Wednesday, June 25, 2008

mothering as a feminist act*

*i was tempted to title this post, "mothering as the ultimate feminist act," but that felt wrong. it felt very hyperbolic, similar to "Bean is the cutest two year old that ever existed." true, on some level, but really only true-ish. (but not truthiness, because there's legitimate truth in there) Bean is, indeed, an unbelievably adorable 2-year-old, but creating a hierarchy where she towers so far above every other adorable two year old is a little silly.
because while mothering is an absolutely vital part of taking feminist action (at least, a certain kind of mothering that i'll discuss herein), it is, of course, not the absolute most important feminist act one can take. there's no hierarchy here. it's all important. but in this post, mothering - truly feminist mothering - is the focal point of feminist action(s).

when you think of "feminist action," most people think of petitions, marches on washington, lobbying your congressmen & women, taking it to the streets, working for legislative change, working for community change. most people do not think of family as a site of feminist action. at most, they'll think of family as the breeding ground for feminists, raising feminists by instilling ideals of equality and social justice in their kids, so that their kids can one day take these more obvious steps we call "feminist acts."

the family, though, IS a site of feminist action.
or, at least, it can be.
(i will speak directly to the act of mothering here, because that's what i can speak to most eloquently and knowledgeably, but that of course does not preclude other kinds of parenting, and it does not necessarily apply only to women.)

mothering is not black & white, but, if you'll allow me some brief essentialism, it can pretty much be boiled down to one of two forms:
feminist mothering,
and anti-feminist mothering.

my mother, despite identifying (somehow) as a feminist, engaged very intently in anti-feminist mothering. her self-proclaimed identity as a feminist did not stop her from acting toward her daughter (and her sons) in distinctly anti-feminist ways. it's pretty clear to most people who know me that i have plenty of grievances to file against my mother and the way in which she chose to mother me. here, though, i won't air the particulars, because they're not especially relevant to my point.

in general:
anti-feminist mothering is unloving mothering.
anti-feminist mothering plays into sexist and misogynistic views of women - in either/both blatant or subtle ways.
anti-feminist mothering refuses to empower daughters to exist in a powerful way in our racist heteropatriarchy. (it also refuses to teach sons how to exist in a privilege-conscious way in our racist heteropatriarchy.)
anti-feminist mothering expects daughters to pick up the slack of the mother's lost opportunities, not for the sake of the daughter's opportunities, but for the selfish sake of the mother's need for approval and validation. i.e. not encouraging the daughter to succeed on her own merits or of her own volition, but instead, to succeed for other people.

on the flip side, and what i'd much rather talk about, is feminist mothering.
(which isn't a given when a feminist becomes a mother. see, for example, my own mother. and also, Alice Walker.)

feminist mothering is based in love. because true feminism is, at its base, all about love, feminist mothering necessarily has true love at its base as well. (the "true" part of "true love" there is important; wounded, selfish ways of loving do not allow for a feminist action of mothering.)
this basis in love is really what informs all other aspects of feminist mothering.
feminist mothering is empowering, because it teaches (through example) self-responsibility for actions & feelings. feminist mothers teach their daughters how to embrace their own power, how to use their power to protect themselves.
at the same time, feminist mothers protect their children. not in a smothering way, not in a disempowering way, but in what should be an expected way. a protection based in love. it's not selfless, none of this is. to be selfless is to give up the self, which is anathema to the idea of self-responsibility. feminist mothers create a net of safety for their children, a place where their vulnerabilities (being female, for example) are not open invitations for abuse or mistreatment.

the best way i know of to identify feminist vs. anti-feminist mothering is this: feminist mothers are those mothers whose interactions with their children give me - and, i think, most people with a developed feminist consciousness - a warm, full feeling in my heart.

some women i know who engage in daily feminist acts of mothering:

