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Stay-at-home Parenting and Feminism: Mutually Exclusive?

April 15, 2012

The phrase “Mommy Wars” is driving me mad!

I started writing this post last week, before the whole Ann Romney debacle. I’ll get to what I originally wrote, but first some thoughts:

While Hilary Rosen’s words were perhaps poorly chosen, what she said was not inaccurate. Her comments, when read in context, were about Ann Romney’s inability to understand the economic struggles of the majority of women in the US. The attacks on Ms. Rosen by the Romney campaign and the distancing remarks from both the Obamas and Democrats in general are to be expected and have little to do with the intended meaning of her comments and everything to do with politics.  We all know that when she said “she’s never worked a day in her whole life”, she was referring to work outside of the home. I do not think that her intention was to indicate that raising children is not hard work. As a mother herself, she would know. With an election looming and the crucial woman vote up for grabs, nobody is going to defend her poorly chosen words. She should have said something along the lines of Ann Romney never having to worry about money or a job or how to pay for childcare or any of the other concerns common to regular (i.e. not filthy rich) mothers.
But, she said what she said, and there it is. The web is now filled with commentary and opinion by mothers and non-mothers alike. The Guardian published this, asking mothers to describe the challenges of balancing children and career. I could relate to almost all the comments, varied as they were. This perhaps proves that motherhood is an experience that is both completely unique and universal. We all struggle, we all love it more than anything else in the world, and we all agree it is hard work. For the record, I think this is true for fatherhood as well. One of the women who commented in the Guardian, Avital Norman Natham of The Mamafesto (more on her and her blog later in this post) made a point that I believe is fundamental. She says:

“Here’s the problem: the have-it-all concept only sets women up to fail, mostly because not everyone has the same definition of having it all. Beyond that, we are just not in a society that supports women having it all, which makes that concept extremely difficult to attain.”

She goes on to mention how nobody ever asks how fathers manage to have it all. The onus is always on the mother.

Society does support men in “having it all” in that it sets very clear expectations of what it means to be a man and a father that are completely achievable. This is not to say that I think men have it easy. On the contrary, I think that these same societal expectations that make it easy for men to be seen as successful, and subjects them to much less criticism than women, are also incredibly limiting. Men are not expected to be nurturing, although most fathers who are even the least bit in touch with their feelings might admit to you that it comes quite naturally to them from the first time they hold their babies in their arms. This is just one of many possible examples of how men are supported by a system that unfairly pigeonholes them and asks them to deny or at least minimize fundamental parts of themselves to be seen as “real men”.

Women are oppressed by the very same system. While men can be seen as successful, albeit at a price, women can never get it right. We are always too much of one thing and not enough of another thing. We should be this, that, and the other thing and we should do all of this better than the mother next door. We literally can’t win. So, nobody- not men, not women – is winning.

And then somebody like Ms Rosen says what she said, and people like Ms Romney accuse her of minimizing the hard work of mothering, and everybody starts talking about the “mommy wars”. Come on, folks! Women and mothers have it hard enough without infighting. (Or at least without the media and politicians construing what could be considered as robust and healthy dialogue as warring between two dissimilar factions). Jane Mayer of The New Yorker has written my favorite response to all of this.

This, finally, brings me to my original post. I’ve been thinking about this divide among women, although my ponderings have been more specifically about the divide within the feminist community. I am not the first person to wonder about these things, and am certainly not the most qualified to discuss the ins and outs of the issue. I am, however, a mother and a person who identifies as feminist and, for the moment, someone who refers to herself as a stay-at-home mom.

I started considering this issue after I recently participated in a series called This is What a Feminist Looks Like. It is a project on The Mamafesto that introduces readers to various people who identify as feminist through a short interview consisting of 5 questions. The goal of the series, according to the author of the blog is “to show the world that despite the various stereotypes that exist regarding who is a feminist, that the reality is much different. Feminists can be anyone – women, men, old, young, parents, partners, gay, straight, and everything in between. By profiling people that identify as feminists, my goal is to give a larger voice (and face) to everyday feminists, encouraging others to feel confident in calling themselves the same.” I was very excited to be a part of the project and am grateful to Avital Norman Nathman for including me.

A blogger named Clarissa wrote a reaction to my interview. The title of her post – Daily Dose of Annoyance – should give you a good enough idea of her opinion of me and my interview. She tore me to pieces, essentially, attacking pretty much everything I said. This post today is by no means a reaction to her post but rather a series of questions that came up for me as I read what she wrote as well as the comments on her post.  I actually think she made some valid points about my views on feminism. To be sure, I have never claimed to be an expert on feminism or the most evolved feminist in the land. As I mentioned in the interview, I’ve only been at it a few years, and like all people I am a work in progress. To look at Clarissa’s resume I would say that she is most definitely better suited than I am to discuss Feminism in general. I, however, am the only person qualified to discuss my relationship and identification with feminism. I also considered the interview to be a snapshot of my life right now, not my definitive stance on Feminism and Life. As I grow older, wiser, and more experienced, I fully expect my ideas about the world, myself, and feminism to change and evolve. So, I take no issue with Clarissa disliking a lot of what I said and posting about it. (There was plenty she said that I do take issue with, including her shaming tone, but that is a post for another time)

In reading both Clarissa’s post and most of the comments on it, I began to wonder if feminism and stay-at-home parenting are in fact mutually exclusive, as some of her readers seemed to indicate they believe. Perhaps I misunderstood, but it seems to me that some who identify as feminists do not believe that a person can be both a feminist and a stay-at-home parent.

