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By Lucia Valeska
“What I have to say about women and childraising is harsh. I know of no other way to get the message across, so mucked up we are in fear, myth, romance and historical ignorance of the world’s oldest and most significant female vocation–motherhood. The harshness comes from a sense of urgency. Unless we untangle the real features of childraising, the feminist movement will fail to jump its most difficult hurdle.
Three years ago in the midst of the contemporary lesbian rebellion, as a mother I turned to my lesbian sisters and said: ‘Mothers will be next and lesbians will look like silly putty in comparison.’ Mothers outweigh us in numbers, rage and immobility. When they strike we will come up with them or they will take us down. That is how I felt. Two years later in an impatient surge toward individual liberation I gave up custody of my three children. As a result, I am a mother and then again I am not. Non-mothers or the childfree measure their words in my presence, and since I’ve felt the fold, most mothers find me fundamentally suspect. But the view from renegade bridge is enlightening.
I see three distinct but occasionally overlapping political campaigns: 1) The childraisers, 2) The children, and 3)The childless or the childfree. These camps share a common oppression but they are also in direct conflict with one another. Each situation carries a series of contradictions and concomitant ambivalencies, complicated by the separate realities of sex, race and traditional class divisions. The job of untangling the conflicts, of forging a common struggle is nearly beyond comprehension, but we must start digging somewhere.
Mothers are not the only childraisers. Included in this group are lovers, housekeepers, babysitters, nursery, elementary and secondary school teachers, communal mothers, relatives, friends, feminist aids, and an occasional father. There are what can be broadly defined as primary and secondary childraisers with much variety and several degrees in between. A primary childraiser is the primary source of emotional and economic support for her children. The secondary childraiser is only one of a group of people who is economically and emotionally responsible for the children.
Whether you are a primary or secondary childraiser and what else you do with your time makes a big difference. The myth tells us simply that you are a mother or you are not. But the facts cast the deciding vote, especially regarding the strength or poverty of the self image you derive from childraising. Ethel Kennedy affords a ready illustration. Tennis, horseback riding, golf, a huge houseful or surrogates and the Washington cocktail circuit can uniquely influence the self concept of your basic mother of eleven. The single mother who works a nine hour shift in order to support her four children will have a different self image. What we do well tends to create a solid self concept. What we do poorly results in the opposite. How well we do anything directly depends on the economic and social environment in which we do it. The crunch in childraising comes when you realize that poor mothering and faulty childcare are currently built-in givens in the North American social and economic system.
Specific signs of decay are readily apparent. Te beging with, we are all familiar with the dreaded question: “And what do you do?” (a) “I’m a mother” (b) “I’m a lawyer” or (c) “I’m a pig farmer.” As a mother I was always tempted to answer with ‘c’ because there are some interesting historical parallels. The primary difference boils down to the fact that pig farming went out a little earlier than motherhood and so you pick up an extra point or two on its antique value. Not even the middle class American supermom with the greatest resources at her private command can beat the inevitable failure. As the feminist movement legitimizes rebellion, supermom after supermom throws in the towel of her discontent and as often as not returns to school.
If being with children is a joy why aren’t we fighting harder for the privilege? Why it is when you ask for childcare volunteers everybody in the room contemplates their boot laces? Why is it the mothers and a handful of political stalwarts are inevitably left with the job of consciousness raising (children are human beings too) and organizing childcare for meetings, jobs, community, wherever.
The signs are real. The message is clear. If you’re looking for a solid self, don’t be a mother, or an elementary school teacher, or a childcare center aid at all. Since failure is built into childraising in our society, there is no such thing as a good mother and no such thing as a good self concept emerging from this work. The situation goes beyond the sole dictates of male supremacy. It has nothing whatever to do with any individual childraiser’s advanced skill at maneuvering. There are a number of ingenuous, if partial, escape routes that the more privileged work out for themselves. But there you go; it is an escape–something to get away from. That something transcends good or bad mothering. What is it?
The Changing Economy of Motherhood
Early one morning everybody in the world woke up and decided in unison to hate children. Hence the cure: we all wake up tomorrow morning and decide to love children. Stripped of its rational facade this is the kind of solution which too often prevails. Many contemporary writers (Jill Johnston, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Jane Alpert) talk of returning to the good old days when children were ‘integrated’ into adult society, when they were treated as ‘small adults’ and were a constant presence in the daily life of the community. It’s not a bad idea. We could gather up all the children and go marching through the factories, business offices, medical schools, cocktail lounges, libraries, college administrations, board meetings, nuclear laboratories, saying: “Here’s three for you and three for you and three four you; keep them safe, happy and intelligent; we’ll be back for them in 25 years.”
The description of an integrated society these writers present resembles an historical truth, which in many parts of the world still prevails.But is it the entire social, technological and economic fabric of these period and places that makes the integration of children a viable reality. Many of these integrated children vitally contribute to the economic life of the community: they work from sun-up to sun-down. But most significantly, their relationship to their mothers is relatively casual.
