Is modern motherhood oppressive?
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke once described their song “Fitter, Happier” as a checklist of slogans for the ’90s. If it was re-written for the modern mom, the checklist might look something like this (you’ll have to imagine the computerized voice on your own):
plenty of folic acid / prenatal vitamins / no negative thoughts or actions / regular exercise / eating well (plenty of protein and no more junk food) / no longer smokes or drinks / regular doctor visits / no prescription or over-the-counter drugs / sleeping well / stays away from microwaves / avoids caffeine / will not sit in hot tubs or clean the cat’s litter box / calm / no painkillers in childbirth / will breastfeed or pump (BPA-free bottles) / cloth diapers / make baby food at home (natural and organic) / concerned / one-on-one parent-to-baby contact (never watching television) / will not pass on bad habits / enjoy outdoor activities / plays an active role in baby’s learning process / patient (never raising your voice) / a good mother
According to French author and feminist, Elisabeth Batinder, this list (of which I’ve only scratched the surface) is part of a contemporary feminist movement that sees motherhood as women’s sole reason for being, and it prevents women from having lives outside of their children. She says:
‘Good motherhood’ imposes new duties that weigh heavily on those who do not keep to them. It contravenes the model we have worked for until now [and] which makes equality of the sexes impossible and women’s freedom irrelevant. It is a step backwards.
Batinder’s views on modern motherhood have drawn fierce criticism from ecologists, contemporary feminists, pediatricians and breastfeeding activists – all of whom she blames for adding items to the ‘good mom’ checklist. Her critics claim she is out of touch with today’s women, who seek fulfillment in both their careers AND motherhood.
It’s easy to be distracted by Batinder’s statements about smoking and drinking while pregnant, or shipping your children off to boarding school, but I know several new moms who identify with Batinder’s broader point about the struggle to find a balance between being a mother and a woman. These women want to make healthy choices for their babies, but the pressure to be supermoms can be overwhelming and lead to feelings of guilt or failure. While I agree that many women want to have a career and a family, and so choose to wash diapers and cook organic vegetables, our ever-expanding checklists will inevitably force women to sacrifice one role or the other – or run ragged trying to do both. And, like Batinder, I worry that the women of tomorrow will stay at home.
So what will make it easier for modern mothers to find balance? Instead of switching to powdered milk and disposable diapers, as Batinder advocates, I think the answer lies in asking dads to take on a larger share of that checklist. After all, men are perfectly capable of washing diapers and making baby food – breastfeeding is just about the only thing they can’t do.
You can be a good mother and a woman too, but you need support. And while the meaning of fatherhood is changing, men and women still need to be encouraged to share childcare responsibilities. It doesn’t mean that every couple should share responsibilities in exactly the same way, or that the division of labour can’t change over time, but dividing up that checklist will give both parents time to be people too.