Can mum be the word when it comes to modern feminism?

The choice to get married and have children is never a free one, but is the way we speak about how feminism intersects with this choice alienating our mothers? Hannah Murden investigates

, 12 April 2017

Can mum be the word when it comes to modern feminism?

A couple of months ago, my mum and I had a conversation about marriage and children — a conversation that usually boils down to me declaring that I will never even consider changing my name and my mum expressing that she doesn’t want me to miss out on raising a child.

The conversation followed this usual pattern until my mum changed things up and said “I don’t feel like young women today respect the decision I made to have children and revolve my job around that choice.”

This definitely shocked me. I never felt like I had told my mum that her decision to be a childminder so she could raise my brother and I while still working or the fact that she took my dad’s name was one I didn’t respect. Despite this, how she felt couldn’t have just arisen from nowhere.

I began to consider how I had expressed myself in the past and one particular moment got stuck in my mind. I remembered saying something like “My name is who I am. I am not giving up that for someone else”. My mum promptly shot back that she didn’t feel as though she had lost part of herself by taking my dad’s name and that certainly wasn’t what I was insinuating, but looking back it was very obvious how it sounded.

This got me thinking: is the way young, modern feminists like myself talk to our mothers about the choice to get married and have children alienating them?

When my mum was getting married and thinking about starting a family in the mid-1980s, the pill had become commonplace and the Equal Pay and Sexual Discrimination acts had been passed about a decade before. Yet, as best put by Lynne Harne, “…the destiny for middle-class women even if they had been to university was that they would get married, not work and have children”.

Big social changes were happening but some things still remained the same. This didn’t mean my mum felt trapped by a predetermined societal destiny because she wanted to have a family. It made me realise that deep down, part of me simply assumed that she might have wanted something different but felt restricted. I realised that a part of me couldn’t simply accept that wanting a family was more than enough for her.

How could I expect my mum to respect my choices and listen to my frustrations when I had never shown her that I respected and understood the frustrations she had experienced in the first place?

My mum was a teenager when the first Reclaim the Night marches happened in the UK. She was a teenager at a time when many feminists were rallying against violent pornography and when women’s committees were created in local authorities.

Then she became a mother. She began instilling all the things she had learnt (even if it may have been subconsciously) from the feminist movement of her generation into me: I should always vote because people died for my right to, I should never continue a relationship with someone who abuses me and, above all, that I was just as capable as any man in the workplace or at school.

My own journey through the forums of Mumsnet only confirmed what I was thinking – mothers do sometimes feel like they can’t call themselves both a feminist and a mother

Now, I know how insulting it must have been to listen to me banging on for years about marriage being an archaic institution and how I didn’t want children because I’d rather have a career — I can assure you, it was never said with sensitivity.

My mum had given me these core, feminist principles that made it possible for me to make my own decisions separate from the pressures of society, but that didn’t mean she felt any regret about her own life choices.

She didn’t think that she had sacrificed a career for a family; it was a decision she happily made and something I had never thought about. All of this added up to my mum feeling like she was not represented in modern feminism, saying that younger women – myself included – always assumed that her life was the result of not having choices. That just wasn’t true.

This new perspective that I hadn’t considered before led me to wonder if mothers now feel the same kind of alienation my mother expressed. Things have progressed further since my mum was a new parent but it’s no secret that mothers today are still faced with choices in a society that is constantly pulling them in opposing directions.

Of course, no decision is made in a vacuum and I’d argue that the explicit and implicit pressures on women to start a family are prime examples of this. Before a woman even becomes a mother she faces pressures from family, friends and other external mediums, perpetuating motherhood as part of achieving the “woman who has everything” lifestyle.

If you are a newly-married woman, you can expect to be asked, either on your wedding day or very soon after, whether you are thinking about having children, with eager family members making prodding comments at you about them wanting to be an aunty, grandfather etc.

Mothers are told not to breastfeed in public, but then also told that feeding their child formula milk isn’t the best for them. They are expected to want to continue their career or return to work but are then chastised for not caring for their children themselves or encounter difficulties when trying to find childcare altogether. My own journey through the forums of Mumsnet only confirmed what I was thinking – mothers do sometimes feel like they can’t call themselves both a feminist and a mother.

One mother said that she felt like a hypocrite and less of a feminist for scaling back her own career and taking care of children instead of her husband becoming the primary caregiver. Another expressed that the push for equality through career progression was something too heavily focused on and that striving for equality through that channel was a rather male-measured view of success. Although all of the responses to these comments were positive and supportive of the mothers who were feeling distanced from the feminist movement, it shows that not enough discussions are being had about the issues mothers face that are inclusive, rather than positing career aspirations as the only acceptably feminist alternative.

Like my interactions with my mum, I had good intentions but might not have considered how my opinions were expressed. Too often, I have dismissively said that it is a woman’s choice to have children and stay home to take care of her children, but how much can I say that I understand these women’s experiences? I can’t imagine what it is like to be a mother but mothers know what it is like to not be one. The mutual understanding between mothers and some young women is not being reciprocated in the way it should be.

It is a small thing to take a moment to consider what you are saying from the perspective of another person who is in a different situation to you, and that is how feminism can play its part in supporting our mothers who are questioning their place in the movement. We just need to listen to these women and support them fiercely so their doubts are quashed before they become alienated from a space that is meant to include all those striving for equality.

