Thursday, 30 January 2014

Are you a "motherist"?

There has been a lot of controversy lately about "Motherism". This seems to be about negative attitudes towards women who stay at home to raise their children. After reading Zoe Williams' article in the Guardian back in October, Do stay-at-home mothers upset you? You may be a motherist, I have realised that I was and, I must confess, still am a "motherist".

As a child of a working mum, I always wondered about mothers who stayed at home. I was a bit jealous when my friends were picked up from school but then, I thought, why aren't their mothers doing something proper? I was sure I would never end up something as boring as a stay at home mum. After my first child was born, I was a working mum and was shattered beyond belief all the time. Now at home with my two kids I am still shattered and endlessly tossed in a sea of self-doubt, split between the feeling of "Isn't this lovely, aren't they amazing, this is such a privilege"to "How did this happen? This wasn't the plan. I've got qualifications!"

Motherism seems to be a backlash against the perceived world of the smug mummy, the mummy blogger, the women who appear to have so much time on their hands they can swan around writing about the joys of motherhood on laptops, taking photographs of their children and drinking lattes rather than contributing to the economic recovery. Catherine Deveny wrote, also in the Guardian, "Sorry, being a mother is not the most important job in the world". Deveny argues that motherhood should not be put on a pedestal, it is a relationship. It is not as hard as working for 16 hours a day in a factory in Bangladesh or as important as being a surgeon saving lives every day. Mothers, should in fact, get over themselves.

Motherism is not just about stay at home mums. It can also be directed at mothers who work part time, full-time or who are doing pretty much anything. As Zoe Williams puts it,

"I think the only way you could gain approval for your time-management, as a mother, would be to look after your children all the time as well as working full-time but for some socially useful enterprise (ideally voluntary work), while never relying on a man for money, yet never claiming benefits either, but God forbid that you should have a private income".
Debate across the ole fish pond is equally as polarised, if not more so. On the one hand, we have a recent article by an American feminist writer, Amy Glass, entitled "I look down on women with husbands and kids and I'm not sorry" causing international outrage amongst parents with her argument "If women can do anything, why are we still content with applauding them for doing nothing?" On the other hand, we have James, a "bearded lawyer", writing an impassioned piece on his blog arguing Why My Wife's Job is Harder than Mine.

Motherism seems to declare that motherhood is not important or worthwhile and frankly, taking a career break to raise your kids is smug, pointless and a betrayal of the feminist sisterhood. Far better to be getting promoted up the career ladder or travelling the world than wasting your life tied to the kitchen and small beings. If you hold this view, claiming to be a "Feminist Mum" is pretty much a contradiction in terms.

You will not be surprised to hear that I take issue with a few of these assumptions.

1. Taking a career break to raise kids is essentially anti-feminist.

I see feminism as about women having choices, be that in terms of education, career paths, sexual and reproductive rights or family arrangements. It is interesting that raising kids is seen as the easy option. After all those years of feminism, you throw it all away by putting your feet up at home or worse, appearing in coffee shops, with your offspring in tow.

I won't rant here about how hard it is, suffice to say I have worked 13 hour day and night shifts as a paediatric nurse on a busy ward with high dependency patients and would still view that as a more relaxing option over being at home with my own kids. The key thing about parenting is that you are entirely responsible for another being's health and wellbeing and that small being is not actually that grateful for or interested in co-operating with your efforts. Not for 16 hours a day. For 24 hours a day. Parenting badly is not easy. Even if you chain smoke and have telly on 24 hours a day, you still have to feed them and change nappies and take them places. Parenting well, making an effort to stimulate and engage them, being patient and sympathetic, is bloody exhausting. And although I use the "stay at home" phrase, I'm hardly ever at home. Kids need airing like dogs need walking.

