About a year ago, a video on womanhood was doing the rounds on social media. It features a series of older women talking about what they feel younger women should and could do differently in today’s fast-paced world. The video was produced by a spa called Sanctuary, as part of their campaign to convince women to #LetGo (perhaps by spending some of that money they’re making in the fast-paced world on their treatments?). Like other videos that claim to communicate a message of support to those of us who find ourselves buckling under the very particular pressures of being a woman in a world that hates women, the video is nonsense.
It is one of a recent trend of media messages (usually crafted by advertising companies for brands) that basically acknowledges that it is hard and unbearable to be a woman – but that the root of the hardness is women themselves. The message is this: women have a problem, and the problem is women. Which is, of course, utter nonsense. The problem is well-documented in everything from rape statistics, to gender wage gaps, to the open shaming of mothers who breastfeed in public, to the violent policing of our bodies, ourselves any time we reveal ourselves to be women in this patriarchal society.
Mother’s Day is coming up, and with it, the cloying and ultimately useless superficial nod that capitalist patriarchy gives to women who hold up society 365 days of the year, with little fanfare, flowers or chocolate. In the weeks preceding this ‘special day’, I can hardly open my eyes without being bombarded by adverts and articles telling me what I absolutely need, what my co-parent must absolutely provide for me, what I cannot possibly do without on this one day on which I am to be celebrated. The thing is, mothers, like other women, know what we need. And it isn’t a visit to the Sanctuary spa (though this would be a nice extra). What we want is paid parental leave for both ourselves and our co-parents, regardless of gender. What we want is the space to take this leave without the fear that we will return to a workplace in which we are looked over, marginalised, and penalised because we are parents. What we want are workplaces that offer time and space so that, if we are breastfeeding, we can continue to do so. What we want is for mothering to be treated as the serious and life-altering (and sometimes life-threatening) process it is, in all its forms.
Personally, what I would also like to add to this reasonable list, is this: what I want for Mother’s Day and all the other days is for my feminist communities and the allies of those communities to take motherhood seriously as a feminist and social justice issue. Before I became a mother, I understood that it held a complex space within feminist discourses. Motherhood has long been understood as one of the tools with which patriarchy keeps women confined to limited social, political and economic roles. This remains true in some of the ways I’ve outlined above. However, instead of taking issue with narrow patriarchal understandings of motherhood, my experience in my feminist circles have revealed a demonising of motherhood itself, as if those of us who are on this path, by choice or not, are somehow joining the ranks of the patriarchy. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people with whom I share a political affinity that have come to abrupt halts because I have brought up breastfeeding, or mama groups, or the challenges of working whilst mothering. I understand and accept that my choice to become a mother is not against the grain. I am not, socially speaking, swimming upstream. I don’t face constant negations of my decision in the way that women who choose not to have children do. But does my choice mean that the issues I face are not of broader social importance? Is my personal not political anymore?
I argue emphatically that it is. It is specifically because of the relative ease and freedom of choice I have had as a mother, that these issues are political. I am well aware of my privileges. I am middle-class. My partner and co-parent and I can afford childcare for those relatively rare occasions when we are both working. Otherwise, I can be with our son. And when I do work, it is largely in environments that are respectful of my role as a mother. Moreover, I am able to afford quality healthcare for my son and for myself so that I have been able to keep the wolves of postpartum mental illness at bay.
I am the considerable exception. In South Africa, 1 in every 5 mothers experience postnatal mood disorders (a good 5% higher than the global average), and most are not in a financial position to access treatment. Only 8% of babies are exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age. 70% of the early childhood facilities accessed by young children (aged 0 – 4) are not adequately equipped. Furthermore, a 2008 survey found that only 1% of eligible children are accessing such services. And the Children’s Institute’s 2014 Child Gauge states that over 50% of young children have experienced some form of violence at the hands of caregivers, teachers or relatives.
These are the reasons why political consideration and activism around motherhood is key. In feminist bluster about the relationship of motherhood to patriarchy, we forget that women’s marginality does not disappear because they become parents. In some cases, marginality is magnified and then transmitted to their children.
Which brings me to my Mother’s Day wish list. If you have benefitted from the presence of a mother in your life, if you know and love a mother, don’t just do the flowers and breakfast in bed. Visit the website of Embrace and sign up to visit a new mother in a state hospital on Mother’s Day. Donate to or volunteer for the Perinatal Mental Health Project or Children’s Institute. Join or host a belated event to raise awareness for World Maternal Mental Health Day. Donate a Baby Box.
Or simply engage in and entertain a more nuanced narrative of motherhood and womanhood. One that acknowledges how difficult it is to mother, and acknowledges that motherhood is a feminist issue. And in the same way that we reject messages like the one in the Sanctuary video, we ought to reject simplistic understandings of mothers’ relationship to patriarchy and place in society.