Motherhood: the new oppression

Sara - posted on 06/28/2010 ( 14 moms have responded )




Motherhood came easily to my mom. She popped out the three of us, as reliably as toast, every other year. But by modern standards she was a mediocre parent. She smoked. She drank. She drove us around without seatbelts, while she smoked.

After I turned 10, she often left the three of us at home, unsupervised, for hours at a time. (She figured I was smart enough to call a neighbour if the house burned down.) We raced around without bike helmets, and made our way to school on our own. We never wore sunscreen except at the beach.

Apart from the violin (which, to everyone’s relief, I quickly abandoned), we had little in the way of extracurricular enrichment. In summer, we hung around and did nothing. During the long summer evenings, my parents would sit around in the backyard with their friends, smoking and drinking to excess, while we ran wild through wooded vacant lots and hazardous construction sites. One time, when I was around 8, my mom allowed me to go to a Cubs game in the company of the friendly school bus driver (!!!). It’s amazing we lived to adulthood.

Times were simpler then. Nobody had heard of child abuse or BPA. Mothers used cloth diapers, not because they were environmentally responsible, but because Pampers hadn’t been invented yet. Peanut allergies were virtually unknown, and breastfeeding was regarded as faintly backward.

Now we know better. The obligations of responsible mothering have been ratcheted way up. They start before conception, when you must swear off alcohol and tobacco so as not to harm your hypothetical embryo. Abstinence from all things, including ice cream (you can’t gain too much weight!) extends through pregnancy. Natural childbirth? Of course, preferably at home. Epidurals are for losers.

And then the real work starts. The modern world is full of invisible threats, from toxic plastic to UVA. Vaccines and cellphones are supposed to be safe, but who knows? Last fall, vigilant mothers I know spent hours on the Internet, researching the ins and outs of the H1N1 vaccine, and quarantining their kids from contact with anyone who’d had contact with someone who might have had the flu. They don’t trust experts and they take these matters seriously.

As The Globe and Mail’s Siri Agrell wrote recently in Toronto Life (Totally Freaked Out, March), “A generation of moms and dads has taken a purity pledge for their kids. You can’t throw an organic terry cloth teething ring today without hitting a parent obsessing over pesticides on apples and phthalates in soothers.”

Every generation of mothers is buffeted by different waves of social panic.

Ten years ago, it was child abuse – the fear that dangerous pedophiles lurked in every bush. Consequently, middle-class kids now live in a world where no child is left alone, not even for a moment. Now, we are afraid of anything that isn’t chemical-free. Conscientious moms scrub down the kitchen with green cleaners (which aren’t nearly as effective as the hard-core stuff), and hang their washing out to dry to save the planet. I see some of them at Whole Foods, filling up at the quinoa bin, towing tots armoured in hats, sunglasses, and SPF 100 sunscreen.

Once upon a time, the conveniences of modern life (processed foods, Lysol spray, disposable diapers, clothes dryers, polyester sheets) liberated women like my mother from their chains. But now, their granddaughters are clamouring to clap the shackles on again. Someone’s got to mash the organic applesauce, hang the diapers out to dry, and breastfeed the kid. No matter how enlightened the parental units, that someone will generally be Mom.

It seems to me that if you had deliberately devised a plot to oppress women, it couldn’t get more diabolical than this. Highly educated, progressive and enlightened mothers don’t need men to oppress them. They’re perfectly capable of oppressing themselves!

Today, the baby has become “the best ally of masculine domination,” argues Elisabeth Badinter, a controversial French feminist. Her new book (Le Conflit: La Femme et La Mère, translated as Conflict: The Woman and the Mother) argues that the moral requirements of modern motherhood – especially the back-to-nature, eco-mommy trend – have struck a blow to women’s freedom. “Women’s lives have grown more difficult in the last 20 years,” she told The New York Times. “Professional life is ever harder, ever more stressful and unattractive, and on the other hand, there is an accumulation of new moral duties weighing on women.”

The new ethic of mothering promises that you will find wisdom, happiness, and connectedness, not only with your children but with the earth itself. Instead, what you mostly get is guilt. So you fed your kids fast food last week? Bad mommy!

Ms. Badinter contends that there is nothing wrong with being a mediocre mother. She was one herself. Natural childbirth, she says, is highly overrated, as is breastfeeding, which doesn’t always produce that mystical bond that it’s supposed to. She has even argued that the maternal instinct does not exist, citing long periods of French history during which women were generally indifferent to their children.

I’m not sure about that (although I am sure it’s not nearly as common or intense as we suppose.) But it occurs to me that the high moral bar we’ve set for modern motherhood is a tremendous deterrent to motherhood itself. Any thoughtful woman would have to think twice, thrice, or three times thrice before committing to a task with such demanding standards. Can you blame them for deciding not to? If we want to raise the birth rate, perhaps we need to lower the bar. So long as you keep the kids from running out into the traffic, they’ll probably be fine. It seemed to work for Mom.


