disheartened with motherhood— not the work of it
but the rhetoric surrounding it, particularly with the notion of choice.
I grew up watching my
mother struggle to earn enough money to buy groceries and keep a
roof over our head. We spent many summers camping out—not
because we were outdoor enthusiasts. My mother could not afford
to pay the rent. Hard lessons accompanied these early experiences.
I decided, at a young age, that I would never depend on anyone else
for financial security, and I would earn enough money to live in
comfort. That said, it is important to mention that as a white female
from a well-educated family with a certain degree of cultural capital,
I could afford such resolve. Dwelling for periods of time in what
was then referred to as the ‘projects’ (low-income neighborhoods),
I was aware of the (dis)advantages associated with skin color and
and graduate school, I worked hard to establish and advance my career.
I never thought of work as a choice, until I became pregnant at
the age of 36. While I was on maternity leave, my position—one
I loved and hated—was ‘eliminated.’ Towards the
end of my leave, senior management suggested I come in for a meeting
regarding my return to work. Using expressions such as “you
are a valuable member of the team, we hope you look at this as an
opportunity to explore new career avenues within the organization,”
and “your future is bright,” senior management explained
that my position had been eliminated. They assured me that a woman
with my credentials had numerous opportunities within the organization—many
with fewer hours and less responsibility but with more flexibility.
The subtext of their message was clear: We are bound by law
to offer you another position, but in all likelihood you will choose
to resign because what we are proposing is unattractive. Of course,
if you can not afford to resign, then that also works for us - it
gives us the added benefit of filling a less desirable job with
a proven and capable employee.
As I sat in their office,
peering into their smiling faces, I was flabbergasted by their impudence.
As a new mother, I may have appeared a bit ‘out of it’
but they must have imagined I had a lobotomy while I was on maternity
leave. I sat through one hour of ridiculous wordplay, said almost
nothing, managed to stand up at the end of the meeting, shook their
hands, and walked out without exploding. I smiled and said, “I
will get back to you. Could you please send a letter outlining the
details of your offer?”
Shocked and angry, I
returned home. Needless to say, I consulted an attorney and sorted
out my options. Yet, despite the unscrupulous treatment, a part
of me was relieved. Prior to maternity leave, I was working full-time
as the Clinical Director of a large mental health treatment program
and I was a doctorate student in the department of sociology. Although,
I knew that I had to ‘lighten my load’ I chose the path
of least resistance, denial. With a new baby, it was easy to do.
They saved me the grief of making a difficult decision and the guilt
of deserting my colleagues. However, I could afford a philosophical
perspective. For the first time in my life, I did not need to earn
a living. I had the luxury of choice.
In the weeks that followed,
I brooded over matters of motherhood, security, and choice. My ruminations
were not in relation to my own circumstances. I thought about what
this experience would have been like for a woman without choices.
How would this experience feel for a woman who could not afford
to lose her job?
I know from my own experiences
that for many mothers the notion of ‘choice’
is a luxury—not a moral prerogative. The media, political
pundits, religious zealots, and many women (in particular single-minded
journalists) and men of privilege have misappropriated and exploited
the notion of choice. Choice is for women with
social, cultural, and economic capital—in general, white,
heterosexual women. The discourse of choice is not about women’s
empowerment or advancement—it neglects those lacking both.
Yet, many feminists and academics engage in duplicitous debates
regarding motherhood and choice. Railing against the journalists
and writers that exploit the notion of choice serves to legitimate
and perpetuate these self-serving debates.
We must recognize these
debates for what they are—an intra-class war between white
women of privilege. Which is why mothers who are single, of color,
lesbian, bi-sexual, transsexual, working-class or those scrambling
to maintain a middle-class existence pay little attention to these
disputes. With neither the time nor emotional energy, why would
they mull over disputes that ignore the realities of their lives?
The rhetoric and ideals
of motherhood are steeped within historical and contemporary forms
of domination—colonialism, imperialism, slavery, patriarchy,
racism, capitalism, consumerism, and globalization. Engaging in
discussions surrounding the rhetoric of motherhood directs us to
ignore these relationships of power. It instructs us to negate the
realities of mother’s experiences, in particular, those of
color. It obscures the artificial dichotomies between the public
and private sphere. It also conditions us to live within the confines
of stereotypes that alienate us from each other, ourselves and the
experiences of motherhood. The notion of choice and its
corollaries is detrimental to the liberation of all women.
Our respective social
positions do create differences between us but they have less to
do with our value-systems or approaches and preferences to mothering
than to relationships of power. But, we can effect change. To start
with, we can refuse to participate in debates that minister to the
safeguarding of privilege. Rather than engaging in protracted arguments
across elite periodicals (such as The New Yorker and Atlantic
Monthly), we should turn our attention toward paid maternity
leave, subsidized daycare, domestic violence, work-place flexibility,
welfare and healthcare benefits, and financial assistance for secondary
education. To gain the respect, support, and power mother’s
deserve we need to foster it from within, among ourselves.
Mothers have political,
economic, and social power. But, we have yet to tap into it as a
collective force. If we are devoid of power, the maternal terrain
would not be a contested site. Our nation depends upon mothering
to advance its economic, social, and cultural interests both by
raising subsequent generations and providing unpaid labor. By channeling
our ambivalences, fears, guilt, vulnerabilities, and rage towards
the inequalities permeating the maternal terrain we can move ahead.
Janna Malamud Smith,
the author of A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear,
suggests that we embrace the idea of the “free mother,”
a mother who is free to make choices because she has sufficient
financial, social, emotional, and cultural security. The realization
of a “free mother” is possible; it requires reconfiguring
the notion of choice— to nurture equality over privilege.
mmo : september 2004