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Monday
Feb042013

No, Don't Govern Motherhood 

Motherhood is trending. In the blogosphere, in books, magazines, and the news, debates about how to parent are ubiquitous and growing hotter. Much of the debate has been around how parents (read: mothers) can do the best to provide for their children.

That is the opening passage from a paper called Governing Motherhood -- Who Pays and Who Profits that Phyllis Rippeyoung wrote for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).As someone who frequently writes about the implications of government policy (or lack thereof) on parents and families, I was thrilled when this article jumped out in my CCPA subscription and when it was forwarded to me by several readers (you all know me so well).

After that opening passage, Rippeyoung goes on to name some of the very public pressures that are put on mothers to parent a specific way, ranging from Mayim Bialik's book Beyond the Sling to Time's "Are You Mom Enough?" feature to the Dr. Sears empire (and of course we can't forget Badinter's critque of it all). Moms are being pressured into "intensive motherhood", but is that fair? Rippeyoung writes:

While the Sears profit off their expert empire, the ability to parent "best" is becoming more costly, both to the women who practice it and to those who cannot. Not only is this problematic for individual women, but this also reinforces the relationship between "good" mothering and socioeconomic status, while providing a justification for neoliberal policies that minimize state supports for working families. If policy makers truly want to improve child health, more needs to be done to structurally support not only mothers, but all members of society.

Rippeyoung talks about government interventions that are designed to teach mothers how to be better parents, without creating an environment that is conducive to carrying out the things they are recommending.  As I wrote in my post called Step Aside, Mommy Wars: Let's Talk Policy, I wrote:

If women and families were supported in the choices that they make, perhaps this whole mommy war would fizzle out into something not much more controversial than playground discussions about whether to puree your baby's food or not.

There is too much pressure for us to mother in a certain way and not enough support for us to do so. Rippeyoung mentions numerous policy issues that have to be addressed, such as fair wages, full paid leaves to care for newborns and ill family members, affordable housing, access to clean water and food security (yes, even in Canada), accessible and affordable child care, high quality preventative health care, and more.

Yes, and more.

Rippeyoung briefly mentions thriving communities. I think that is a critical piece of the puzzle. It takes a village to raise a child. We need neighbours, friends and community groups that help each other. More cooperative housing and cooperative day cares would also help.

But it is even more than that.

I want to go back to that very first passage of Rippeyoung's paper, the one where she said "Much of the debate has been around how parents (read: mothers) can do the best to provide for their children." Why the mother? WHY ALWAYS THE MOTHER? I've asked this before and I'll keep asking it over and over again.

Yes, some people may go on about biological imperatives and how it is just easier for the mom to stay home so that she can breastfeed the baby. But should the conversation end there? Because a mother breastfeeds, does that mean she is forever destined to be the primary parent and to carry the full load of responsibility (and blame) on her shoulders? I don't think so.

In Suzanne Barston's (you may know her as Fearless Formula Feeder) book, Bottled Up (which I'm quite enjoying incidentally and will write about in another post), there was a passage that bothered me. Barston was telling the story of a woman who breastfed and pumped at work and who felt that the idea of breastfeeding not creating an unfair division of labour was "a load of crap". She went on to point out that it was "unfair and obtuse to imply that one could both breastfeed exclusively for a year and still have total equality - at least in terms of division of labor - in a marriage."

Unfair and obtuse. Ouch.

That sounds like a denial of the plausibility of what we experienced in our home and what many other families I know have experienced. It is denying my reality, my story, my experience and assuming her reality, her story and her experience applies to all (that, incidentally, has also always been my problem with Hanna Rosin).  It also sounds like giving up on the idea of formula-free equally-shared parenting and that isn't something I am willing to do (especially since I know it can and does work for many families).

I think we need fathers who are more involved (many are, but on the whole the bulk of the parenting work and pressure still falls to moms). I think we need workplaces that recognize and accept the need for fathers, not just mothers, to take time off to be with their children and to care for their children. I think we need government policies that prioritize fathering (e.g. specific paternity leave). I think we need societies that don't treat men like they are incapable caregivers or irrelevant parents.

Let's ask for better policies, but not just to let mothers off the hook for "intensive motherhood". Let's stop pressuring mothers and insisting on child-free public spaces. Let's instead ask for policies that allow society to take collective and shared responsibility for raising the next generation in a way that embraces them, respects them and celebrates them.

