a problem and has implications for social policy which will continue to fail to recognize the work that mothers do and compensate them accordingly, to make sure they are not poor in their old age, to make sure they have adequate support to do their jobs well and raise healthy children in healthy families.

We also think of mothering as an individual task rather than as a social task. This is unique in history and an invention of modern western society, from what I can see. We are expected to do our work largely alone, or at most within the nuclear family, and maybe, if we're lucky with some nieghbours, some extended family, or with a Baby and Me group. Again, this has huge implications for social policy. If mothering is something we do ourselves, our mothering needs to have no attention paid to it in social policy, no collective support, no "village" to help us raise our children. Again, we know this is a lie. But this is the pervasive idea that guides the broader culture right now.

Finally, although I could say more, we think of mothering as essential, not optional. A woman's destiny is tied up with her role as mother. A woman who does not mother or does not want to mother is not only seen as unmotherly, she is unwomanly. Essentialism is alive and well in our culture. That's a fancy name for the idea that "biology is destiny." Our destiny, our purpose as women, is to have babies, and more specifically, have the babies of men. It is our job, through our mothering, to continue patriarchy. Whew. That's a lot of weight on me. Especially considering I wish an end to patriarchy. And if I don't have the baby, guess what? I'm a bad woman. So women who have abortions buck this myth in a profound way. No wonder they are shamed and blamed.

This Mother's Day, let's do something beyond buying a Hallmark Card. Let's do something substantial to change this matrix of ideas that diminishes all of us as mothers. Write a letter demanding government sponsored, subsidized and regulated day care. Stop blaming mothers for everything that goes wrong, and think about any mother-blaming you have done and try to find empathy in your heart, knowing that this mother worked, and worked hard, did her work largely alone, did it whether or not she wanted to, and did the best she could with what little education she had. Maybe make a donation to a mother in need through a woman's shelter or woman's centre. Maybe donate to Oxfam or a like-minded organization to help women raise their families and have healthy babies or not have babies at all. Let's help ensure all mothers are willing and all babies are wanted.

But most importantly, examine your own beliefs about mothering and see if they are really true or if they are just myths.

And Happy Mother's Day to you, if you are a mother, or just have a mother.

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