Image by Splitshire, from Pexels. Used under Creative Commons Zero licence.

Image is a close-up of a bride and groom cake topper. Both figurines are sitting on the edge of the cake, between two raspberries. The cake has white icing and is decorated with raspberries and blobs of whipped cream

Hannah is recent English Lit/Creative Writing graduate who is currently living her life as a female flâneur in Barcelona whilst working on her writing. She is often described as cat-like with her independent, free-roaming nature. Sometimes she runs long distances for fun

Comments From You

cycleboy // Posted 12 April 2017 at 9:42 pm

I understand the concern that stating a position that is actually in marked contrast to someone else’s choice can seem critical. Of course, chosing to get married, change your name, stay at home to look after children are exactly that; a choice. And each person is usually well stocked with good reasons for their particular choice. However, I still worry. When every person you meet who changes their surname, or stays at home to look after the kids, is female (I’m assuming the number of men doing so is still statistically insignificant.) the question still has to be asked: is it really a free choice?

When my wife took my surname and added it to hers, I did the same. Consequently, my hybrid surname has often been the subject of interest. However, what has truly shocked me is that only one person has ever said, “Of course. Why shouldn’t men change their surname.” Only one. And that was a man. No woman has ever said that to me. I’m sure they do exist and no doubt the author is one. But, of people I have actually met, no woman has ever really thought my stance anything other than odd. And that’s worrying.

Clomba // Posted 15 April 2017 at 9:53 am

I’m a mother of three and ‘chose’ to bear my husband’s surname when I got married at barely 21.
I am now a feminist or ’emerging feminist’ as the wake up call only happened to me recently.
I read this article with interest and cannot say that I fully agree with the author’s self bashing about how she never really listened to her mum or didn’t express her views sensitively towards her. After my own 20 plus years experience of marriage and motherhood I argue that both marriage and motherhood are not a choice, or at least not a conscious one. I wish someone had told me rudely about it and not treated me so sensitively that I was left to bear my burden unaware. Women believe they are choosing, when in reality they are bowing to the only option really considered normal, acceptable and worthy of a woman’s life. I can personally say that I ‘chose’ to go through the deprivations and hardship of motherhood even barely aware of what was coming. I went for it because it seemed the right thing to do, because it gave me purpose and dignity at a time when I didn’t really know myself or what I really wanted. That was not a choice. At the same time, can we say that a working woman abandoning or limiting her career in order to marry and have children is really choosing? Or is she simply bowing to the realisation that in order to embrace the joys of motherhood (I don’t say there aren’t many, on the contrary) she has to pay for it somehow? Either by limiting her professional ambitions or accepting to do a double or even triple job 24/7, through the working day and plus all a mother’s duties?
Mothers can be feminists only if aware that they are oppressed. The author’s mother seems only dimly and unconsciously aware of having lived a limited life, as the author suggests when listing the feminist ideas the mother tried to instil in her daughter, but that she had denied to herself. Married women and mothers don’t need to be spoken sensitively. They need to be shaken and woken, told that they have been duped, pushed into making false choices and empowered to ask for better options. That needs to be done not sensitively, but in solidarity, by other feminists who aren’t afraid to offend them.

sugarmouse // Posted 2 May 2017 at 11:37 am

Aged 21 I had my first and only child. I came from a background of poverty and neglectful parents. I saw marriage and children as my chance to have a family on my own terms and be the mother I never had. Aged 36 with a teenage daughter I can honestly say I wish I had, had other choices. I had no money, no job experience and a handful of qualifications. On the one hand having a child made me want to ‘make something of myself’ but on the other hand being a mother meant the practicalities of actually doing this were fraught with difficulty.
There was no equivalent pressure put on my then husband, because whilst he had a child, he also had a wife so therefore free, accessible childcare was a given. Now divorced and with joint parental responsibility I still have to make 95% of choices. Yes he ‘supports my choices’ but they have to be mine. Yes I have more experience as a hands on parent but parenting a teenager is as new to me as to her father. I don’t know what I am doing any more than he does but I have to because I am the parent with a vagina.

Whilst well-off women may still choose to be stay at home mothers, too many poor young women see motherhood as their only option to achieve something of significance in their lives. What many of them do discover is far from offering a out clause motherhood for poor mothers is still a ball and chain. The barriers are mostly financial. Well off mothers can choose ballet classes, private tuition, nannies. Just as they can choose full-time motherhood or a career. Poor women choose whether to or not to stay with in a dead-end relationship because he’s the only support she has. Or whether it’s worth going back to work so she can have a life away from the kids even though she will actually have less money.

We should always respect mothers, whatever the reasons or circumstances for having their children they can still want better for themselves, their daughters and their daughters daughters. They are still feminists. But the difference between choice and desperation is as much an economic decision than anything else.

rb // Posted 25 May 2017 at 10:24 pm

I rather welcomed this article, I thought it was an authentic opportunity to think about the issue. I’m 42, two small children, married, with my husband’s name, not in paid work (I beg anyone reading not to make judgements and assumptions, they are likely to be wrong) – and yet back in the day, I was the full-time women’s officer at my student union, sitting in the library reading feminist tracts for fun, LOL! There are so many different elements to this topic, and it was interesting to see these particular points of view to get an airing on here.

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