Isobel - posted on 06/29/2010




I think that as long as there have been mothers there has been a gigantic gap between the extremes...and a mild mocking from both. I believe that if you follow ALL the rules that we as mothers are supposed to follow these days...holy crap...more power to you...and if you don't pay attention to ANY of the dangers that are out there...holy crap...become a parent...

honestly though, I think that the healthiest children come from the middle, parents who sacrifice what they have to without denying who they are.

Johnny - posted on 06/28/2010




It really irritates me when women start attacking each other's choices. Suggesting that woman A is a bad mother because she doesn't breastfeed, feeds her kids jarred foods, dresses them in polyester track suits and uses disposables. So the author turns around and suggests that somehow makes her a feminist? Someone who is subverting the motherhood oppression? That is such a dumb idea. What ever happened to feminism being about women being able to make their own choices which satisfy them and work in their lives?

If I had to work full-time, had to bottle feed exclusively, had to use disposable diapers, or had to feed my daughter all junk food, I would be miserable. That's just not me. I would love to stay home full time (I need to work part-time) and I absolutely totally adore the full time mom gig. I like making her clothes, using cloth diapers (that's my environmentalist side), making her baby food, gardening our veggies, and all that crap. It fulfills me more than any job I've had. I didn't know that was going to be the way I'd feel until I did it, but it turned out that it was deeply enjoyable for me. I count the hours at work until I can get home and spend time with my daughter and get out into the garden once she's in bed.

I am passionate about the things I like and the things I believe in. I will continue to stand up for them and argue for them. I can not see how doing otherwise would be honest or feminist.

But I'd be crazy if I thought that all other women like the same stuff I do. We are all individuals! And we all have the right to our own passions, opinions, and ideas.

I recognize that the role as a mother has a great value in society, so often discounted by feminists. There is no "right" way to be a mom any more than there is a "right" way to be a feminist. If you love your kids, take good care of them, and look out for their best interests (which almost all mothers I know do), then you are doing one of the most important jobs in the world, raising good kids. Breastfeeding/bottle feeding, food preparation, and all those other things are style, not substance. And being a good feminist is about standing up for a woman's right to choose herown destiny and make her own future, whatever path she may choose.

This woman just sounds like she feels a bit guilty about her own parenting decisions. Which is just silly. If she did things the way she wanted and her kids are happy, then there is nothing to worry about. But instead, she has chosen to attack other women's choices and try to make them feel lesser. And that is just another kind of oppression.

[deleted account]

IDK, I think it kind of is like oppression but I don't think this is anything new or different...I don't think you have to hang dry your clothes, make your own babyfood, or breast feed your children to feel oppressed by mothering. It can be quite stifling at times...I think the oppressive part of mothering is how if I go look for a job my "future" boss wants to ensure I will have adequate daycare, but this is not a question they would ask a male applicant; that it is generally assumed that I, being woman, will quit my job and take care of the kids; that I, being mother, will be the one they call when my kid is sick at school/daycare and it is my job to leave work or school to care for them; that if the kids wake up in the middle of the night it is MY job to get up with them, because my work is valued less; that women are left to take care of the unpaid household labor and then made to feel that is how it SHOULD be because I "chose" to stay home and have kids...

Joanna - posted on 06/28/2010




I enjoyed the article, and I like the ideas that we are getting way too serious about things. I think we as mothers need to slow down and enjoy life with our children more.

I look back at my childhood, and it was so similar to the one she described it's not funny. And it was AMAZING. When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, in the summer, my parents would drink and smoke in the backyard while we made s'mores on the grill and ran around with the neighborhood kids until 10 am night. Now we are too afraid to let the kids out of our sight, we don't want anything harmful around them, so get rid of the cigarettes, alcohol, and even the s'mores (I bet there's corn syrup in them!), and being out at 10 pm?! SHAME!

BUT I know why moms are the way we are now. The world is evolving, going to a faster and slightly darker place. We want to protect our children as best we can, and will do everything in our power to do so. I'm not sure that's oppression. I think it's love.

[deleted account]

I think this article has several flaws in it and is incredibly derisive of scientific informaton in favor of anecdotes.

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[deleted account]

Thank you Carol, for bringing up the feminist point. I'm so glad that we as women have choices and rights, unlike in the past. But to go to the opposite extreme and say that women who CHOOSE to stay home and do all these things the article mentions, are making the wrong choice, is putting women right back into a box. It's totally undermining the point of feminism.