The thing is, there are tough choices in life. I might want to be getting promoted or backpacking in Asia (as Amy Glass argues would be a better use of my time) but it's actually pretty difficult to raise a family at the same time. Especially in nuclear families without extended family providing free childcare. Is having children at all anti-feminist? Sometimes you have to prioritise and make sacrifices. At the moment, life is about the kids because they are small and I believe they need a parent around. I want that parent to be me. This doesn't mean I won't go back to work or travel or do other things at another point in my life. And even if I don't, what business is it of anyone else?

If you choose to stay at home, it can feel like you are overwhelmed by the double whammy of sexism from men and motherism from women - you are eternally failing as both a woman and a mother, whatever version of juggling you go for. Being a feminist is about having the confidence to stand up and say about whatever you choose to do, "This is my choice and I respect your right to choose too". Sorry if that makes you want to "vomit" Amy Glass!

2. Raising kids is unimportant

Catherine Deveny argues that mothers' work is clearly not that hard and not very important. I would agree that female parenting should not be privileged over male parenting. But parenting in general is actually pretty bloody important. As infants, our earliest relationships influence our brain development, putting in place neurological pathways that affect our emotional well-being in later life (Sue Gerhardt 2004). How we parent tiny babies will have a significant impact on how well they are able to function in society as adults.

And do doctors and lawyers and accountants and actors and other terribly successful people in the upper echelons of society emerge from a vacuum? No, somewhere in the early recesses of time, someone akin to a parent has nourished them, clothed them, nursed them, educated them, motivated them and hopefully, shown them a bit of affection along the way. I would argue that the people who help others achieve are just as "important". That's why we have to support parents in order to build a functioning, compassionate society.

In our culture, we don't value caring for children. Stay at home parents say somewhat bashfully, "oh, I just look after the kids". Childcare is outsourced to poorly paid nursery workers. In some cultures of the past and present, the Cult of the Mother reigned. I am not a big fan of the Catholic Church but a little bit of me does like people kneeling at the feet of the Madonna, breastfeeding Jesus. It is not to say that women should only be revered if and when they become mothers but why shouldn't we respect the love and sacrifice that parenting involves? It is as worth revering as anything else in my opinion.

3. Stay at home mothers don't deserve our respect, they deserve our disdain/pity.

So there are the mothers you look down on and pity because they are clearly boring, worthless people who couldn't get a proper job so end up living vicariously through their children. Then there are the mothers you hate because they are chatting and drinking lattes while their children run amok in the coffee shop. They clearly lack ambition and are just living off their wealthy partners when everyone else has to go to work.

So often, when I am pushing 40kg worth of children, shopping, pram and buggy board, through the driving rain, my hair wild, my glasses steamed up, I think, one day I would like not to be a figure of pity. I feel like saying, somewhat pointlessly, "I've actually got an MA. And I don't always look like this". And when people frown at me on the brief occasion I risk going into a coffee shop, mainlining caffeine after 4 hours sleep, I feel like saying, "I'm not relaxing, you know. I'm thinking, don't spill that milk...don't put crumbs down the sofa.... I wish I could just pop to the loo on my own...".

Being a mother is not a hobby or an occupation or an exalted existence. It is a mindset. It is a 24 hour responsibility. I guess I am saying don't presume to know or judge until you have walked in another person's shoes. I definitely used to be a motherist because I had no clue what parenting involved. While we as a society continue to devalue the contribution parents make, I will continue to doubt myself and feel like a second class citizen. But one day, I hope I will look back on the decisions I have made and feel that they were the right ones.


Gerhardt, Sue (2004) Why love matters; how affections shapes a baby's brain, Routledge


  1. As someone who has worked full time, part time and been unemployed since starting my family 21 years a goo, I agree with everything you say, especially about the way that parenting is undervalued

  2. Really interesting. This is a topic that consumes a lot of my thought at the moment. Very happy to have found your blog!

  3. Thanks a lot for this! We have just the same debates over here in Germany and I am so fed up with the disrespectful way, stay at home moms are being kind of labeled as unmotivated and lazy. As if they are choosing an easy way of life without taking any responsibility at all.
    Seeing it just the way you describe it. Thanks again!

