What if motherhood fogs your feminist lenses?: On being a feminist mother

(Thanks to Habladora for prompting me to post this piece that has been gathering dust on my hard drive…)

I did not expect that being a mother would make me more of a feminist. In fact, I feared quite the opposite, worrying that my feminist convictions would wane under the weight of overfilled diaper bags and the expansive responsibilities of caring for an infant.

When I had my first child, a son, just after finishing my Master’s and while ramping up to begin my PhD, I worried that motherhood might de-radicalize my politics and cause me to lose my feminist vision of the world.

During that first pregnancy, I had applied for various doctoral programs and been happily accepted to the University of London – an acceptance that necessitated my partner and I move from the U.S. to England during my 34th week of pregnancy. While my mother, grandmothers, and older sisters were convinced I would give up the doctorate once I fell madly in love with motherhood, I firmly disagreed with their image of me as stay at home mom basking in the glow emitted from Telly-tubbies while pureeing homemade baby food. Yet, despite my long seated plans to get my doctorate and pursue an academic career, pregnancy and looming motherhood made me fear for my feminist life. Would my feminism wither into a past identity as I assumed the mantel of mother? Would I lose my love of reading obtuse theoretical treatises and instead dog-ear Dr. Spock and What to Expect When You Are Expecting? As my own mothers and others predicted, would I decide that a career paled in comparison to “a woman’s true vocation” of being a mother?

These fears and many more fizzled through my increasingly exhausted brain throughout my pregnancy and practically boiled over when I discovered I was having a boy – a discovery I had dreaded. I wanted a daughter or daughters – a girl that would grow into a woman with whom I could fight the feminist good fight, a girl whom I could give the feminist upbringing I never had, a girl who I could let know from day one that she was as strong, smart, and capable as any penis-privileged human. Looking back, this dread of having a son embarrasses me. As a hopefully wiser feminist now than I was 12 years ago, I see that it is just as important to raise feminist sons as it is to raise feminist daughters.

Now, I love men (and some more than others), but I have to admit, like many feminists, there are aspects of masculinity that I see as variously harmful, useless, and/or idiotic. In fact, if push came to shove, I would probably commit a grave sin of gender essentialism and say that women tend to be more socially aware, more just, and more prone to activism than men. (However, I hasten to add I believe this is the case not because of female biology or hormones, but because of the ways women tend to be socialized as women.) As a card-carrying member of the ‘gender is socially constructed club,’ I thus believed I could raise my son to love justice more than football, peace more than toy guns, and hot pink more than camouflage.

So, imagine my shock when my son was born and what my mother had so long insisted proved to be true – he actually seemed to be ‘boy-like’ by nature! At playgroup gatherings, he was little Rambo on the rampage, grabbing toys from others and then whacking them over the head with them. At parks, he acted like a colonizer intent on committing genocide on any kid who dared to play on his turf. At home, despite the fact I refused to buy weapon toys, he industriously built toy guns from Lego, play dough, and Lincoln logs to shoot everything (including me). For a while, I sadly gave into my mother’s mantra that “boys and girls are just different” and chalked up my faith in social constructionism to naiveté.

However, as the years wore on, I realized I had fallen prey in my daily life to the binary thinking mode I am so critical of in my academic life — I had simplistically seen my son’s strong affinity for traditional masculinity as proof social constructionists had it wrong. How could I, a feminist schooled in post-structuralism, postmodernism, and political theory, be such a dupe?

I think one of the reasons I fell prey to questioning my convictions about gender was due to the fact that I had always insisted without question, ala Simone de Beauvior, that women (and men) are made, not born. Thus, when I had tangible proof of a little man in the form of my son, fear and second-guessing kicked in (or maybe it was just the lack of sleep and deluge of stress brought on by raising an infant while working on a PhD).

My personal feminist theoretical crisis concerning gender essentialism verses social constructionism was not resolved by the birth of my daughter two and a half years later. For, just as my son seemed to be a ‘natural boy’ so did my daughter exude femininity from birth onwards. These children were ruining my long held feminist beliefs! They were proving my mother right! And, as I tried to balance raising them alongside finishing my dissertation, I found myself living a double life – feminist by day, mother by night. While I continued to read and write feminist literary theory, my practice of being keenly politically informed and active waned. In my children’s early years, I did not attend any protests or participate in any girlcotts let alone stay abreast of activist news and happenings. My feminism became abstract – rather than living ‘the personal is political’ I seemed to be opting for ‘feminism is philosophical’ via an approach that directed my feminism solely into research and writing. Although I practiced the basic tenets of feminism and endeavored to raise my children to value diversity, equality, and social justice, I became, in the main, an academic feminist rather than an everyday feminist activist.

