Feminist mothers' domestic dilemmas


Susan Maushart's The Mask of Motherhood book coverNext year, feminist writer Monica Dux will publish a book about motherhood called Things I Didn't Expect (When I Was Expecting). I know this not only because I follow her on Twitter but also because about 18 months ago, in the name of research, she asked me (and I'm sure many other women) about my feelings towards my post-birth vagina.

While I can only guess the tone and themes of Dux's book, I generally like my written reflections on mothering to be filled with pathos and searing political indictments.

Does it explore postnatal depression (Friday Forever by Susan Bradley-Smith), women artists' tortured quest to combine motherhood and creativity (The Divided Heart, Rachel Power), social repression by the realities of mothering young children (The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Maushart), or the suppression of women's liberation by the natural birth, breastfeeding and anti-childcare movements (The Conflict, Elisabeth Badinter)?

Yes? Then here is my library card. I avoid positive-thinking guides and cheery mummy memoirs. If there's no feminist political bent, it stays on the shelf.

But I don't know many other mothers with such criteria. Friends who regularly read (and there's many who have no time or energy) favour escapist genres that have nothing to do with rearing small children. Those who do peruse parenting books often have no stipulation that they be feminist. In some cases they shun such texts.

But there are others who seek out politically themed material. Louise Brand, a 39-year-old gallery curator, likes exploring 'how I have handled motherhood, and how it has affected me' through other women's writing on the subject. She has consequently read Maushart's The Mask of Motherhood and Badinter's The Conflict.

Likewise, Amelia Carson (artist, poet, mother of three young boys) read Maushart because she is interested in 'the cerebral side of motherhood and the wider discussions of family, woman and motherhood in today's society'.

For 33-year-old professional photographer Mabel Herford (not her real name), who struggled to breastfeed and experienced enormous shame when she switched to feeding her baby girl formula at six weeks, Badinter's book had a revelatory impact. She now feels 'no guilt about using childcare and feeding my baby formula'.

If tired mothers are unable to commit to long books, then what about feminist-themed motherhood blogs? Thirty-four-year-old lawyer Cristy Clark searched for online material 'because I was looking for voices that reflected my own experiences and perspective'.

Indeed, the search for material that deals honestly and directly with motherhood makes some blogs highly attractive. Without the mediating effects of an editor and publisher, the writer's immediate and uncensored feelings about her children and her parenting role is not only attention-capturing, but seems to reassure frazzled women that they aren't alone in their daily struggles. They soothe through their very rawness.

To artist Lily Mae Martin (who has her own evocative blog, Berlin Domestic), 'they feel like they are written by real people and make me feel less alone'. For Amelia Clarkson, blogs that 'are more fearless, that share the honest and raw mistakes, as well as the joys and wins' triumph over 'preachy and sentimental' parenting texts.

I don't read many motherhood blogs but recently I've been wondering if my beloved feminist reading list is helping or hindering my day-to-day work raising two young girls.

Maushart's book contains a revelation on nearly every page about the gruelling realities of motherhood that are concealed generation after generation, but how does this actually help me deal with my own baby-toddler-combo-shitstorm? Aside from making me enraged that due to the privileging of men's professional work and their superior earning power it is me, not my husband, who is being subjected to this aural and visual assault?

And when I'm scrabbling around wiping up Weetbix under the baby's highchair and she's twisting her milky fingers into my hair, will it make me feel better to recall how university-educated women don't capitalise effectively on their qualifications due to the years they spent out of the workforce?

No. What I really need is distraction, preferably via a cracking good joke of the 'What the showgirl-said-to-the-bishop' variety.

I admire the style and sentiment of books like Maushart's, but do they, in fact, make me miserable? Similarly, is it possible to get trapped in a loop of hard-times mothering blogs that ultimately reinforce your own already ambivalent attitudes towards your role? As much as it pains me intellectually to concede it, at this stage I know I am much better off perusing the crime fiction, show-biz memoirs and humour sections of the bookshop.

So if it's not new mothers who should be reading feminist books about motherhood, then who should be? That's easy: everyone else!

Madeleine Hamilton headshotMadeleine Hamilton is an historian, blogger, and the co-author of Sh*t on my hands: A down and dirty companion to early parenthood.

Topic tags: Madeleine Hamilton, feminism, motherhood



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Existing comments

I like your conclusion, but unfortunately those who would most benefit from examining gendered society critically are those most unlikely to do so. The privileged potentates are blind to the advantages that contributed to their success. As an aside, I must admit when I was breastfeeding I read prodigious amounts of wonderful Australian literature which I don't now have as much time to read. And on another note, even through messiness and career costs I would not swap my years with my kids. My husband feels the same about his years off on two separate occasions to raise our toddler/s while I worked full-time, and he later paid a price in relation to career progression. The frustration now lies in accounting for that time to people who consider these choices to be invalid. But both of us are of the view that later in life, regrets of not working at a higher level are unlikely. We think we are more likely to regret not having spent time with loved ones when we had the opportunity.
Moira Byrne | 14 November 2012

A very good summary of the serious sickness afflicting the new age feminists.
john frawley | 14 November 2012

Thanks Madeleine - i also like to read edgy stuff about being a mother but I must say I just couldn't read The Mask of Motherhood while my kids were little; it was too close to the bone. At that time I enjoyed reading The Mother Knot by Jane Lazarre and Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich. But I have to say that I was totally grabbed by the topic of being a mother and a couple of years ago completed a phd titled: Maternal Ambivalence in contemporary Australia: navigating equity and care. Since then I've established an internet site at www.maternalhealthandwellbeing.com and when ever I can contribute to discussion about how the world can change to make things better, not just for mothers but for all carers. I am currently checking out The Real Wealth of Nations, as there is much more to looking after kids than washing nappies and changing sheets. Reading is great but unfortunately a lot of the material on motherhood is descriptive and I think we need much more analysis. Have you seen the internet site for the Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement?
JoannieG | 14 November 2012

Have just gone and got my copy of The Mask of Motherhood off the shelf. Subtitled 'How mothering changes everything and why we pretend it doesn't'. That says it all really - What women are really, really bad at it is trying to standardise experiences like menstruation, birth,mothering, menopause and everything in between. The experience is different for us all, there is no 'perfect' mother. But yes, it is a life changer. And it is worth celebrating that women choose to put that first. In regards to escapism verses hard fought reality blogs, news and research - there is room for both in the spectrum. Another analogy about how it doesn't have to be one size fits all..................
Jenny Esots | 14 November 2012


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