What do you think? How can we take the pressure off of mothers without leaving children behind?

----

As an aside, as a lover of (oft misunderstood) analogies, I loved this excerpt from Rippeyoung's paper:

Although I would never argue that all women should breastfeed, as feminist social critic and breastfeeding advocate Bernice Hausmann (2003) points out, all women have a right to do so. To deny this right would be akin to denying people the right to use the bathroom or sneeze or do the other kinds of things human bodies do. Just as we are not born knowing how to use the bathroom or a tissue, women are not born knowing how to breastfeed. Breastfeeding can be challenging and women need support to make it work.

**Please don't chastise Rippeyoung, Hausmann or me for comparing breastmilk to urine and boogers. If you think that is what we are doing, you do not understand what an analogy is. For what it's worth, my child who took 15 weeks to learn how to breastfeed was also difficult to toilet train and still can't blow his nose properly. Does anyone know of a good nose blowing consultant?**

« Parenting: Someone Thinks You're Doing it Wrong | Main | A New Look and a More Defined Path »

References (1)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (19)

I certainly agree with the conclusion that policy is a critical and much-needed piece of creating a society that supports and enables good parenting (and not just good mothering.)

What I'm unclear about is how some books, blogs, and magazine covers wield so much pressure that they amount to "governing" mothers. Or is Rippeyoung's article primarily about "government interventions that are designed to teach mothers how to be better parents, without creating an environment that is conducive to carrying out the things they are recommending"?

In the U.S. we have government programs that govern (mostly poor) mothers, but in the current climate, these programs seem more concerned with sending mothers out to work ... whether or not any jobs -- or childcare -- are available. This hardly seems to flow from or result in pressure to follow intensive mothering.

February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I agree with you on many points (I also feel the parenting is very equal in my home even though I was the one to give birth and did breastfeed, with no formula and very few bottles--because there is a lot more to parenting than that, and my spouse is very involved). In particular I think we need family-friendly workplaces for fathers as well.

That said, whenever this topic of parents (OK mothers, as you say, it's usually about the mothers) being pressured to do things in a certain way, I think, really? Who is doing this pressuring? Sure, it's been in the media a lot. Such as mainstream media trashing Bialik over her parenting choices (because non-AP types who don't breastfeed past infancy or co-sleep NEVER get divorced!) or that darn TIME cover (I feel that was mocking "those moms" more than holding them up as an ideal we all have to strive for).

I don't tend to label myself as AP (or anything, really), in part because of the misconceptions out there that AP is some kind of checklist of "dos", but I do lean that way. And for that, I often feel marginalized for my parenting choices. In my real life, I think I'm a bit of a freak for how long I breastfed, for not using formula, for not letting my kids CIO, for not leaving my older child in daycare when I was on mat leave with my second, for using midwives, etc. etc. I'm not making these choices because I feel pressured to be a certain kind of mom, I'm making them (with my spouse) because they are right for our family. In fact I'd argue I'm making them DESPITE pressure to mother the "normal" way.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

@Andrea:

I agree. I think it goes both ways and often it is that there is this tiny space that is considered "good" and anything less or anything more isn't right. For example, there is lots of pressure on moms to breastfeed, but don't do it in public and don't do it for more than year. Have your baby sleep in your room, but certainly not in your bed. Tend to your baby's needs at night, but only for the first few months. And so on.

I wrote about that in this post on Parenting Styles to the Extreme.

February 5, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I do feel pressured into "intensive motherhood" but the part of your post that really stood out to me is the part on fathers. My husband is an excellent father to our son - he took 6 months parental leave to care for him when I briefly went back to work and he fully supports "extended" breastfeeding and bed-sharing. In my eyes he's a rockstar but somehow these things make him less of a man in society's eyes. I break out in full-body rage sweats when people refer to my husband's time on parental leave as "daddy daycare." I am so ready for the image of the bumbling idiot father to be eradicated (I know idiot fathers and horrible fathers and absent fathers exist but I don't understand why we're okay with this image being the default.)