However, as my children grew, entered institutional education, and as a number of world events changed the socio-cultural landscape of the United States (and the world), I returned to my ‘pre-children’ self of fighting the feminist fight not only in my writing and teaching, but also via my battles with teachers, principles, corporations and even roller-rink managers.

Further, as my children moved from babyhood to toddlerhood to childhood, I saw (to my relief) that they were not the ‘typical boy’ and ‘typical girl’ they first seemed. My son revealed a feminine side, a true love of the color pink, an aptitude for tap dancing, and a very strong nurturing personality. My daughter revealed she did not only love dolls, fashion, and burying her head in books, but also math, wrestling, and skateboards. I think I can take at least some credit (along with my partner) for our children’s ‘gender blending’ personalities. It seems that while I felt I was not ‘feminist enough’ once motherhood became part of my life, that, in fact, insisting my children use gender inclusive language, arguing for Tinky Winky’s right to carry a purse if he wished, or analyzing the injustices of Nicktoons boy-dominated cartoon lineup helped to turn out two socially aware, feminist kids.

And, while I worried I had lost my activist streak, I see that instead I had fostered too narrow a vision of what feminist activism is. I now see that being a mother can be an activist activity, that raising children to be pro-peace, consumer conscious, and actively anti-sexist/racist/classist/heterosexist/able-ist is just as vital as marching on Washington or leading an Impeach Bush campaign. Just as I see teaching and writing as valuable forms of activism, I now understand that motherhood itself is a vital form of feminist activism.

In hindsight, I am bemused that I ever imagined otherwise. I, who had read Adrienne Rich’s Of Women Born multiple times, had theoretically understood ‘motherhood as institution’ but had failed to see how our patriarchal, non-feminist friendly society had warped my own conceptions of mothering and made me second guess my own abilities to be both a feminist and a mother. I know this is in part due to the way that mothers are still a fairly denigrated bunch in the public world and also in the academic world in which I labor. Work is supposed to come first, and whether that work is feminist or not, often being a mother is seen as a hindrance. As books such as Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia suggest, if one has children, it is better kept a secret. In ways I have taken this advice to heart. As proof, this past semester, my office mate of two years was shocked to learn I have two children. When she was bemoaning how difficult it is to juggle teaching, publishing, and parenting and I agreed wholeheartedly, she replied in astonishment “I didn’t know you had kids.” The sad thing is that I took this partly as a compliment knowing I had done what Ms. Mentor (the author of the above mentioned book) advises for academic survival – I had kept my kids a secret and was successfully carrying out my job as a Women’s Studies Professor as a ‘mother in hiding’. Yet, as my office-mate’s comment sunk in as I drove home, I began to feel angry that I had to hide or at the very least not discuss the ‘mother’ part of my identity. How would my kids feel, after all, if they knew they were a dirty secret I had to keep from colleagues?

With my students, it is different. They do not judge me negatively for being a mother – in fact, I think it helps humanize me and gives me ‘street cred’ when we analyze key Women’s Studies topics such as reproductive freedom, childcare, education, etc. And, even though being out of the mom closet seems to be more acceptable in academia these days, there are nevertheless those higher up – the deans, the provosts, the presidents – who one hesitates to share their mommy side with. While society seems to believe a male can do any job and be a father too, a woman’s job is often endangered on many levels when she becomes a mother. Any weakness is invariably blamed on the fact she is a mother while the strengths, widening perspectives, and multi-tasking mastery she gains from motherhood are rarely acknowledged. Coming to these realizations has changed my work politics – I now refuse to hide in the closet and am out about being a mom. If ‘Dean So and So’ sees this as a drawback, s/he can kindly review my positive teaching evaluations and/or publication record. I refuse to any longer pretend that I can’t be both a good mother and a good professor.

