Poking the hornet’s nest: Parenting, the rhetoric of maternal sacrifice, and whether the choice is really a choice

An idea has arisen in the last several years, stating that whatever choice a woman makes is a feminist choice, because a woman made it and it therefore should not be subject to closer examination.

When is a choice not a choice?

An increasing number of people in my life have, of late, gone the path of marriage and children. Both of these events are subject to an extremely specific narrative. When everything and everyone around you is assuming you subscribe to and agree with that narrative, is modelling it themselves, is it truly a choice when one ends up following the consensus?

The narrative surrounding children and childcare is particularly loud, exerting stunning pressure. Everyone loves to talk about babies. Women are expected to be baby-crazy from their own infancy on up, and motherhood is correspondingly spoken of as natural and instinctive. There’s a right time to have kids (when you’re young), and a wrong time to have kids (when you’re over 35, bring out the autism/Down’s syndrome/infertility scares). Women who opt in are selfless paragons of femininity, women who opt out are selfish and unfeminine, and all manner of abuse can be heaped on the woman who gets pregnant and isn’t prepared or able to carry it to term.

As a society, we’ve gotten better about the pre-pregnancy part. Between access to higher education, access to birth control, the right to a safe, legal abortion, and conversely, access to fertility treatments, Canadians have been able to exert some respectable control over their reproductive years. It’s now unusual to have large families, and many don’t begin having children until their 30s, if they decide to at all. The pressure is still there, but attitudes have shifted enough toward acceptance of delayed childbearing that it can be deflected.

After the birth is an entirely different matter.

Some of it is in the messages new mothers are bombarded with. Motherhood is constructed as the greatest good a woman can do. Breast is best. A mother is the only one who can adequately care for their children, and mothers who work are missing out. You don’t want someone else raising your children, do you? If you work, your paycheque is going to be eaten up by daycare anyway. Devote your life, or be judged as a failure of womanhood. Added together, mothers are painted as the primary caregivers in two-parent, hetero families. As a direct result, they are still the ones most likely to cut back their work hours or quit entirely.

Some of it is the messages aimed at fathers. Diaper companies advertise that their product can hold up even in the face of clueless paternal care. Fathers caring for their children are dismissed as inept babysitters, just holding down the fort until the ‘real’ parent gets home. Men are still expected to put in long hours at the office, with the subtext that a female partner is taking care of things at home. If he makes his family a priority, his masculinity is suddenly suspect. The pushback against stay-at-home dads is in no small part because nurturing is coded as a feminine trait.

This is how the heteronormative nuclear paradigm is perpetuated. She’s the domestic goddess, blissfully happy between four walls with the pitter-pat of tiny feet. He’s the breadwinner, selflessly putting in overtime and climbing the corporate ladder to keep them in style, secure in the knowledge that she’s taking care of the rest.

Never mind that this is a myth. It only ever existed in practice in a narrow slice of time, in a narrow slice of society, in a tremendously specific culture. In the 1950s, as now, not every family that subscribed to the ideal could afford a single income, and defining work as paid labour is misleading when examining the actual roles of women. The concept was inherited from the Victorians’ equally fictitious and classist ‘Angel of the House’ and ‘separate spheres’ gender role division. The housewife/breadwinner paradigm is a one-size-fits-all codified as an ideal while everyone quietly ignores how it’s shrunk in the wash.

It’s not reasonable to expect one half of a relationship to disproportionately sacrifice for the other, whether to care for their children or prioritize one person’s career. Children are a joint responsibility, and work/life balance is not an issue burdening women alone.

Why are so many women accepting that it’s their job to give it all up in the name of family? Why childcare still understood as primarily the mother’s job? Where are the fathers angry at the roadblocks to them being fully involved parents?

Why do we still assume it takes a married mother and father to raise a child? Where is the recognition of the role of alloparenting in a child’s life? Where are the single parents, the unmarried parents, the LGBT parents, the non-nuclear families?

Why does a society reliant on its citizens having children to perpetuate itself pretend the having and raising of those children is an individual responsibility?

Start asking questions, and don’t let up. Tradition doesn’t equate with the best interests of parent or child, and research studies are just as affected by biases as the unsolicited advice from the person behind you in the grocery store lineup.

Figure out where the biases lie, decide for yourself what’s best for you and your family, and don’t be afraid to stand up for it.

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4 thoughts on “Poking the hornet’s nest: Parenting, the rhetoric of maternal sacrifice, and whether the choice is really a choice

  1. Great post & not just because you link to my website. When figuring out where the bias lives, I say examine oneself, first. It is/was within myself that I discovered the deepest bias against women, once I had become a mother. Stereotypical & hackneyed jokes about men & their short emotional leases; an unsupported belief that women, including me, we’re better suited to parenthood simply by virtue of their sex. I awakened to my own sexism slowly – most decidedly on the day I found myself wishing for “a wife”! The examination of friends in same-sex couplings with kids pushed me further to acknowledge that our abilities may be pronounced in caring and rearing through cultural conditioning — but they bore no inherent relation to our sex.

    • Amy D. says:

      Thanks very much for your insights, frontseatfollies! I agree fully that taking a look at oneself is a hugely important step to sorting out the biases. At the same time, it’s tricky when we’re told from the time we’re small that so many things are hardwired, regardless of how we actually perceive ourselves. It’s not easy to take that step from thinking there’s something wrong with oneself to realizing that maybe, just maybe, the problem is actually with the message. I can’t claim the direct experience of being a parent myself, so it’s great to hear from someone who does have that perspective!

      • Thanks Amy! I didn’t realize I was identified as my not-used WordPress identity, FrontSeatFollies (a blog I meant to start, but didn’t). I’m Lisa Duggan, publisher of The Parent du Jour, and you connected to our post about the At-Home Dad Network’s petition.
        You’re absolutely right — it’s very difficult to separate what we’ve been told to expect about ourselves as women, and what is true for us individually. That, I believe is the heart of the “mommy-wars”; we’re confused and we project our confusion and heartache on one another.

        You’re an astute writer; what’s your day job? And how did you come across our post? I just assumed you were a friend of the site.

        • Amy D. says:

          Hello, Lisa! That explains a lot – I’d been wondering which link it was. I’m not a reader of the site, but I recall being linked to the petition a while back in relation to the US government’s categorization of fathers; it stuck with me. In this day and age it shouldn’t be radical to suggest that male parents are more than just babysitters, and it’s distressing that they’re being sold short in that way. I believe in egalitarian parenting, and should my partner and I choose to have children, I would like for him to have more support than that for his capabilities.

          Regarding jobs, I’ve returned to university as a grad student, and am now in the process of wrapping up an MA thesis as a Digital Humanist. This blog is something I do on the side to work out ideas when I get a bug in my ear.

          Thanks again for your kind words!

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