A friend of mine, who is a very evolved guy with a lot of strong women friends, recently asked me “What happened to feminism?”
- Just because I have (spectacular) breasts does not mean that I have the answer to this question.
- Just because I have (spectacular) breasts does not mean that I am responsible for the answer to this question.
- If, however, the answer to this question is written on the side of a Little Mermaid DVD and/or tampon box, well then yes, I may have the answer to this question. Let me go check.
- Nope, sorry. I don’t have the answer to this question.
This bugged me. Not the question – it is a really good question – but that I do not have the answer. I used to BE the answer.
When my first niece was born, I wrote her a letter about the importance of challenging authority. [Note to my sister: I'm sorry.] I could discuss, at great length and volume, the etymology of ‘the rule of thumb‘. I used to get involved in heated discussions with dinosaur profs (shout out to Poli Sci UBC) and then go cry in my sparkling wine coolers because They. Just. Don’t. Get. It.
I had Ideals. I was not going to dress my girls in pink and there would be no barbies. (Having a boy was never an option and never you mind that I myself collected barbies. As an adult. Don’t tell anyone.) I would work and nurture. I would support my girlfriends and all of us would abstain from cosmetic surgeries. I would turn up my nose at the casual use of the word ‘bitch’ between friends. I would have an evolved, equal partner fully engaged in child-rearing and household and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH.
Then I had a child. And another. And stopped working (for pay) and fully, completely, unquestioningly embraced The Cult of Imperial Motherhood.
The four commandments of Imperial Motherhood are these:
- I am The Mother. I know it all.
- I am The Mother. I will do it all.
- Fathers are hapless and semi-helpless, and left to their own devices, will dress the children unfashionably, feed them fast food two meals a day (oh, they need three meals?), and possibly lose them in the mall.
- I am The Mother. I know it all, I do it all, and I complain about it all.
Allow me to paint the picture of my fall from feminist grace into the fires of Imperial Motherhood. A year after we bought a new washer and dryer, my then-partner called me at work to ask me how to use them.
Yes, we can cast aspersions on his work ethic and contribution to the home and relationship. But while we’re at it, let’s vilify me, too. When we were together, I did not require him to do anyfuckingthing. I did not allow him the opportunity to be hands-on. If I wanted his opinion about what colour to paint the baby’s room or where and how she would be schooled, I would simply think up the correct opinion and then let him in on the secret. I was the Imperial Mother.
Let’s be honest. Few – if any – of the activities on this list are intrinsically rewarding or empowering:
- cleaning toilets
- breast feeding in public
- breast feeding in general
- caesarean sections
- stretch marks
- post-pregnancy bellies
- Heidi Klum
- birthday parties every single gd Saturday
- eating dinner in the car on the way to baseball/soccer/dance practice
- meetings with caregivers and teachers to discuss your child’s spitting on people and/or spitting on large screen TVs
- 1am, 3am and 5am feedings
- judgment from other Imperial Mothers
- judging other Imperial and commoner mothers
- changing diapers
- sucking mucus out of clogged baby noses
- grocery shopping
You get my point. I concede that there is likely some value in some of these things. (Actually, I’m just saying this so that the League La Leche doesn’t flame me.) That is of course why we do them. But it is not guaranteed to make you happy, if only because just when you finish some or all of these things, you have to do them all over again. And again. This is tiring and monotonous and tired, monotonous people are not happy, satisfied, inspired people.
In fact, there is actual research that concludes that contrary to popular belief, having children does not make you happy. Or happier.
Remember my pithy little post on the Economy of Happiness? Well, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilberts wrote a book called Stumbling on Happiness, in which he writes that before we have children, prospective parents acknowledge and anticipate that raising children is hard freaking work, (okay, ‘freaking’ is my word) but that we are stupid, stupid, stupid (again, my words) and still think that having kids will make us happy. In fact, evidence from several studies demonstrates that having children makes us less happy – even unhappy! – and that this dismal state of affairs doesn’t improve until our kids leave home. Fantastic.
So…I think Imperial Mamas are buying a cartload of expired groceries. We think that this job will make us happy; we wish that it will; we work like crazy trying to make it so; and we abuse ourselves and everyone around us when it, in fact, makes us miserable. Or maybe that is just me.
