Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)


My life has changed exponentially – and for the better – since I re-entered the working world. I like working, I like earning, I like seeing that the skills and talents I have can make a difference in an organization (you should see this month’s newsletter – it’s a beauty and the press releases, they sparkle with awesomeness). However, I am neglecting my blog, so in the spirit of keeping it alive, I give you a post from December 2007 (see below).

On re-reading it, I find I am much more angry now than I was then. Having read in the Guardian this morning about the Nordics’ post-maternity re-entry programmes and the failure of countries like the UK and the US to get women into senior roles in corporate and government, I feel as if the equality I was sold was bollocks. We have a long way to go and anger is a hot, burning fuel that can help us get there.

Things that have stayed the same since I wrote this piece: I am still outraged at injustice and I still fiercely love my children.

Things that have changed: I am enraged by glass ceilings and the buffer of (mostly) white and (mostly) middle-aged men who actually believe that they got where they are today through merit. It’s called the patriarchy, boys, and it’s a system of privilege that put you first. Call it quotas, if you will.

So my feminist motherhood now includes: fighting a system that is inherently injust so that all my children enter the world of work with the same chances. I want a world where my daughters have the same probability of becoming CEOs, managers and leaders – and are paid the same for their work – as my son.

Now I’m leaping off the soapbox and going to work.

The Feminist Motherhood Meme

This is so much more than a meme. I found this list of questions about motherhood and feminism (which originated with bluemilk) over at Penguin unearthed, and have enjoyed chewing over them. Warning: slight rants ahead.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

My feminism comes from outrage at injustice: I am outraged that fundamentalist religions of all kinds oppress women in the name of their beliefs, I am outraged that women die, are trafficked, raped, abused, have their genitals mutilated, are blamed for the HIV virus that their men pass to them, do not have a voice in their own homes, do not receive an education and must serve men.

My feminism came very young: probably at 11 when my father divorced my mother and left his family for another woman. That was a defining moment for me – I grew up overnight, and took on board the message that I should rely on no-one but myself because other people let you down. As I grew older that began to mean getting into a good university and following the career of my choice: journalism and writing. As I head into my forties, my feminism becomes less about me and more about women in general.

Feminism definitely preceeded motherhood for me. I only began to seriously think about motherhood when I was 28 and started meeting ridiculously cute infants. I thought, “I want one!” but never for one minute thought about how that would change me or my goals. I was after an adorable accessory of my own.

What has surprised you most about motherhood? How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

The intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, surprised and continues to surprise me about motherhood. I cried for days when all my children were born, sad tears, happy tears, confused and anxious ones. I remember thinking, “A baby won’t change MY life! It will have to fit in with whatever I want to do”, but then on Day Six of Life, Lily developed colic and cried for three months, so there was no going to restaurants and whisking her places because she would scream and scream. I was more her accessory than she was mine. I learnt fast to shape my life to hers, and nothing has changed since. My children have taught me flexibility.

My feminism has become far more general and less specific. I no longer rail at any personal glass ceiling I may have encountered (nor the idiot – no gender mentioned – boss who broke the news to me at the last minute that I couldn’t telecommute from London to his team in Germany, thus leaving me without any maternity benefits when I became pregnant working out his company’s insane six-month notice period. No. I won’t mention him.) or any ridiculously paternalistic boyfriends I might have allowed to patronise me as a teenager. I believe I am living out my potential. However, I am enraged that there are so many millions of women who are prevented from doing so. THAT makes me angry.

Motherhood has softened me in that I see my husband’s (different but equal) style of parenting as beneficial and lovely for our children. At first, I wanted him to parent My Way. Now I see that His Way is equally wonderful and that the children love it. Motherhood has been a kind of sacrifice for me, a putting-on-hold of putting-me-first, but has also allowed me to forge intensely close and satisfying relationships with three individuals who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. The joy of watching them grow and become themselves far outweighs any superficial strokes I might be receiving now in a work environment. Plus I manage to raise them AND work as a writer, so I feel lucky and honoured to be doing both.

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

I’m not sure what makes my mothering feminist. My expectations of my children are identical, regardless of their gender. I encourage my children to be true to themselves, regardless of their gender. I encourage them all to show kindness to others, to listen and be polite. I kiss them all equally. I support their choices and always will, though I might disencourage them from becoming lap-dancers or suicide bombers. I like that they see their father perform household tasks, and I like that they see me at my computer working.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Occasionally, I’ve wondered how I, with my feminist principles, have ended up as a work-from-home mother but I believe that’s a choice I’ve made out of love and good fortune. I feel compromised and grumbly if my family have left the house in a mess and since I’m the one at home, I’ve got to make the choice of ignoring it or clearing it up. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve failed as a feminist mother.

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

No, I think at times my feminism has been subdued by the all-consuming task of parenting. But I have no trouble saying I am both a feminist and a mother.

