Taking Motherhood Seriously

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I’ve been reading The Maternal is Political and it’s filling my head with all kinds of ideas. It’s basically about how being a mother both informs and heightens one’s political awareness. And the potential power of mothers as a group. I think there’s been a disconnect between mothers and feminism since the 60s—or maybe always—when it seemed that the feminists were saying that motherhood was the height of enslavement. And in a way it is. But that enslavement can politicize a woman by making her chafe under its constrictions and get mad enough to fight her way out and for other “slaves.”

Any service job has the potential to enslave the person who’s doing the serving. And motherhood is the quintessential serving job. Why else does the motherhood job description include chauffeuring, cooking, cleaning, money management, activity scheduling, child care, nursing, laundering, home renovation, grocery shopping, menu planning and on and on ad nauseum? (Is there an end to this list?) And I’m not just talking about SAHMs (Stay At Home Mothers); even mothers who work for wages are expected to fulfill all these roles. It goes with the territory.

 

Anyone who thinks that SAHMs have it easy—they don’t have to punch a time clock, answer to a boss, get along with other employees, commute, do menial work for little pay—has never been a mother of any kind, let alone a SAHM. Children are the ultimate taskmasters and the most challenging people in the world to get along with. You have to be on the job 24/7, most of the work is menial and the pay is not just negligible, it’s non-existent. None of this is news to a mother. That other people—even sometimes fathers—don’t seem to know this about motherhood is one indication that its concerns need to be politicized. Consciousnesses need to be raised, action needs to be taken. Mothers deserve all the help they can get. Not because they are enslaved—most mothers don’t describe themselves as such—but because of what makes them mothers: their children.

 

It’s not just that mothers care about their children; it’s that they care more than others do. I’m not denigrating fathers or non-parents, but there’s something different about being a mother. The adage that a mother would save her child if she had to choose between saving her husband and her child is, for the most part, a true one. Fathers would, more often than not, save their spouses first. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but the evidence speaks for itself: mothers have different priorities. Society has a vested interest in protecting and nurturing its children, but mothers are doing it, every single hour of every single day. Instead of penalizing women because they have children, they should be supported, in any way possible, to make it easier for them to raise our future generations.

 

One thing that feminism has achieved has been a universalizing of the importance of parenthood. Fathers have benefited from the privileges that women have been awarded. Time off for new parenthood is now available to both sexes. (Even though, in most instances, it is not paid time off—America’s record in this area is abysmal compared to other countries.) Ideally, both sexes would always benefit from things like quality and affordable day care, decent pay, flexible hours, and family leave. But as long as women are the primary caregivers—not just of children, but of the ill and the elderly as well—they deserve special dispensations that men may not get. If we’re not going to pay mothers for the services they provide, then let’s at least take them seriously and give them what they need to do the job.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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