I have also learned that there is no need to give up my feminist activist hat – that, in fact, I never did. If anything, being a mother has made me more of an activist. I now feel obligated to raise my children to be activists in their own right and to, as the well known Gandhi quote prescribes, be the change they want to see in the world. Thus, on the drive to school, at the dinner table, while grocery shopping or at the park, we discuss politics (big and large), worker’s rights, the evils of Wal-Mart, how Hummer’s are a blight, and how our president, (in my son’s words) “is really dumb.” We analyze sexism in television and movies, homophobia on the playground, and racism in music lyrics. Not a day goes by that politics is not part of my mothering.

In fact, I now realize that while I feared my feminism had gone dormant in those early years of being a mom, that my politics has affected the way I parent since the day my children were born. From refusing ‘gender appropriate’ toys to my deliberate attempts to use the same tone of voice, the same type of compliments, and the same frequency of touch for both my daughter and son, I tried to treat them both as equally human – rather than as ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’ As they aged, I encouraged them to have friends across gender, race, class, and ability (a feat our segregation happy society certainly doesn’t make too easy). Once they entered educational institutions, I quickly became the mother every teacher dreaded – the one who brought in studies on linguistic theory showing the detrimental effects of always using male pronouns, male examples, and putting males first (as in the ubiquitous “boys and girls”). The one who was at the principles door the minute she heard the term ‘faggot’ and ‘lesbo’ were being used by the 3rd graders to insult one another. The one who complained each year over the way Thanksgiving was presented – “No kids, the Native Americans were not ‘so happy’ when the pilgrims arrived.” The one who has her son bring in a Cesar Chavez posters with a prepared speech to supplement the curriculum and whose daughter refuses to partake in any ‘boys against girls’ activities.

My maternal activism spreads beyond institutionalized education though. For example, one memorable encounter happened at the local roller rink just after the ‘all girls’ and ‘all boys’ skating time. One of my son’s friends is a female who identifies as male, but, due to her parents insistence, still ‘looks like a girl.’ You can imagine the befuddled response of the roller rink manager when I insisted that segregated skating enforced gender norms and isolated youths not identifying with their ‘given’ gender. When he said that this policy could not be bent even this once, my son and I decided he should skate during all girls skate just to see what would happen. Even though he was wearing one of his signature pink t-shirts, the skate referees were on him in no time, whistling up a frenzy. I won’t forget how angered he was over our failure to win this fight. “It’s ridiculous mom,” he fumed. “Who cares if a boy wants to skate during girl time or vice versa? Those rules are stupid.” However, though we lost the roller rink war, the bigger battle is being won on a daily basis – the battle of teaching my son and daughter about the injustices of the world and the necessity of fighting them, even when we won’t always win.

Our longtime girlandboycotting of Wal-Mart may be one of these battles that will be a long time in the winning. When the kids were younger, they would tell me how such and such toy would be cheaper if we got it at Wal-Mart, how all their friends shopped there, how the teachers recommended it for school supplies. However, as I have supplied them with more and more facts about unfair working and wage conditions, they became as resolute as myself that we should not shop there and now also actively encourage others not to do so. In fact, when visiting Grandma last summer, they gave her a thirty minute lecture regarding the evils of Wal-Mart after she took them there for some beach toys. “Mom, grandma made us go to Wal-Mart,” was how my seven year old daughter greeted me when she got off the plane. “We’re sorry. She made us go in. It was awful.”

And, each year, our everyday activist practices grow as I learn from my students about new areas of feminist concern or new sources of activist knowledge. This past semester, an animal rights activist told me about the video targeting KFC, Killing for Cruelty. Now, my son LOVES chicken and had been bemoaning the fact we no longer ate at KFC after hearing about their inhumane practices. However, once he watched the video, he was a convert. When we drive past, he reminds me “We are never going there, mom.” Nope, kid, we sure aren’t.

Just a few days ago, my daughter spent hours on a short poem entitled “How Hummer’s are Horrible” and asked if we could photocopy it to place under the windshield wipers of all the Hummer’s we see in parking lots (our town is Hummer crazy). In addition to trying to rid the world of Hummer’s, she is a little ‘linguistic cop’ who listens out for any sort of language that denigrates females. “My teacher is STILL saying ‘You guys'” she frequently complains when I pick her up from school. Last Christmas she sent a whole table full of relatives into silence by refusing to pass the gravy unless properly addressed. When her great-uncle requested her and her female cousin please pass the gravy by saying “Hey guys, please pass the gravy,” she responded, “Neither of us are guys in case you hadn’t noticed. If you want the gravy, you will have to ask in a way that does not insult me as a girl.” Now, while no doubt many at that table saw my seven-year-old as talking back to her elders with far too much sass, I swelled with pride. “There she is, my budding little feminist fighter” I thought to myself.