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

I try to accept the sacrifice gracefully. My time in the big, wide world – should I choose it – will come.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

He accepts it as part of me. He doesn’t see it as some weird addendum to my personality. He is also one of the most fair-minded, kind and non-judgmental people I know.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I have used aspects of attachment parenting (sleeping with my babies, fairly long-term breast-feeding, some baby-wearing) but am not an attachment parenting proselytizer. However, there were times when all three of my children were small that I felt “in service” to them. At very tired, over-wrought moments I might have resented that, but I am grateful to the attachment parenting now – and my husband loved all the wearing, carrying and cuddling too – because we have such intensely close bonds. Our children are at home with us, wherever we are in the world.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but I do think women fail each other. Women judge each other for ridiculous reasons, usually because someone has made a different choice. Feminism has given women freedom of choice, and we should embrace the fact that some of us can go out and be CEOs, others can be stay-at-home mothers, others can juggle work and kids, others may not want kids, others will breast-feed while some would never consider it. Women need to accept each other’s choices and support each other more. We are so damn lucky to HAVE choices – there are millions of women in the third world who don’t have that luxury. Whether we’re feminists or not, mothers or not, we should stop failing each other, and start loving each other a little more and judging each other a little less.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

9 thoughts on “What Feminist Motherhood Means to Me (Now)

  1. I am lucky – I was around in 1968, and Germaine Greer was teaching at Warwick uni when I was there. Bra-burning was ridiculous, but it was the beginning of my thinking what it means to be female.

    Politically, so little has really changed. Cameron is unbelievably patronising; Milliband has, at least, appointed a reasonable number of women in the shadow cabinet (though I have heard them referred to as Millie’s Fillies – which so enraged me I almost wished he hadn’t bothered.) My MP is a woman (Tory), but even so she insists the cuts don’t fall unfairly on women.

    Look at any TV programme – BBC News does include female reporters, but scan the view behind them – the grey suits, the white faces. How can they speak for anyone other than other men in grey suits, with white faces, if there is no-one there to even ask a feminist question.

    And yes, I am a mother, of four wonderful, feisty, independent, free-thinking daughters. It has been a privilege to watch them grow – and huge fun. Yes, there have been compromises (and even one failed marriage when I simply couldn’t keep up the middle-class conformity any longer).

    Working motherhood, I decided, was only possible if I resigned myself to never, quite, getting it right. I worked with traumatised children, and made myself unpopular in the men’s Court-world by insisting they listened to the voices of children. And yes, I do think that was part of my feminism, as it is part of a commitment to standing up for the oppressed.

    And then – I did the unspeakable and threw it all in the air and went travelling. A woman on my own! How truly shocking!

    But – all those years ago – Germaine Greer taught me to be myself, and to stand up for the complete potential of women. I’ve made huge mistakes, of course, but done my best to live up to that.

    So – Charlotte – feminism is wonderful, and it is right you are angry. Men won’t change from the goodness of their hearts, but only if women stand up to be counted. I’m with you on the metaphorical barricades.

  2. I’m there, Jo! Angry and proud of it. One of the by-products of going back to work is seeing mediocre male managers the same age as me who are mostly there because, let’s face it, talented women stepped back to raise the children. I don’t care if my kids become CEOs or florists or flame-swallowers; I just care that the playing field is level.

  3. Pingback: Charlotteotter re-examines and re-posts her response to 10 Questions About Your Feminist Motherhood « blue milk

  4. Hmm. Nothing really has changed. The other thing that strikes me more and more clearly is that whilst men are overwhelmingly entrenched in a privileged position (especially white men), some white men are more privileged than others. The extent to which (see this months Wired) Oxbridge and all the social capital and privilege it represents are over-represented in our governments is quite terrifying. The challenge campaigners for equality face is as much that of convincing men that they’d actually be creating a more level playing field for themselves in the long term as well as women by supporting genuine equal opportunities. And only legislating for it is going to work.

  5. Hurrah for Charlotte!! Thank you for saying that so eloquently. I too am getting angrier and angrier, after starting out so naively. I feel that comes from age and experience. It is an anger for all women everywhere too, not about me personally. You are very right about the respecting of choice too, we are emancipating ourselves to have choice, after all. The problem we have, living in a ‘meritocracy’ is that we may just think we got all the way on merit, and some men, as you say, have not yet really realised this.

  6. Somehow i missed this the first time you posted so I am really glad you re-posted – and I am looking forward to filling out this meme myself. I’m becoming more and more convinced that women really could save the world if we banded together and found the time!

  7. Loved reading this, Charlotte, and the comments. I read a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year that said that, because there weren’t more female CEOs, it must be because women’s “ambitions sharply decline in middle age.” It had me so crazy angry I wrote them a letter, which I posted on my blog. (And they did email me a response back.) Mainly my message to them was that many women CHOOSE to drop off the Corporate ladder, not because they are not ambitious, but because they don’t see Corporate life as rewarding. Period. In my case, I wanted to write and become good at it. I also wanted to be home when my kids ran in from school. I can’t do that in Corporate America, but I can now. Yes, there are ceilings. Yes, there needed to be much more equality, and I am so sick of looking at gray-haired white guys on the TV news I can’t tell you! But the statistics are wildly misleading. If women aren’t in the top levels of companies/ governments/etc, it may just be that “top level” is not where some of them choose to be.

  8. I looooved reading this, Charlotte. Loved it.

    And I am now spluttering all over the computer screen having caught sight of Melissa’s Wall Street Journal quote – oh my god!!!! Obviously it’s not where some women choose to be, atop the ladder (in a pants suit, lest the skirt billow too suggestively…), but COME ON, it’s also the case that many ambitious women find their personal goals comprehensively compromised by the demands of motherhood. There’s no question priorities change for many women, but some of them don’t have a choice – they have to do the caring, because they can’t afford the help, their jobs don’t allow for children, they have no family support… the list goes on. The enemy of ambition for many mothers is, I believe, nothing so basic as the blunting grind of their daily reality, in which those personal ambitions start to seem faintly fantastic, the very stuff of fairytales that they now read aloud each night. You start feeling ridiculous about your ambitions, and you have no capacity for pursuing them.

  9. Pingback: 2011 in First Lines « Charlotte's Web

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