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHillary

Cool analysis of Rippeyoung's paper (which I loved, but that probably goes without saying. ;0 ). I feel bad about the passage you cited from my book, because it was NOT my intent to make sweeping statements about division of labor or how specific marriages work. My point was that for the majority of women in the Unites States, exclusive breastfeeding while working full time does require a large amount of time and effort. I don't doubt that there are marriages where this isn't the case- especially if the man is the primary caregiver - so I should have made it clear that my statement was referring to the "norm" experience. I do think it takes having certain things in your favor though in order to make this possible - a workplace that is conducive to pumping and/or with on-sight daycare, a partner who can stay at home or work reduced hours, or a flexible, autonomous job. To be a breadwinner and the sole source of food for an infant is difficult for most women. But "obtuse" was a bad choice of words, and I apologize for that, and for assuming that the typical US experience extended to everyone. That was the pot calling the kettle black, and thank you for calling me on it!

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFearlessFormulaFeeder

I think a big thing is to let go of the guilt and for everyone to realise that there was never a Golden Age when all parents (especially mums) were super-attentive to their children's needs every waking hour. We seem to forget that historically, wealthier parents had their children brought up by staff, and those mothers who couldn't afford staff very likely prioritised housework (note that they were 'housewives', not 'stay at home mothers') over childrearing, as this is what the society would have pushed on them and the expectation they would have grown up with, and so kids were often shoved out of the way and told not to bother mum because she was doing the chores a lot of the time. And kids survived that funnily enough, because children are resilient. This is not to say we shouldn't be more child-centred than that, but it is to say that 'good enough' parenting can be good enough and that the vast majority of parents provide that and a lot more, in a way that works for *them*. We cannot legislate parenting from the centre because that can never encompass the variety of ways in which people manage, perfectly effectively, to be parents.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaudia Conway

This is super specific to criticism of Mayim Bialik's Beyond the Sling. I can't speak to Canadian policy (I have a hard enough time trying to grasp US policy/lack thereof) but I can say that I'm really confused every time this book is held up as pressure for moms to do *anything.* She says about 19 million times that she is simply describing how the very-hard-to-describe idea of Attachment Parenting works in her family. For both parents. AP is a hot issue, but poorly understood. The book is a peak at what her family does and why, with an emphasis on how that is all based on AP.

This is really important to me, because I wanted (and am loving) the kind of intensive mothering that is supposedly holding me back in a career that had totally stalled, anyway. That book was the first time I began to picture, while pregnant, what that would look like. The Dr. Sears stuff and other reading just didn't give me a picture of daily life. I wanted to hug Mayim Bialik for doing that.

I suppose that does bring me to a policy point: I wish with all of my heart that my financial future was more secure. My own mother was left homeless and destitute after my parents split; 25 years of marriage and 23 years of SAHM-hood had left her with a short resume. They finally split up when she demanded that he support her going back to school, among other things. She slept in friends' basements (literally) for *years* before she was able to get on her feet. That just shouldn't happen. It's absurd and cruel. There wasn't enough money in the family when she was married, so there wasn't going to be enough to split anything with her after the divorce. I do think about that with a shudder.

February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne-Marie @ Do Not Faint

@Fearless Formula Feeder

I do think what is seen as the norm in our society, and what is supported as the norm by government, employers, and families is often a scenario where it is assumed that the woman takes on the bulk of the parenting and housekeeping.

That is exactly the reason that I think it is so important to talk about this issue and to talk about the changes that are needed to make things more equitable.

Each family is unique and there are absolutely some families where it makes sense for the mother to be the primary caregiver. I just resent the assumption that it has to be that way or that breastfeeding makes it that way. I don't mean specifically your assumption, but society's assumption.

Every time a man says "sorry, I can't stay late, I have to pick up my daughter at daycare" it makes it possible for a woman can say "sure, I'll take on that project and I can go meet the client at 4:00pm". Every time a man takes paternity leave, it makes it possible for a woman to further her career. Every time a man goes to playgroup, it makes it less of a "mom's club" and more of a "parent's club".

Even if it isn't possible for a lot of people, we need trailblazers and models of families, workplaces, communities and countries where it works. We need people to see fathers fathering and not just babysitting. It is possible if we keep trying.

February 5, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

@Claudia:

You said: "We cannot legislate parenting from the centre because that can never encompass the variety of ways in which people manage, perfectly effectively, to be parents."

I agree! But we can legislate an environment that makes it possible for more people to manage their family in the manner that makes sense for them.

February 5, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I live in a country that allowed me to take almost 18 months of fully paid maternity leave, during which I was also able to translate a book and do research for my dissertation. I breastfed and cooked lunch, my musician husband pretty much did the rest. He "babysat" ;) for several hours every day between nursing sessions so I could focus on my work.

