‘I loved motherhood. Where does that leave my feminism?’
Until we create new dialogues about motherhood, feminism will keep hitting walls, argues Elske Rahill
Elske Rahill with her son Phoenix when he was one.
“I’m never going to have children,” is something I used to state defiantly to anyone who dared assume otherwise. As a teenager, that seemed like the best way to avoid the slavish kind of womanhood that loomed on my horizon. All I saw of motherhood was frustration, resentment, projection, martyrdom and an intense preoccupation with buying things.
The mothers I knew competed about what time they got up in the morning and how often they changed the bedlinen. They tut-tutted about “latchkey kids”, “broken homes” and only children. I wanted to be a person, and that seemed entirely incompatible with motherhood.
Baby or bathwater?
I was born in the 1980s, 20 years after second-wave feminism started to spread across the western world. The movement is famous for its powerful campaigns for women’s reproductive rights and access to the workplace. In some regions, these campaigns helped legalise abortion and put more women in white-collar jobs; in Ireland, hard-fought battles won at first limited access to condoms, and an end to the marriage bar.
For me, feminism meant more than not relying on marriage and babies for an identity – it meant denigrating those things entirely. The seminal texts from that time – Germaine Greer’s famous The Female Eunuch, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique – wrote against a world of prescriptive womanhood, where every woman was expected to find full satisfaction in the role of mother and wife. In The Female Eunuch, Greer denied the very existence of maternal love, and in The Feminine Mystique, mother-of-three Friedan depicted motherhood as a wasted existence, filled with trivialities, “in lieu of more meaningful goals”. Her solution to this meaninglessness was for women to find a fuller identity through commercial work and public participation.
I loved motherhood. Childbirth was genuinely and surprisingly wonderful, taking care of an infant extremely and undeniably fulfilling. Where did this leave my feminism?
The more radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, saw maternity as the natural reason for women’s oppression. “The joy of giving birth,” she said, “is a patriarchal myth.” She found motherhood deeply unpleasant, and believed that “nothing will change for women as long as natural reproduction remains the rule”.
These were the women I looked up to, and, until I became a mother myself, their perspective resonated with my own observations. As for literature, the Irish writers of the 1980s and 1990s – Edna O’Brien, Claire Boylan, Molly Keane, etc – seemed to warn against the dangers of all-consuming motherhood. For their characters, freedom meant breaking away from their own mothers and grandmothers, and rejecting a life constricted by motherhood.
There was more to it than that, of course. Stars in the Daytime by Evelyn Conlon ends with its protagonist, a single mother, striving for “some sort of women’s truth that could be stitched together with what was already there to make a whole truth”. But that was the part I didn’t hear. I had no notion of a positive “women’s truth” that could include the act of mothering.
As it turned out, I became a mother younger than my peers. I was a single, student mother. In a way, that meant I escaped the traditional married-with-children life I had so feared. The thing is that while I had moments of panic (“Am I still myself? Can I still think?”) I loved motherhood. For me, childbirth was genuinely and surprisingly wonderful, and taking care of an infant turned out to be extremely and undeniably fulfilling. Where did this leave my feminism?
Well, I still didn’t like the way motherhood was understood in our society. I didn’t like the way I became public property when I was pregnant – mauled and interrogated by strangers (“What age are you?”… “I take it that wasn’t planned” …”Let’s have a feel”). I did not like being infantilised and silenced during my labour (“Now please don’t curse, chicken. You’re nearly a mum, keep your dignity”), the way I was expected to feel guilty for continuing university, the way it was assumed that my life had been horribly compromised by my child, and my child’s life polluted by my singlehood; that any interest I might have outside child-rearing was a mark of bad mothering.
A man in a suit was sitting in the wheelchair space. I asked him if I could sit down to feed my baby. His lip curled and he said, 'I’m not getting up for the likes of you'
The thing that hurt the most was when older women – one-time role models who would certainly have called themselves feminists – suddenly belittled my experience. An older writer (not a mother) volunteered the wisdom that I was imagining my child’s primary attachment and I was silly not to send him to a creche I didn’t like. “The baby doesn’t know any better,” she said, “that’s all in your head. You really need to get over that nonsense.”
Nor was my motherhood venerated by the more conservative-minded. I will never forget standing on the bus holding my three-month-old baby, who was screaming for a feed.
A man in a suit was sitting in the wheelchair space. I asked him if I could sit down to feed my baby. His lip curled and he said, “I’m not getting up for the likes of you.”
'Ain’t I a woman?'
Later that same day, and quite by coincidence, a middle-aged woman sat down beside me on a park bench. The baby was asleep in the buggy. We got talking. She said, “The man’s world tells you that once you’re a mother you are crippled, but you’re not. You can do everything you could before, and more.”
I suddenly felt that I could love mothering and still resist the institution of motherhood. I began to seek out feminist writings on motherhood, and discovered that it was, in fact, a hotly debated topic. Women such as Adrienne Rich wrote about recovering mothering from patriarchal ideology, and the New French Feminists called for a positive re-understanding of the maternal body. But these were not the ideas I had heard about growing up.
The second wave has been criticised as a white, middle-class and predominantly heterosexual movement, focusing on participation in an individualist, capitalist economy. Now, the third wave has gone some way to include queer feminism, global feminism, transfeminism, womanism in the agenda … can we build a motherhood feminism too?
Not all women are mothers. Not all women want to be mothers. Not all women can be mothers. But many of us are, and all of us have come from a womb. As long as we denigrate maternity, we are denigrating women.
- Elske Rahill’s latest book is In White Ink, published in Ireland by Lilliput and in Britain by Head of Zeus