Jane Chelliah // 6 March 2016
Feminism was something that happened in the Western world, not in Asia where I grew up. It never occurred to me that I could be a feminist. Where I came from a woman’s virtue was judged from her appearance and ability to be demure. Feminism to me was something that was practised by rich and intellectual white women.
I moved to the UK in the early 1980s when people spoke about Margaret Thatcher as a feminist. I laboured under the illusion that feminists were white women with power; ordinary women like me could not be feminists.
My daughter was born in 1999. All I knew was that rush of feeling that people talk about when becoming a mother for the first time hit me too. While I did not know it at that time I bypassed being a feminist in my own right and became a feminist mother with a vengeance, but then I was ignorant about the concept of feminist mothering.
As the months went by I started to notice the stereotyping and expectations of a girl. That gush of motherhood morphed into something more protective and was grounded in wanting to create a different world for my girl.
One night I felt very isolated, as new mothers sometimes do, and spent hours on the internet looking for like minded mothers. I found a website called The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement from which I learnt that my style of mothering with all the aspirations and hopes attached had a name: “feminist mothering”.
Feminist mothering can either be defined as the opposite of the common understanding of mothering or on its own as a liberating style of mothering. Feminist mothering is a life strategy or an underpinning narrative that is both theoretical and practical. It fights against the common assumption that motherhood is a patriarchal institution whereby the child rearing is left to mothers in the domestic and private sphere of the home, her work is devalued but she must always strive to be a ‘good mother’.
While mothering requires sacrifices in order to put the child’s needs first, a ‘good mother’ is seen as someone who always sacrifices herself as a person in her own right and who puts her own needs last, perhaps even when this is not what would benefit her child. However, feminist mothering isn’t about being a selfish mother. It is about recognising the barriers that women as mothers face such as gender assumptions, class and race issues and understanding that mothering is not a homogeneous experience. Feminist mothering is about seeing mothering as a subjective experience and finding stories from these experiences that can be used to empower women.
A ‘good mother’, on the other hand, is often a stay-at-home, married and middle class woman. There’s nothing wrong with any of these, I hasten to add, but it is the detrimental stereotyping that I object to, because women on benefits, gay women and working single women can also be good mothers. Mothers are a melting pot and feminist mothering is an inclusive philosophy.
In contrast to my upbringing where women were expected to live by a common code drawn up by the patriarchy, my daughter’s life is characterised by personal agency, empowerment and self-awareness.
My daughter at 16-years-old is unlike what I was at her age. She is aware of her strengths and feels confident to assert herself and defend herself when challenged about not complying with stereotypical views. While I thought at her age that boys were always right because of their sex she does not think that men are endowed with superior powers.
Feminist mothering is a concept that meets the demands of the 21st century because it is comprehensive and inclusive enough to face contemporary problems such as inequality, racism, sexism and gender essentialism, among others. A one-size-fits-all style leaves out the evolving nature of mothering such as mother activism – for example, Cindy Sheehan and her role as “peace mom”, or mothers like me who took part in the Occupy movement.
People often get the wrong end of the stick. I spoke about feminist mothering at London Occupy and was subsequently invited by a university to talk about breastfeeding and how it fits in, because they wrongly assumed I would be against it. But feminist mothering is about empowerment; just as some women may choose not to or not be able to breastfeed, those who do wish to should be supported to be able to do this. For example, being able to breastfeed in public places would be considered a feminist mother triumph.
In conclusion, Happy Mother’s Day and I hope today is a celebration of your subjectivity and a recognition of the diversity of mothers.
The image is a photo by Beth Scupham of a painting by Eng Tay titled ‘Mother’. It shows stylised characters; a mother sitting at a piano, one hand on the keyboard and one hand on the music pages, with a child hugging her from behind. Both have their eyes shut and look serene.