This could have worked if he or we both had part-time jobs or other flexible working arrangements.

Flexible, part-time work, or working online from home should be increasingly available to both men and women, fathers and mothers. Time off work to parent small children as well (though it's probably easier for all involved if nursing mothers take time off in the first 6 months).

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLitcrit

In terms of "it takes a village to raise a child" what are your thoughts on the fact that most paid childcare work is undertaken by women? I am behind a parent's choice to choose to work full or part time, or "stay home" (dislike that term though!), or whatever combo works for them. However, what I find interesting is that while parents go to work it is still often women doing the caregiving. Yes, they are paid for their time and skills, nonetheless, it is reinforcement that this is a women's role. Thoughts?

February 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Walker

@Jennifer Walker:

I swear I replied to your comment already, but the gremlins appear to have eaten it.

When I was child, elementary school teachers included both men and women. Now my kids don't have a single man as a teacher at their school. Men working in day cares or elementary schools is incredibly rare.

I think that is partly because people have a (unfair, IMO) mistrust of men as caregivers. They assume they are pedophiles if they want to work with small children or they assume they are incompetent.

I'm not sure what the solution is. I think we need more men to be stay at home dads, to go to play groups, to work in day cares and in schools, and to be nannies (I know there is some research being done on "mannies" by a former "manny" at York University).

I also think we need to ensure that women are being paid a fair wage for caregiving. That is a challenge when parents already find day care to be so expensive. I think Quebec has a good model, allowing it to stay affordable for parents, but subsidizing to ensure that a decent wage is paid (although the wage probably could still be higher).

February 8, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I struggle with this topic but also wonder, often, about how willing we mothers are to let the other partner to contribute equally. Can we women let them do it their way? This is a stumbling block that often gets overlooked. It takes practice to 'let go' after a time (say, breastfeeding - one of mine weaned at 6 1/2 month, the other at 18 months) and 'allow' the other partner (father or otherwise) to 'take over' and 'create equality'.

It's a slippery slope.

February 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

Javamom:

I think letting go is hard, but not impossible.

What is easier, however, is to consciously involve the other parent right from the beginning and ensure that they develop a strong bond with their child, that they trust themselves to nurture and protect the baby, and that their partner trusts them to be a loving and competent caregiver. Bonding, trust, and competence as a parent doesn't come just from feeding. There are many other ways that a parent can do it.

When one parent is taking leave and the other one is working full time, I think there is an inherent imbalance that you need to work hard to correct during the working parent's non-working hours. But it requires a conscious choice to do so.

February 10, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I thoroughly agree: better policies, less pressure on the mother alone to get everything right, and more recognition of the role of fathers!

Regarding Suzanne Barston's idea that it is "unfair and obtuse to imply that one could both breastfeed exclusively for a year and still have total equality," I think what is needed is a more flexible definition of equality. Of course the father of an exclusively breastfed baby cannot do 50% of the baby-feeding, and the convenience of keeping the baby with the parent who makes the milk tends to mean that the father spends less time with the baby than does the mother. But equality does not have to mean splitting each task exactly. The father can take on the cooking, grocery shopping, automotive repairs, or other tasks that are difficult to do while nursing a baby, and thus each parent may be doing 50% of the total work of maintaining the family. More broadly (as described in the article I linked), the partners can accept that there are seasons in life in which one of them will be doing more because it makes sense and that this isn't automatically unfair. I struggle with that sometimes, though! It's easier to feel like things are "fair" when they are divided very evenly.

Anyway, once breastfeeding is done, it IS possible to divide each chore 50/50, and I think we need more social support for fathers doing that as a normal way of life, instead of the expectation that "parent" means "mother". I certainly think it's improved during my lifetime, but there's still a lot of room for improvement.

I like the analogy about needing to learn how to manage breastfeeding just like other bodily abilities. I don't think it's gross at all!

Your response to Jennifer's question about female childcare providers is pretty accurate, I think, but I do feel encouraged that my son's school has about 10% male teachers, including a kindergarten teacher--whereas in my elementary school 30 years ago, the only males were the principal, custodian, and one sixth-grade teacher (and then they moved sixth grade to middle school). Makes me wonder what proportion of teachers are male nationwide, in the U.S. (where I am) or Canada.... Well, in a quick search, I find that 18-33% of teachers in each U.S. state in 2006 were men and this was "a forty-year low." So I guess it's just that my son happens to have a better school than I did, which is true in so many other ways as well!

