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Let’s Talk About Mothers and Choices

By Shawna Goodrich

Choice is for women with social, cultural, and economic capital. The discourse of choice is not about women’s empowerment or advancement— it neglects those lacking both.

I am 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 family background.

Following university 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

Shawna Goodrich lives on an island outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a writer and mother of two.

Also of interest:

MMO interview with Rickie Solinger, author of Beggars and Choosers

MMO interview with Janna Malamud Smith

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