Putting mothers in their place

// 26 April 2012

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This is a guest post by Elizabeth Howard. Elizabeth has recently completed a PhD in contemporary women’s literature at the University of Leicester and is now enjoying planning her future as a general pain in patriarchy’s backside.

Photo of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli voting in the European Parliament with a very small baby asleep in a sling on her chest.BBC Sussex’s twitter feed yesterday asked ‘Can Mums really expect careers? Is it fair on the kids? Or is it your right?’, highlighting the continuing and harmful cultural expectation that women should be predominantly responsible for childcare. Aside from the offensive assertion that working mothers are somehow being ‘unfair’ to their children, BBC Sussex’s apparent inability to recognise that many children have stay-at-home fathers while their mothers pursue a career outside the home suggests that the censure of working parents relates only to women.

Such stereotyping reflects an underlying assumption that appears to be reinforced on a governmental level. Parental leave entitlements in the UK are the most inequitable in Europe, with paternity leave offered at a rate of only two weeks statutory pay, as opposed to six weeks at 90% pay followed by a further thirty three weeks at statutory pay or 90% pay and thirteen weeks unpaid for mothers. While recent steps to increase maternity pay are commendable, the ongoing emphasis on female responsibility for childcare is deeply damaging, both to women and to children. Feminist classics such as Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper outline in searing detail the ramifications to both mother and child when women are forced into patriarchal models of the ‘perfect’ mother.

While I in no way intend to criticise any mother (or father) who chooses to become a stay-at-home parent, the rigid insistence upon female responsibility for childrearing inherent in our parental leave system reinforces a destructive pattern of familial relationships that women have long fought to overcome. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique showed that such relationships, in which women are allowed to find meaning only through their husbands and children, leads to deep psychological dissatisfaction for many women. That such models remain ideologically intact nearly fifty years later is astonishing; that it is women themselves who promote such detrimental models, a cause of deep concern.

As a woman who has fought to overcome social and economic disadvantages to pursue a career I find the idea that I, as a woman, should automatically jettison my intellectual ambitions if I want to also become a mother as intolerable as Friedan suggests. Furthermore, it would be economically disadvantageous for me to do so – another point that BBC Sussex’s question overlooks. Many women simply do not have the economic luxury of choosing to become stay-at-home mothers.

Yet BBC Sussex is simply reflecting a growing movement which turns its back on the advances of the last forty or fifty years, instead reifying a romantic ‘ideal’ of motherhood as the ultimate fulfilment of female purpose and in which women who do not have children or do but choose to work are condemned as ‘unnatural’. Although simply questioning the rights of mothers to work does not reflect this view overall, the fact that only women are mentioned betrays an underlying view that parenting (along with associated concerns such as birth choices and availability or schooling options) is solely a ‘women’s issue’ .

This insistence upon viewing childrearing as an inherently female concern is tied to essentialist notions of women as natural nurturers, traditionally used to exclude female involvement in the ‘masculine’ public and political spheres. The glorification of female self-sacrifice inherent in such views should therefore be rightly condemned as sexist suppression of female potential. Women are no more psychologically ‘suited’ to domestic tasks than men, men no more naturally inclined towards intellectual pursuits than women. Yet we continue to be fed these same tired stereotypes, often by the very people who have overcome gender barriers themselves, presumably like many of the staff of BBC Sussex itself, and ignore the fact that not everyone has the choice to do so.

I respect anyone’s choice to be a stay-at-home parent, yet the casual condemnation of the millions of women who choose to or have to work ignores the fact that the role some men and women find so fulfilling can also be injurious to anyone who is expected to do it simply on the basis of being female. I do not personally care how anyone chooses to order their home or how traditional or otherwise one chooses to be. I do care, however, when BBC Sussex uses those choices to diminish and restrict all women.