Erin - posted on 06/29/2010




I Agree. I was raised pretty much the same way along with my cousins. I plan to raise my children the same way. My cousin and his wife have a one year old and they are into all of this "new parenting" (that's what i call it). They use organic diapers, their house is always immaculate, they don't believe in yelling or spanking.
Well I am a stay at home mom but i also work from home. I don't feel oppressed. I am glad that i can stay at home with my son. My house is usually a mess. I am lucky to be able to get the regular stuff done let alone making sure every spot of dust is removed from sight. My son is almost 9 months old and hasn't even gotten the sniffles.(and we live in upstate NY where people get sick quite often). If you keep your children in a plastic bubble their immune system will not get strong and it will be easier for them to get sick and harder for them to fight anything off. I don't use organic diapers because i can't afford them. Luvs work just fine.
I recall a time when my mom took me to our family doctor and he saw all of the bruises on my legs,(from playing outside in the street and crashing my bike without a helmet). My mom had told me before the appt that it looked like she beat me with a baseball bat. So when the doc asked what happened I said "Mom beat me with a base ball bat" He just laughed. OMG now a days the authorities would be called and i would have to fight to get my child back.
In the end it is all up to each individual mom. We all are going to do what we think the best way to raise our children is. But we shouldn't judge others for the way we choose to raise them. Being a mom is hard work no matter how you do it.

Tanya - posted on 06/28/2010




Hmm I wanted to be a stay at home mom. I just got a blender to start making baby food from the farmer market. I do hang dry almost all of our clothes. I do not put down anyone who doesn't so this. I also don't feel like i have to do this. With the money I save we are planning on taking a two week trip in the fall. Oh yeah and I breast feed. Good thing they make a pump! I can go out. I can even have a few drinks as long as I have some milk pumped. My son has even stayed over with his grandparents twice in the 5 months since he was born.

Like I said it is a personal choice if you feel tied dow than by all means get a job. Its not like you don't have the option. I think that every mother feels some pressure no matter what the choice is.

Sharon - posted on 06/28/2010




ugh, lucky you kati. Any time I'm in a group of moms, there is need? to bash anyone who doesn't do things the way they do.

Geeze, even at work. I mentioned that I needed to leave on time to get my kids to a vaccination appointment and I hear "I would NEVER inject my kids with foul chemicals." For me, work is not the place for debate, especially topics like that. So I said nothing.

Later I found out that this woman's kids are allergic to EVERYTHING, she is too. They've got tons of health issues but nothing serious. I don't know if its drama she's made up though.

Anyway - I've even heard other moms make snide comments after overhearing another moms' comments.

Rosie - posted on 06/28/2010




i think mothering is stressful because of these situations, but you kjnow what? it seems to me that i only hear about them on COM, or in magazines or something, not where i live. there is the occasional mention of some of these things, but i could really care less. how i do things is what works for my family, if someone does these things and it works for them, great.

[deleted account]

I do a lot of the stuff in the article and I don't feel shackled down by any means. But to be honest, a I do much of that stuff because it's cost effective. Since I don't work, I work to save money. Breastfeeding, making my own toxic-free cleaners, and making baby food from produce bought at the farmer's market has saved a ton of money. And I would honestly rather be doing that than going to work and sending my daughter to the babysitter's house.

But I don't by any means look down on mothers that don't do these things. I have my reasons for doing them and it works for my family. And yes, we occasionally eat fast food and I have forgotten the sunscreen.

Sarah - posted on 06/28/2010




I kind of agree too.

I think that Mothers are expected to live up to ridiculous standards sometimes. Mothers seem to judge other Mothers, the media seems to hold Mothers to this "ideal" while at the same time giving us a million different studies and parenting styles to try and wade our way through.

We're supposed to do it all, be it all and have it all. I do think that some of us a weighed down by guilt at not being the "perfect Mum". I'm FAR from perfect, but my kids are fed, healthy, have a roof over their heads and they are VERY loved. I do my best and muddle through. I think it's really hard for Mum's, and although some of the things we've learned over time are common sense and should be strived for, I don't think it's the end of the world if we're not "perfect". :)

Lyndsay - posted on 06/28/2010




I sort of agree with this article. Mothering these days is sort of like boot camp. There are so many expectations, with people always analyzing your apparent skills and criticizing what they don't agree with.

My baby was formula fed, we have an excellent bond. He drank from plastic bottles, and I continue to store my food in plastic containers. I had a natural childbirth, but not by choice. I begged them for the epidural but I was already 10cm dialated when I got to the hospital. I do not use cloth diapers -- I care about the environment but not that much. I'd rather clean up the poop and throw it in the garbage, instead of trying to scrub the poop stains out of the nice cotton diapers so they're nice and clean for the next load. When we go out, I try to remember sunscreen but I will admit I'm not totally vigilant. I myself never wear the stuff, so its been an adjustment. I spank my little guy's butt if he has been bad, and when I do he knows what he did was not okay. All in all, even without following all of the nazi-like rules and regulations of motherhood, I have managed to produce a very healthy and happy little boy and we are always being complimented on his excellent manners.

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