The Mother of All Journeys: Becoming a Mothering Activist

As a third generation ardent feminist, women’s issues have always been of the greatest importance to me. Even while attending high school in southern Missouri (not the most welcome environment for a feminist), I was very aware of issues like unequal pay, sexual harassment, dearth of female leaders, and the silencing of girls in the academic environment. No one talked about mothering as a woman’s issue. When I went to college, my education in feminism continued and I added the issues of reproductive rights, violence against women, body image, sexual orientation, occupational segregation of women, inequity in religion, and legal discrimination to my repertoire. I started reading feminist magazines, like Ms. to further elucidate feminist issues. Still, no one talked about mothering.

My time in graduate school crystallized my feminist enlightenment. As a result, I felt knowledgeable enough to agree to teach an undergraduate psychology of women class when I started my job as an assistant professor at a woman’s university. During my first two years teaching the class, I lectured on a variety of women’s issues, including mothering. I gave information on the stereotypes surrounding mothers, reproductive issues, lack of quality childcare, how fathers did not pull their weight, and the second shift. For the students without children, it must have sounded good. However, for those who were mothers, it must have sounded empty because, as I was soon to find out, I did not know what I was talking about!

Other than my sister, I had rarely been around many mothers of young children. Most of my friends hadn’t yet started their families and even my sister’s experience with pregnancy, birth, and parenting of a young child wasn’t very real to me since we had lived so far apart during that time in her life. Very few of my classmates were mothers and almost none of my professors. Those who were did not really talk much about their children or about their experiences as mothers. Consequently, I knew next to nothing about any process of mothering. Sure, there were books and magazine articles out there for those who were motivated enough and had the time to read but it seemed like mothers were keeping pretty quiet. I began to question why such a natural and necessary process was so shrouded in silence. Why did so many of us know so little about mothering? I started thinking that Betty Freidan had mislabeled the feminine mystique. Instead of general dissatisfaction, she really meant mothering!

I began wondering why this feminine mystique of mothering existed. There are plenty of mothers out there! Why do we not hear from more of them? Why are mothering experiences so left out of the public discourse? With the exception of hearing about the “mommy track” and childcare issues (and those were in the mainstream media primarily during the 1980s), mothering isn’t much of a blip on the radar of public consciousness. The few female politicians and business leaders we have don’t mention mothering issues if they can help it (or, when they do, only in certain ways) and even most women’s organizations are slowly adding planks for mothers in their platforms. What is going on, I asked myself. Isn’t mothering one of those fundamental female experiences that must be addressed? Shouldn’t all women want equal rights for mothers?

As I pondered these issues, I had an experience that led me toward the inkling of an answer. When I was planning for my absence from my job, I discovered that my university (a woman’s university) did not have a paid maternity leave policy. I could utilize the Family and Medical Leave Act for 12 weeks unpaid but if I wanted to get paid, I would have to use my sick leave. Being a relatively new faculty member, I did not have much saved up and, especially with the costs of a new baby, we could not afford for me to give up some of my salary. I was heartsick at the thought of returning to work after only 3-4 weeks at home with our son, so I went to our Human Resources Department to plead my case for receiving extended sick leave pay.

The Human Resources director, a woman, explained to me that when the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed in 1996, the Texas Legislature decided that the act would take care of family leaves, thereby eliminating any paid maternity leave in state organizations. “You see dear,” she said smugly, “women wanted equal rights, so now we must be treated exactly like men. So, pregnancy is treated just like any other illness.” Given her complete disinterest in my statement that pregnancy is not, in fact, an illness, I neglected to point out that treating us exactly like men does not make us equal. If anything, since treating women just like men means that our unique needs are not being addressed, it makes us distinctly unequal. However, despite this stupid reasoning by the Texas Legislature, I did manage to receive an additional four weeks of sick leave pay enabling me to stay home with our son for a total of 10 weeks (not even close to enough time but more than many women receive!!) and my experience with the HR director led me to what I believe is the reason for the silence about mothering.

For many women, having equal rights does mean being treated exactly like men. We want to be paid as much as men, we want to have control over our bodies like men do, we want to be free from the physical control of men and so on. Almost every issue you can point to in the platforms of women’s groups has to do with comparisons with men – except mothering. There is no way you can equate the experience of physical mothering with that of fatherhood. Men cannot give birth nor can they nurse their children – mothers can. However, given that this is biological and given the stereotypes assigned to mothers, many women seem to be afraid that this strength, the very reason the human race exists, may be used against us if we acknowledge that we are indeed very different from men. Consequently, mothers and mothering issues are kept quiet.

The thinking on this issue has to be that, if we just keep quiet about this difference, equal rights will soon be in our grasp. Partially as a result of this extremely ignorant and illogical line of thinking, a whole host of problems has arisen. The workplace is not family friendly, natural processes like breastfeeding are vilified and made difficult, the economic status of mothers is dismal, the community of mothers is weakened, quality childcare is expensive and hard to find, maternity and parental leaves are pathetic, and many future mothers are not given the information we need to help us enjoy the experience of mothering and be the very best mothers we can be.

To my way of thinking, we’re going about this backwards. Instead of wanting to be treated just like men, perhaps women should demand our own terms and let men fall in line behind us! But, in order to do this, we must stop being silent about the issues that affect us. That is why I decided that, in the hope of making a different future for us all, I had to become a mothering activist.

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