An open letter to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Guest Blogger // 21 December 2016
Gemma Croffie is a thirty-something suburban feminist stay at home mother of two, though she doesn’t stay at home much. She is obsessed with food, crafts and words. In a former life she worked as a biomedical scientist until she could no longer get excited about hairy cell leukemias
Dear Ms Adichie,
As a huge fan of yours, I read your recent Facebook post ‘Dear Ijeawele, or a feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions’ with interest. I am a Ghanaian woman living in England, so I have always felt a connection to your work and identified with your feminism in particular.
I agree with most of the points in this piece on raising a feminist daughter, such as rejecting traditional gender roles, questioning our use of language and giving her a sense of identity. However, while I do think that it is important for a mother to “Be a full person”, I reject the idea that you have to be a working mother to do so.
For most mothers, the decision to work or not is complex. Some have no choice, either because their wages do not cover the cost of childcare or they are the primary earner in their household. Many fall somewhere in the middle.
I also suspect the work referred to, which brings the self-fulfillment and confidence you talk about, is the kind undertaken by highly educated middle class women. As Benjamin Barber writes in Liberating Feminism, “To be able to work and to have to work are two different matters. I suspect, however, that few liberationist women are to be found working as menials and unskilled labourers simply in order to occupy their time and identify with the power structure… most workers find jobs dull, oppressive, frustrating and alienating…”
And what is self-fulfillment and why should I allow others to tell me where I can find it? When bell hooks reminds us that the imperialist, capitalist patriarchy has always overvalued work, should we be buying into or resisting that norm? Why do our jobs represent the only option when seeking to avoid being defined solely by motherhood? Are they our only means of being a ‘full person’ outside of caring for our children?
Work is becoming increasingly ‘fetishised’, arguably leading to ill health and damaging our personal relationships. These effects are even more pronounced for working mothers who often do a ‘second shift’ if they are a single parent or have a partner who does not pitch in at home – a scenario that is much more common than your letter acknowledges.
What you and many others also forget is that in order for women to take on the type of work you describe, other people – usually poorly paid women – have to take on some or all of our childcare and household duties. So in order to “Be a full person”, we often contribute to the oppression of other women. You’re right that Black mothers have always worked, our mothers included, but they had the family and community support that is lacking nowadays.
Instead of pushing all women, regardless of their situation, to take on paid labour and ‘lean in’, we should be encouraging them to ‘recline’. We should be focusing our energies on providing affordable childcare and a universal basic income, introducing flexible working practices, improving the quality of part-time work and encouraging shared parental leave. This is by no means an exhaustive list but would go some way to giving working parents genuine choices about how they spend their time.
I may not have a paid job but I can assure you that I am a full person with ideas, opinions and interests who happens to look after her children full time. I must stress that I have no issue with being a working mother as I also have experience of this and am aware of the pros and cons of both. What I object to is the notion that one choice is feminist and the other is not. I am a feminist homemaker; the two things should not be mutually exclusive. I want the same things for my children that you want for yours.
I agree that we should all be feminists, but we must remember there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. We all make different choices based on our individual circumstances and we should not make anyone feel that these are inherently unfeminist.
Image shows a mother holding her daughter’s hand and running through a field
Courtesy of pawpaw67 on Flickr