Now that we’ve fully covered the downside of mothering/parenting, let’s return our attention back to the rewards. Oh, we haven’t even started? Funny that.
In amongst the drudgery and mayhem of daily life with little people, there are moments of unsurpassed brilliance and beauty.
- When my daughter, Sophie, was born, I looked at her and recognized her. I literally breathed out and said, “Oh, I know you.”
- Sophie sees the world through eyes sprinkled with fairy dust. One day she came to me, held out her hand, and said “Mama, my tooth grew feet and jumped right out of my mouth!”
- My youngest daughter, Lola, has the soul of a linebacker and the independence of an exiled wolf…until bedtime, when she needs to stroke my hair until she falls asleep. I find it strangely touching that her favourite place to sleep is directly on my head.
- Every morning, before the crazy-crazy begins, the girls get in bed together, cuddle up to each other, entwine their fingers in each other’s curls, and say “Good morning sister, I love you. It’s a good day”.
- Each and every day that I spend with my children, I am kissed, cuddled, hugged, stroked, and told “I love you” and “I love you so much” more times than I can count.
Imperial Mothers hog these moments all to themselves. No wonder fathers are not engaged. And pity the fools, because they are really and truly missing out.
Oh god, am I bashing women and blaming for them for male privilege? I’m trying so hard to be feminist. I really love women. My best friend is a woman.
I am a mama. I fully and completely identify with and embrace being a mother. Having children is truly, madly, deeply the most significant thing I have done in my life. Still, I have sincere worries about how women allow motherhood to define us, as people, as our whole life and being and worth (why else all the judging?), instead of simply as something we do partway through our lives. The Cult of Imperial Motherhood is not good for women. It is not good for men. And it is not good for our children. (I knew I’d get you with that last one.)
In fact, I would argue that Imperial Motherhood far more substantially and materially constructs social attitudes towards women than does Playboy (no one reads it anymore, anyway), strippers, Britney Spears, and all of them, combined. I submit to you that your child spends more time with you and watching you than she does pole dancers. She is learning from her mother that women take care of the house, that men are absent twits, that when she has children it will be all on her, and not to drink out of mommy’s water bottle because it is not water.
So…what happened to feminism? Where have all the feminists gone? I can draw you a map. We’re at the playground, judging mismatched socks, pre-packaged snacks and the tummy-tucks (actual, desired, or sorely needed) of other Imperial Mothers. We got tired, we stayed home, and we accidentally forgot to save the world.
With this in mind, here is my do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do advice to all of my imperial sisters: Take off the crown. Share the responsibilities and the joys. Allow men to be fully developed people and partners and parents. Be one yourself.
The revolution will be mothered. And fathered.Notes
This essay was, shall we say, ‘inspired’ by the works of others, most notably Madonna Kolbenschlag and Rebecca Traister. I borrowed the term Imperial Motherhood from Madonna Kolbenschlag’s Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye, in which she writes a letter from the perspective of a newly feminist wife to her husband:
If I give up my princess ways, will you give up your princedom? I know I will have to steel myself to accept the consequences. If you begin to take on more responsibility for home and children, I will have to sacrifice some of my matriarchal prerogatives there. If you begin to shed the “team” mystique at work, take a stand on sensitive issues, work fewer hours, I will have to bear with the consequences in loss of promotions, lower pay, job changes, whatever may come. I’ll have to bear with insecurity and loss of status without putting guilt on you. You’ll have to stop putting guilt on me for abandoning the “imperial motherhood” role in the home and the Girl Friday role in the office…”
This theme is echoed in Rebecca Traister’s “The Worst Parents inThe World“, in which she reviews Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities,and Occasional Moments of Grace, and Michael Lewis’ Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. Traister compares the two tales of stay-at-home parents, one male and one female. The common ground between both experiences leads her to hope that one day
“we will truly attend to the task of un-sexing parenting, of readjusting the definitions of our daily lives, so that baby care is no longer purely feminine, and moneymaking is no longer purely masculine, and those who cross over — whether they’re apologetic and guilty for both wanting just motherhood, and wanting more than just motherhood, like Waldman, or whether they’re vaguely embarrassed by the lengths to which they’ve traveled to be full partners in the raising of their kids — can stop kvetching about it and just go on doing it.”Amen.