I'd like to see more affirmative action programs directed at inspiring young men to be teachers, nurses, and other caring professions that currently have high demand. Part of the reason for that demand is that these are traditionally female jobs, and many women have chosen other professions now that they have the option, in some cases encouraged by programs specifically for women in sciences, etc.--so it is time to take some action to fill those jobs with men!

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter'Becca

Thanks Annie for your response and Becca for your input. It seems odd to to be advocating for a higher percentage of men in any profession given that they make up the majority of most professions (or at least that is my impression). It does seem like there is a need for a broad awareness initiative to make it OK for growing numbers of men to enter women-dominated fields. I really don't know who would take this on, however. But, it would be nice to see greater balance anyway.

February 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Walker

Jennifer:

There seems to be an increase in male executive assistants, male nurses, etc. So perhaps that transition can happen in childcare too, not only allowing men to go into those professions, but also leaving more opportunities for women and equality in previously male dominated professions.

I think all professions would benefit from the participation of men and women.

February 12, 2013 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

I do think that breastfeeding can make it very difficult for there to be an equal parenting split in caring for an infant, but it all depends on the baby. If the baby either sleeps well, waking only a few times to feed, or the mother and baby are able to facilitate breastfeeding while they both sleep (not possible for all nursing dyads), then you won't see a huge deviation in how much sleep each parent is getting. That will feel more equal to the mom.

Another example: if the baby happily takes a bottle, then Mom can pump and go catch a movie with a dear old friend. If baby is fussy about being bottlefed EBM, Mom may well feel trapped.

I could go on, but I think my point is in there somewhere. I have been blessed with a sweet baby boy who wakes only once during the night to feed and who switches between bottle and breast like an old pro. I work 30 hours a week, and my workplace lets me have paid breaks to pump with a hospital-grade pump. My husband also works part-time. If any of those factors weren't in place, I'm afraid exclusive breastfeeding might make me feel awfully put upon. As it is, I'm happy.

February 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarissa

Interesting post. What would be more interesting to read about would be this author's viewpoints on overanxious parents. The social media and the media in general creates unnecessary anxieties in parents. When does a parent who is overanxious cross the line and become a danger to the emotional health and well being of a child?

Also, a bad wrap, as pointed out by another poster, the media portrays all men as abusive, narcissistic and generally the bad parent. We as a society accept this publicly acceptable form of misandry.

Being a mother is just one side of the coin. I love my children but, there are two equal parents in our household. Until we as a society, and especially women, start to identify the true issue, the gender bias that exists against families we are no better than the people of the past who held women back in the work force.

You want balance back in the family structure, then how about updating government policy to have a presumption of joint custody and equal access upon the breakdown of a family?

http://www.lawtimesnews.com/201102078228/Headline-News/Debate-fires-up-over-presumption-of-joint-custody

As a mother, I feel that we as a society need to stop bashing men, writing about how they are abusive and start understanding the modern family dynamic and stop making men and boys out to be villains when they are not.

As a mother, when I started to worry about my children, if they would grow up and be a danger or that I would do something wrong as a parent I started to do some research. I did this to understand where my worries were coming from rather than just act on them.

I was shocked to find that domestic violence is equal between the sexes. I was also shocked to find that women in many cases are the sole custodial parent. Why as women do we assume the rule of the total parent became the real question that I needed to answer.

Looking at my own relationship I realized that I was controlling and my worries were driving this control. I was that person who all the articles and "experts" try to make men out to be. I allowed my personal anxieties to consume me and tried to be the "everything mom". What I didn't realize is that my worries and fears were not well placed and were alienating my children from the other equal parent in their lives... Their father.

The challenge grows when you look at the bias that transgender people face as parents. Our society is too quick to consume the stereotypical "fathers are bad".

Until we as women start to stand up, realize why our sisters in the liberation movements fought for equal parenting we will continue to blame men, society and government for all the problems we face as mothers.

I have come to realize, as a mother, that my children's father is just as capable as a parent and loving. My worries about trying to be "super mom", my controlling behaviour, was no different than what I was reading about on the internet about abusive men just that my treatment of my children's father was emotionally abusive and more importantly abusive to my children.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAMotherWhoParents

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