My ten year old son is no stranger to feminist analysis either. After seeing Shrek 3 he mused, “Know what I really liked about that movie, mom?” “What?” I asked, expecting to hear about when Gingerbread man pooped out a gumdrop or one of the many other scatological gags he is still so fond of.”I liked that they made the females strong. Fiona and all the others, they kicked butt. Why don’t they make all movies like that? It’s dumb they always make the boys the strong ones.”

In moments like these, I feel in my gut just how political the maternal is. It is the politics of raising a feminist son who not only analyzes big, outer world issues, like how unjust the US occupation of Iraq is, but who also daily looks through the world via a feminist lens in order to critique everything from cartoons to the actions of his schoolmates and teachers. It is the practice of raising a daughter, who, at age seven, decided to petition Nintendo to rename “Gameboy” into “Gamekid” with the following letter:

“Dear Nintendo,

My name is Naomi and I am 7 years old. I got a Gameboy as a gift and I really enjoy playing the games. But, I think calling it “Gameboy” makes girls like me feel bad because it seems as if you assume only boys will want to play. I suggest that you please change the name to “Gamekid.” To convince you that I am not the only one who feels this way, I have gathered 142 signatures below.”

Maternal feminist politics, I now happily realize, infuses the day to day mothering of my kids, as well as my voting choices, my teaching practices, my scholarly work, my buying practices, my language choices, and so on. As a mother, I have never really taken off my feminist lenses, they may have become fogged for a while, but now I see clearly that motherhood and feminism coexist beautifully and are, in fact, more powerful together than apart.

What if the Sunday papers included information like this? Links for June 23-28, 2008

As I appreciate so many of the links and read-a-rounds of the bloggers I read, I have decided to do a weekly link round up of my own.

I wish that everyone were reading news like this in their Sunday papers rather than the same-old same-old msm corporate controlled (dis)information…

  1. Over at Counterpunch at the beginning of the week, Robert Fantina questioned McCain’s claim that the recent Supreme Court ruling that granted Gauntanamo prisoners the ability to seek redress in civilian courts is “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” As his post, “McCain, Racism, and the Supreme Court,” suggests, apparently giving prisoners habeas corpus rights is WORSE than the Dred Scott decision. Perhaps we should call him John McRasict.
  2. At the Labor is Not a Commodity blog, Tim Newman explored the exploitation of sugar workers in Brazil and examines how this links to the biofuel boom. This post serves as an important reminder of labor rights and how corporatism fuels global exploitation.
  3. Cortney at A Feminist Response to Pop Culture in The Feminist Blogosphere is a Site of Resistance” posted on blogging feminist activism. Hurrah!
  4. Wal*Mart Watch analyzed Pink magazine’s article on the women of Wal*Mart here. As the post notes, focusing on a few “top women” at Wal*Mart in order to suggest this corporation is saving its soul leaves out the majority of women that Wal*Mart screws over with its inhumane labor polices both here and abroad.
  5. Womanist Musings mused about “Policing the Muff” in her typical smart, funny style, asking why the “nether regions” need trimming. Reminded me of the muff-policing scene in the Sex and the City movie. Oh yeah, how empowering, attack your best buddies for their ‘overgrown’ pubes!
  6. Dave at The Fanonite posts on the anti-Arab message of the film Don’t Mess With Zohan. I haven’t seen the film, but it sounds like yet another movie to trade in the “oh isn’t racism funny” stance.
  7. And, to limit myself to seven posts for the seven days of the week, the inimitable WOC PhD posted an update on Maria Isabel Vazquez’s death and the urgent need to protest Trader Joe’s stocking of Two Buck Chuck (and to fight for farm workers rights). See her post for more information and links.

Lastly, I will throw in a book recommendation for the week, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism coming out in paperback TODAY. Get thee to a library/bookstore and get stuck in this great book (first published last fall). See Klein interviewed here where she briefly describes the concept of disaster capitalism (and shares that homeland security is now a 200 billion dollar industry – jiminy cricket that’s one heaping load of corporatist windfall!)