Every once in a while I pick up my copy of Feminist Mothering (edited by Andrea O'Reilly) and read or re-read some of it. I've never read it cover to cover, but I read bits of it when I am reflecting on my own mothering or my own feminism. In the introduction to the book, O'Reilly talks about different types of mothering and I want to share some quotes on those.
Empowered mothering begins with the recognition that both mothers and children benefit when the mother lives her life and practices mothering from a position of agency, authority, authenticity, and autonomy. This perspective, in emphasizing maternal authority and ascribing agency to mothers and value to motherwork, defines motherhood as a political site wherein mothers can affect social change through the socialization of children and the world at large through political-social activism. Empowered mothering thus calls into question the dictates of patriarchal motherhood.
So what does that mean? O'Reilly gives examples of some of the things empowered mothers may believe or do:
- Importance of mothers meeting their own needs (and recognition that being a mother does not meet all of their needs);
- Involving others in their child's upbringing (friends, family, partners, community, co-mothers, etc.);
- Challenge idea that the only emotion mothers feel toward their children is love;
- Do not always put their children's needs first; and,
- View motherhood as a site of power that allows them to affect social change at home and in the community through their activism.
Essentially, empowered mothering challenges patriarchal motherhood - the type of motherhood that oppresses women, pushes them into the "private" space of their home, and has them focus their energy on their children.
Feminist mothering differs from empowered mothering insofar as the mother identifies as a feminist and practices mothering from a feminist perspective or consciousness. A feminist mother, in other words, is a woman whose mothering, in theory and in practice, is shaped and influenced by feminism. This, while there is much overlap between empowered and feminist mothering, the latter is informed by a particular philosophy and poltic, namely feminism.
O'Reilly goes on to explain that the feminism is defined by the recognition that patriarchal society gives power, prominence and privilege to men and depends on the oppression of women. Feminists seek to challenge that inequity, as well as, in many cases, other inequities that exist (race, sexuality, economics, ability).
Comparing empowered and feminist mothering
More simply put, perhaps, empowered mothers "resist patriarchal motherhood simply to make the experience of mothering more rewarding for themselves and their children," whereas feminist mothers "resist because they recognize that gender inequity, in particular male privilege and power, is produced, maintained and perpetuated (i.e., through sexist child rearing) in patriarchal motherhood." Or, in my words, empowered mothering is about freeing the individual from patriarchy, whereas feminist mothering is about freeing society from patriarchy.
What kind of mother am I?
I see a lot of myself in the definition of empowered mothering, except that I don't see myself in some of the examples that were given in the book (e.g. of mothers painting their toenails while their baby screamed in the crib next to them, because they needed some "me time"). I think that trying to be an empowered mother without the help of a spouse, other family members, friends, or co-mothers creates a situation of conflict between mother and child that I don't think is healthy for either of them or for their relationship. Part of being an empowered mother, for me, is setting up a situation where I can meet my own needs without having to neglect the needs of my children at the same time. I believe that the needs of a parent and child intersect and that that creates interesting challenges and dynamics.
I definitely see myself in the definition of feminist mothering. I think both through the gender roles in our household, our activism, and the things that we teach our children about equality, about breaking down barriers, and about battling inequity, contribute to our approach to feminist parenting. The fact that both my partner and I have played the traditional and non-traditional roles has allowed us to have a greater understanding of each other's roles and also to model a wide range of options to our children and to our peers.
But I also see myself as a woman who is very much defined by mothering. I am more than a mother, certainly. But being a mother is a very important part of my identity and one that I cannot brush aside as a I pursue some sort of selfish or unselfish attempt to rid the world of patriarchy. My children do come first, because they are my children. Not because the patriarchy tells me that they must. I would love, through feminist activism by women and men, to see our society develop into one that values children and sees meeting their needs as an investment in the future, rather than as a burden on the independence and rights of adult society. This is a view that I feel is often missing from white feminism, but one that I think is important.
What kind of mother are you?
How do you define your mothering? Are you oppressed under the old patriarchal rules? Are you insisting on empowerment? Are you using mothering as a vessel for your feminism? Or do none of those definitions fit?