The word “Feminism” is a popular and also contentious word, with many women of diverse opinions and outlooks claiming the term. As Women Speak for Themselves have clearly stated again and again, no one speaks for all women on any issue, particularly “women’s issues”. (Though I always say that women’s issues are everyone’s issues.) It is always shocking to me, however, when I hear a woman who claims feminism denigrating motherhood and care-giving.
Among the many unfortunate legacies of Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, it seems her anti-woman view of motherhood has inserted itself into the culture and has perhaps become the norm. In Sanger’s first book, she wrote:
It goes without saying that this woman [a mother of a large family] loses also all opportunity of personal expression outside her home. She has neither a chance to develop social qualities nor to indulge in social pleasures. The feminine element in her–that spirit which blossoms forth now and then in women free from such burdens–cannot assert itself. She can contribute nothing to the wellbeing of the community. She is a breeding machine and a drudge–she is not an asset but a liability to her neighborhood, to her class, to society. She can be nothing as long as she is denied means of limiting her family.
Is this sentiment at the root of the disrespectful comments that large families receive?
When I hear motherhood denigrated, I think of the poem My Mother and I Had a Discussion One Day by the former Wisconsin Poet Laureate, Denise Sweet. I had the pleasure of hearing her recite it at an event at my alma mater. The last stanza of the poem reads:
My mother and I had a discussion one day
and she said why do you want to leave
this house, it is a fine house?
and I said I didn’t think there was much of a market
for a nosewiper, a kitchen keeper,
an under the bed sweeper
and she said my smart mouth
would get me in trouble one day
and I looked at her scarred knuckles
and quivering chin and realized
that I had spit in the face
of a thousand thousand women and I wept
with my mother
When Sweet read, “and realized that I had spit in the face of a thousand thousand women” she looked sorrowful, and though the incident had probably taken place years before, I could see that she still felt remorseful about it. Of course Sweet was right. It wasn’t a feminist thing to do to tear down the work that women have dedicated much of their lives to for thousands upon thousands of years, and the work that thousands upon thousands of women still do today.
Perhaps this is something that I, too, have been guilty of, especially when I was far removed from motherhood and spent my days in the world of academia. I mean, of course motherhood was important, but wasn’t it also full of drudgery? Wasn’t it also mind-numbing? Shortly after I graduated from college and entered the world of motherhood it took me some time to get my bearings. It took me time to figure out who I was and why I mattered even if i wasn’t studying heady subjects and receiving A’s for my papers. Instead, my husband and I were living in poverty while he finished college and I worked as a temp at different places and did waitressing. Eventually it taught me the greatest lesson I have learned thus far in my life: I don’t earn my worth. It doesn’t matter if I’m smart, if I’m an academic, if I’m achieving what other people consider to be a successful life, or if I achieve no worldly success. I’m valuable simply because I am. There is nothing people do to earn their worth, and there is no mistake they can make that can take it away. It gave me a lot of freedom to know this.
It is sort of an odd thing that through the social sciences, today we are perhaps in a position to know better than ever the importance of motherhood, and the importance of the parent-child bond. The State knows the monetary cost of dealing with droves of broken people. Yet, there still exists the mentality that motherhood is pure drudgery. Though there is lip-service given to the task of caregiving, I’m not sure there is much genuine gratitude for the service women give society. Although we are all here because a woman said yes to bearing us, rather than honoring women for their sacrifice, women are often punished for their gift. Why else would the face of poverty be women with children? Some seem to honor motherhood by touting its extreme importance, but then insist that she be excluded from contributing anything else to society. They say she must stay home and sacrifice all other skills, dreams, and gifts — in effect punishing her for her gift of giving life rather than thanking her for it.
The task of caring for young children, most often performed primarily by women, is a challenging task. It involves great time, attention, presence of mind, foresight, tenderness, patience, ingenuity, practicality, and creativity. The difficulty of the task is compounded when one is regularly expected to undertake such a task without help, without break, in more isolation than any previous generation, at the sacrifice of pursuing other passions and dreams, and while enduring cultural scorn and dread — being seen as a “breeding machine and a drudge” rather than as a person with the same capacities, intellect, and talent that she has always had.
Let us recognize all the gifts that women share with our culture, their gifts of life-giving, of care-giving, and whatever skills and intellectual gifts they contribute. Let us give women the full respect of their personhood. May we give caregivers the breaks and support that they need, and the opportunity to exercise the full range of their gifts.
Poem: Denise Sweet, “My Mother and I Had a Discussion One Day” Songs for Discharming. (Greenfield Review Press, 1997) http://www.amazon.com/dp/091267895X/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=2P4IMH4WX54LP&coliid=IA96R2WLU3JNO
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