- N, whose 2-year-old daughter i babysit. Bean (my nickname for her) -- yes, the same Bean who's hyperbolically the cutest 2-year-old in the world -- has a childhood that i envy. not in a malicious way, of course; i'm ecstatic that Bean gets to grow up with such an incredible, incredibly loving, incredibly feminist mother.
watching N and Bean interact is, quite honestly, one of the best parts of my Wednesday afternoon (my weekly time with Bean). not only because it's so inconceivably different from the way that my mother interacted with me, but also because it creates that warm, full feeling in my heart. in a non-creepy, non-voyeuristic way, i could happily watch N & Bean interact all day.
Bean is safe, because N, along with her husband T, have created a safe haven for her to grow up in. Bean asks for her mother to cuddle her, and, in what's (sadly) kind of a surprise for me, N readily agrees. lovingly agrees.
N protects her. i can't give examples, but i can feel it. it's not a smothering protection, it's not an experience-denying protection, but it's a very true, real protection. it's palpable.
N is a feminist. this, of course, is mostly a given here in the pioneer valley, but it still merits a mention, because i can see that this feminism is going to be passed on to little Bean. (as will, i'm sure, N's passion for Obama's campaign -- which is also being passed on from N's sister to her kids, who are 3 and 6. N's nephew, W, had the biggest grin i've ever seen spread clear across his little 3-year-old face after Obama took one of the bigger primaries this spring. it was fucking adorable.)
i could list off example after example of how N is taking feminist action by way of mothering Bean, but that would take all day, and it would all come back to this:
every action N takes when parenting Bean is based in pure love. true, maternal love, with no unreasonable expectations of her daughter.
i wish sometimes that everyone could witness the way that N holds Bean. it's one of the most beautiful things i've ever seen. even given all of the activism i've participated in and been a part of, the love shared between N & Bean when N is holding her daughter...that is one of the most purely feminist actions i've ever seen.

-H, the owner of the cafe that i manage (also, my very good friend and northampton-mom).
H has her own kids, with her wonderful wife D, who are 4 and 7. (a boy & a girl, respectively.) and the way in which she mothers both of them is, of course, also an act of feminism. but what i want to talk about here is the way she has mothered me.
a 22 year old woman who maybe shouldn't need a mother anymore, but nonetheless still does. a 22 year old woman who never really had the mother figure that she craved/needed.
i don't feel particularly comfortable explaining a whole lot of detail here, but:
the warmth & fullness that fills my heart when i witness Bean & N interacting is the same warmth & fullness that fills my heart when H extends her very feminist (truly loving) mothering actions to me.
she offers a safe place. it's not entirely her, but the safety i feel in this home i've created here in Northampton does indeed have a lot to do with her, and with the safety that she provides. she offers protection, too - less overtly than the way in which N is able to protect Bean, because a 22 year old needs a different kind of protection than a 2 year old needs, but it's there, still clearly filed under "protection."
i've had plenty of years living out feminism in the feminist training grounds of Wells & Smith Colleges, and here in Northampton, MA. the way in which she teaches me feminism, then, is a little different, and a little more give-and-take than the way that Bean is learning feminism. but i learn from her. i learn a lot from her. i learn different aspects of real-world feminism, sure, but i also learn in a feminist way; that is, in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical, empowering way.
given these years in feminist training grounds, it's weird to think that i can still get empowerment from someone else. i've empowered myself plenty, what with the 20+ women's studies classes i've taken and the feminist organizations i've worked for / worked with, the extracurricular feminist reading i engage in on a daily basis (in blogs, in the books i buy addictively, etc). the empowerment that a daughter (loose definition) can get from a mother (loose definition), though, is different. it's a kind of empowerment that can't really happen without the feminist act of mothering. it would've been lovely if the woman who should have provided this kind of validation & empowerment (my bio mom) had actually done so, and there's a limit to the validation & empowerment that a surrogate mother can provide this late in the game. but as much as she can, H is providing that for me.
and she, like N, is doing all of this out of the pure, true love that is necessary for feminist mothering.

this is love.
this is feminism.
this is feminism, in action / this is love, in action...taking the form of mothering.

1 comment:

Noreen said...

Keep up the good work.