Exploring Feminist Motherhood: Part 1

The Sin City Siren Book Club met on Saturday to discuss Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards. Although we had a light but enthusiastic turnout (it was hard to compete with the state budget hearing), it was really great to discuss the book and the tangents it led to — queer parenthood, birth plans, prochoice pregnancy… and so much more!

Richards’ book was an interesting and rigorous look at the space where feminism and motherhood somewhat uncomfortably intersect. It starts with Mommy Wars and takes you through the biological clock, the gendering of play and toys, the role of fathers and much more.

Still, after 255 annotated pages, we were left with the same question: Is feminist motherhood an oxymoron? Indeed, the central idea behind the book is that nagging question: Does feminism serve to support or destroy motherhood? And to that end, Richards’ offers evidence both ways. She applauds so many feminist efforts — stronger parental leave laws, public changing tables, breast-feeding rights — to bolster the lives of modern parenthood. But meanwhile, she laments that feminism doesn’t go far enough and, in fact, sometimes alienates the very core of those in the movement — parents — by excluding their issues and voices. Of course, this comes from an age-old fear that if feminists glorify or highlight motherhood too much, it will take away from the important work of helping women in pursuits outside the home.

Richards’ writes:

While feminism probably never intended to deliberately marginalize motherhood, the over-whelming perception that motherhood and feminism are incompatible persists. And in truth feminism’s history reveals some resistance to women procreating — or evidence that the women’s movement doesn’t want women to feel beholden to this societal expectation.

I have to admit, as someone now navigating the tricky world of feminist parenthood, I was hoping for a few more answers from Richards’ book. But I can’t blame Richards’ completely. I know I’m not the only feminist who has struggled with the transition to parenthood. And I am certainly not the only person to chafe under the mantel of motherhood and all the cultural expectations with which it comes. In the end, I can’t help feeling that this book would have meant more to me before I had my baby. Now, in many ways, it feels more like validation for my own experiences rather than a guide.

There are some areas in which the book falls short. In particular, there is not much attention given to queer parenting, adoptive parenthood, or even cross-generational parenthood (for instance, grandparents raising grandchildren). In the chapter on the biological clock — which I’m glad to see reports honestly on the real, biological limitations to pregnancy and even offers some outrage at certain feminist uproars that were, in fact, somewhat misplaced (the facts are that pregnancy becomes less and less viable and safe after certain ages and medical interventions are a form of privilege) — Richards’ does offer a brief look at fatherhood as well as “othermothers”. But it is all-too brief, in both respects. Indeed, feminist fatherhood is not much explored. And while I do recognize that this is a book specifically on feminist motherhood it is interesting to point out that within her own book she questions the very idea of a gender construct of “Mother” and “Father.”

… [W]e need to drain biology from our definition of family. As is, we overinflate [sic] the importance of biology and thus let it trump other familial connections. We enlarged our sense of families to include step- and adopted parents and children, but now we need to go one step further. The responsibilities of parenting should be analyzed and valued regardless of who is undertaking them. The titles “Mother” and “Father” shouldn’t depend on gender or biology.

Indeed, this quote from Richards’ book is a very helpful guide to what should be happening in discussions of not just feminist parenthood but parenthood in general. I would argue that my best friend’s children are not “motherless” even though they are being raised by two gay men. Similarly, I do not think that my friends who are single mothers are inadequate “fathers” to their children.

Opting In certainly gave me food for thought. I feel a kinship with Richards’ struggle and her open questioning of the status quo — both in society as a whole and the community of feminism. It is a book worth reading and one I would recommend. Because in all honesty, even as I nit-pick certain aspects of the book, I recognize that just as feminism is not one-size-fits-all neither can a book about motherhood address everything under the sun. Motherhood is too vast and too loaded with societal baggage. And so is feminism, for that matter.

Look for future posts related to the book Opting In and the SCS Book Club — exploring such topics as the biological clock, prochoice motherhood, childbirth, triggers for sexual violence survivors, and the wage gap’s effect on parenthood and society!

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