  4. I agree with everything you've said, and you said it so well! I think any woman who claims to be a feminist and then in her next breath criticises other women's choices as boring, unimportant or pitiful, whatever those choices are, be they staying at home with children, or working full time with children in childcare, or remaining childless or backing around your own living room. She is 1) not very bright to see the irony in her comments, 2) unbelievably shortsighted by her own self importance and 3) not a real feminist!

  5. I'm not a mother but I have never looked down on mothers who work or don't work, I've just assumed everyone is trying to make the best choices they can for their family in their circumstances. And anyone who thinks staying at home with children is easy or relaxing - I can only wonder if they've ever met a child.

  6. Very interesting blog. I found Philippa Perry's piece on motherly guilt very resonant recently. She takes a similar Why Love Matters approach.
    I often enjoy Philippa Perry's writing, she seems kinder than so many other writers on this subject!

  7. So true. Most stay at home mums could relate to your blog. You have put into words exactly what most of those mums are silently going through. The quality of parenting is far greater when a parent is there for the child 24/7. As a mum of a school age child, I see the joy in their faces as they run towards their parents at the end of a school day and then there are those children who solemnly walk to the child minder.

  8. Thanks for the feedback everyone. It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, which in a way is sad. I really like the Phillipa perry piece too, thanks for recommending it. A bit of understanding goes a long way - I think that's why I love Zoe Williams' article.

    I should just say that I am not suggesting that being a SAHM is the only and best way to parent. I am a firm believer in being able to leave your children with someone you trust - be it a babysitter, childminder or whatever. I think it helps children learn to trust other people and parents need time too, for work or a rest, even parents into attachment parenting! As a child of a working mum I remember the times she picked me up from school as really special but I also really enjoyed playing with other kids at my childminder/after school club. At the moment I'm grateful to able to be with my little ones but I'm also conscious of encouraging them to spend time with others (playschool, our babysitter). I won't always be there 24/7 when they start school/I find work.

    I think we just need to respect eachother's reasons for how we juggle family/work/finance and support all mums (and dads) out it holding the door open for someone with a buggy or offering to share drop offs so someone can get to work on time.

  9. Great post. I have a toddler and just returned to full time study after quitting my job last year and having 11 months 'off'. People have commented that it is about time I did something with my time again.....

  10. How sad that someone should feel guilty about choosing to do the most rewarding and valuable job in the world. How sad that it can't be appreciated for the contribution to building a good society it brings. The majority of women don't spend 25 years being a SAHM so surely others can support their choice? I have not problem with mothers who prefer or have to work because surely feminism is about personal decisions and choices.

    It's so true of the SAHM who feels guilty they are not working or the working mum who feels bad about neglecting their children, that the woman's place is in the wrong! Annoyingly it's not men, the traditional 'oppressors' of women who condemn women's choices wrt childcare, but women themselves who make the catty remarks!

  11. Couldn't agree more! Great blog.

  12. I am a SAHM and I regularly fall into the trap of describing what I 'do' as being JUST a Mum. I am going to work on saying brightly "I'm a Mum" from now on! I suppose we should also be grateful that this debate is going on and through it we will move forward with our attitudes to parenthood. A swing of the barometer back towards full time parenting. Difficult in a recession in a capitalist society where the banks won't be keen on mortgage holidays! Not that they make the rules.... do they...??? ;-)

  13. Great article Francesca. I've just gone back to work 4 days a week (in a decent enough job but greatly reduced salary and status than I had before children) after being a 'lady of leisure' SAHM for several years. I have no regrets about any of it. Just wish it wasn't just women having to make these choices. If we had shared parenting and more flexible work/ career patterns then the impact on careers and gender stereo typing of roles with the home and the workplace and the consequent sexism and motherism ( which I of course experienced) and the menial status of the paid carers of young children ( some of whom, as you say, are the future surgeons, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs etc our society needs) would be less prevalent. It all makes my blood boil.