Photo of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli by European Parliament, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

JLO@WVoN // Posted 26 April 2012 at 11:45 pm

This is a very tired argument that I am saddened to see is back on the agenda. The problem is – as I see it – that when a woman has a baby she enters into another world of needing the protect her offspring. As a single parent, I found myself thinking that I would have my baby and then ‘go back to work’, as if this was going to be a seamless progression without any hitches. This is not what happened – instead I found myself in charge of a very small human being who needed me and, much to my surprise, who I also needed. However, my need to protect my son (who is now grown up) was unalleviated by a caring consistent partner, and so I found myself in the position of being the only parent he could rely on. Consequently I took the career hit. My view now is that if I my son had had a consistent father figure that we could both rely on, my career would not have take such a hit. So the problem we have, as outlined in this article, is that this instance on women being seen the primary carers is not only outdated, but it also, frankly, insulting to all the single dads out there. This should not be about the ‘rights’ of Mums, it should be about how parents can manage the need to have a) work which pays the bills and, if they are very lucky b) work which is fulfilling and still be effective parents. In other word, parenting is, or should be, a joint enterprise, not a gendered stereotype. So BBC Sussex, which is obviously run by a) young men who do not yet have children or b) by men who are married and whose wives are at home looking after the kids – try and think outside your stereotypical, gendered box.

Nicola Stott // Posted 27 April 2012 at 9:59 am

I agree that essentialist notions of men and particularly women are still very much in tact. Women as more able to raise children simply because they are women is almost universally accepted. Hence most nurseries and primary schools are staffed by women.

I have worked and been a stay at home mum, I’m very clear that full time motherhood was the harder option for me.

Rachael // Posted 27 April 2012 at 10:06 am

I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for a great article! It’s so frustrating that these points even need to be argued…

Elizabeth Howard // Posted 27 April 2012 at 12:24 pm

@Nicole and @Rachel. Yes, it is frustrating that this tired stereotype STILL rears its ugly head so very often. Thanks for the positive feedback.

Elizabeth Howard // Posted 27 April 2012 at 2:10 pm

Apologies Nicola and Rachael for misspelling of names

Rosie // Posted 27 April 2012 at 6:21 pm

So true! My (male) partner and I currently both work half time – so when one of us is at work, the other is with the kids. When we started doing this, 6 years ago, my partner got ALOT of people saying how great it was he was doing this, had concern expressed that this move would impact on his career etc – did I get comments like this? No! Because as a mother it’s expected that if I work it’ll only be part time, so annoying!

Joelle Nebbe-Mornod // Posted 28 April 2012 at 4:30 pm

These cultural expectations around motherhood are why I just decided not to have children. That they are still perpetuated in the media and society is a very sad thing, considering that certainly my feminist grandmothers would have expected this to have changed by now.

Glosswitch // Posted 29 April 2012 at 11:09 pm

I work full-time and have two children under five. The funny (or not so funny) thing is, no one in my workplace seems to notice! I’m in every day and they all assume I’m part time because all the other women with small children are. I’m beginning to think I should exploit this and just not turn up some days (“oh, sorry, that was my day with the kids…”)!

On a more serious note, I recently got very upset about an article I read condemning mothers who send their children to nursery (as I do). I really believe how you care for children is so individual and specific to families that no one has the right to judge others, whether they stay at home themselves or use other childcare provision (I wrote my own response here if you’re interested: http://wp.me/p2iXOy-cZ). But it is difficult because it’s hard not to feel insecure and exposed when you’re caring for children, never knowing whether you’re messing up someone else’s life. So the last thing any mother or father needs is to have complete strangers telling them their way of caring or working it isn’t right. We all do our best!

Alex_T // Posted 1 May 2012 at 10:05 pm

Slightly off-topic but related to Rosie’s comment:

I work full-time Monday-Friday while my husband works two half-days and spends the rest of the week with our children. I then have them on a Saturday while he works. I would love to take them to a playgroup as it gets very boring and lonely at home on Saturdays, but the only Saturday group near us is dads-only! We both miss out because he’s at work and I’m not welcome! Once again, it’s a big pat on the back for fathers who deign to spend an hour or two with their children, but the expectation is that I’ll have been with them all week so why would I need special time with them at the weekends? Grr.

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