To be clear, I think there is a big difference between aspiring to be a stay-at-home mother and choosing to be a stay-at-home mother during the time that it makes sense for your family. (Again, if society supported men and women equally, we wouldn’t have to make this choice, even temporarily).  There is also a difference between a mother who throws her entire being into her partner and children to the exclusion of all other pursuits, and one who continues to identify as more than Mother or Wife.  It was not long ago that a woman was expected to find a good husband who could support her financially so she could tend house and raise children. Unfortunately, there are still women who do this and I cannot and will not defend them. These women who have seemingly no appreciation for the hard-fought battles of the women who came before them are a mystery to me. These women, however, are very unlikely to identify as feminist. (They are much more likely to revile the very word.)

It is my experience and understanding that the term “stay-at-home” parent can have many meanings. For example, when I describe myself as a stay-at-home mom, I mean that I have arranged my work life around my home life. In my case, this means that I spend the majority of my time parenting, but that I also work. I teach yoga, I write, I’m a doula-in-training. Mothering is not all that I do, but it is a lot of what I do, right now. That last phrase right now is an important one, I think, because it signifies that my status as a stay-at-home-parent is a temporary one. My child is still an infant. I worked full-time before he was born and I will once again work full-time when the time is right for our family. In the meantime, for me, there is no either/or battle. I parent, I work, I contribute, I use my brain and my education. Admittedly, the transition from full-time work to mostly parenting was a difficult one for me, fraught with much anxiety and more than one identity crisis. But I worked through it and have, for this moment, achieved a balance that works for me and my family.

I do not think that my situation is unique. In fact, I think it probably describes the majority of stay-at-home parents, especially those who identify as feminists.  Some of Clarissa’s readers really took issue with one parent working outside of the home and one parent staying home with the children. An assumption was made that this means that the parent who works outside of the home makes all of the money. While this may be true for some families, I do not think this is true for all families.  (Honestly, how many people besides the Romneys and their ilk can afford to live on just one income?)

Many people plan in great detail the expansion of their families these days. They discuss in advance who will provide child care, how much time, if any, each parent will take off from work. What if a woman decides that she is going to take off a full year after the birth of her child, and saves money accordingly, the same way she would for any planned leave of absence? If she describes herself as a stay-at-home mom during that year, does her feminist card need to be revoked even if she is still financially independent of her spouse?

Do spouses have to be financially independent for one or both to identify as feminist? Can a woman who prefers to stop working outside of the home while she has small children still identify as a feminist if during this time she and her partner pool resources and are financially interdependent?

What I’m about to say is no doubt controversial, but it seems to me that the emphasis on who makes the money, while understandable, is a bit misguided. I mean, isn’t that what the patriarchal capitalists want us to believe? That money equals power? In their system it does, but aren’t we trying to change the system?

Money is certainly an indication of what we value. By paying a woman less than what we pay a man for the same work we are saying that we value that woman less than we do the man. But does this value system carry over into family life? For many, it most certainly does. But those are not people who would identify as feminist. A person who identifies as feminist will be aware of the power structures at play. They will tend to be intentional and aware about how they structure their family life and the roles they inhabit. Just because they may happen to occupy stereotypical gender roles for a time, it does not mean that they buy into them. Much like a headache, while a common symptom of a brain aneurism, is very rarely an actual indication of a brain aneurism. It’s usually just a headache.

If two people choose to join forces in life, married or not, and make a decision to both pursue whatever makes each of them feel the most fulfilled in any given moment, is it any of our business how they manage their finances? Who are we to assume that they cannot have a fair and equitable relationship if one of them earns more than the other?

What if a man chooses to be the stay-at-home parent? If he becomes financially dependent on his partner can either of them identify as feminists? What if both parents choose to become stay-at-home parents after the birth of a child? Is there status as feminists withdrawn for taking time off from their careers to focus on their family?

I guess my overall question is: Can a feminist never, under any circumstances, choose to make their family a priority over their career?

And another question: How does arguing about this, among feminists and among mothers, further the movement?

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 15, 2012 3:23 am

    Well put. I seriously doubt that Ann Romney does a fraction of the work a real housewife does. I’m sure she has someone to do all the work for her.

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