In any economic setting with an extended family, the mother’s relationship to her children is automatically secondary. That is, the children will be raised and economically supported by a group of people which the biological mother is simply one member. This is generally true for all classes, races and cultures.
The economic settings which maintain a secondary relationship between the mothers and children cover an enormous range and variety in life style. They include nomadic communal gathering and hunting people, agrarian societies, feudal societies and early industrial societies. Since these economic forms have prevailed for most of human history, many of the contemporary expressions of motherhood are outgrowths of an economic existence which is now obsolete in most parts of the U.S.A and generally in any advanced industrial setting.
Here’s the ideal: the nuclear family is the result of an economic system which has come to depend upon small, tight, economically autonomous, mobile units. It is essential to capitalism because it not only meets the peculiar production needs of our economy but also fits the requirement of capitalistic consumption. Thus the ideal nuclear family boasts one producer and several *but not too many lest the labor force explode) consumers. It is a middle class ideal and the norm held out for all classes. Even though the working class family rarely achieves the ideal, it too believes this s the way life is supposed to be. In the “good” family, the man “works,” the woman is wife, mother and homemaker.
The nuclear family provided stable units for the advanced industrial state for a number of years. Now, the very mobility it arose to feed is turning around and killing it. The means of stabilizing and sustaining the old family have progressively disintegrated: neighborhoods, churches, ministers, relatives, etc. New institutional buffers have taken their place: T.V., psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, family counselors, school counselors, and a huge educational system.
By keeping the nuclear family limping along, these adjustments have eased the new primary relationship between mothers and children. But short of total fascistic control (no divorce, no abortion, no children) the attempt is economically doomed. The U.S. government has failed to salvage an institution which served it well. The top-gap adjustments have not been sufficient. Psychiatrists no longer even attempt to “save” marriages: they help people through “transitions.” The divorce rate soars, giving the nation a new choice and women and children a new deal. Either the old nuclear provider supports two, three, r four families, which most men can’t or won’t afford, or middle class women join the labor force with unmatched vengeance. All this at a time when the number of jobs is rapidly shrinking.
Meanwhile back at the homestead, the children are waiting to go to school to make this new deal possible. For a mother of three that’s a minimal wait of nine years on diaper duty before she is free to look for “work.” Upon finding that job, she also finds she must be away from home for at least eight hours a day not including travel time. Mist children’s school days run two to four hours short of this requirement. Talk about credibility gaps, here we have a possibility gap. Welcome, ladies, to the working class.
But long ago, they moved middle class women out of the extended family, Mexican, Irish, Italian, Jewish neighborhood. Mother still lives in Pocatello, Aunt Jean is in an institution up in Rhode Island; so who will watch the kids? Arise the new childcare center: haphazard, unfunded, disorganized, and expensive. A college educated woman earns less than a male with two years of high school training. If you even find a job, do you grasp the size of the pay check coming in, minus the babysitting, childcare, groceries, moving, housing and medical costs? This is a framework for built-in failure.
Take a good look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue of motherhood. The term “childless” represent out society’s traditional perception of the situation. Since motherhood was the primary and often only route to social and economic well-being for women, having children was a material asset, and to be “childless” was historically negative. Indeed the term was often directly equated with “barrenness.” Few women were autonomous; survival depended on marrying and bearing children. No man wanted a barren woman. So under these circumstances no ‘sane’ woman chose not to have children. To be childless still carries a negative stigma even though the social and economic reality has drastically changed. Consequently the question, must we be childless, is loaded.
The tern “childfree” represents a new perception of reality in the U.S.A. Not only is motherhood no longer the only route to social and economic well-being, it has become a real detriment–a detriment which is clearly visible when a mother looks for a job, a place to live, babysitters or childcare, when ever she tries to take her children any place she goes.
Women must for the first time in herstory leave the nest in order to gain an identity and a living wage. Yet a mother cannot leave the nest because she is the children’s sole remaining legal, economic, and emotional representative. When children are barred from any productive role until they are 25 years old, it makes the job of representative ten fold what it was in the past. To be a good representative you must be economically solvent, have a solid self concept (gained elsewhere), and have a great deal of time on your hands.
On another level, the debate between “childless” and “childfree” is purely rhetorical. Clearly, with or without children, women are not free in our society. Even more important, as long as children exist it is a delusion to speak of being free of them. They are still all out there, impatiently clamoring for recognition and support.
Meanwhile the government takes its own stand. It has already paid farmers not to grow food and workers not to work past a certain magical age. It pays students not to join the labor force and fathers to stay away from home. Now the government is implicitly paying women not to have children. Ford will follow Nixon in refusing the necessary funds for childcare. Like Nixon he will call it “economizing and preserving the American family.” The new deal for children and mothers amounts to no deal at all. They are being forced into an economic and social transition which is doomed to failure from the start.
Consequences and Strategies
The situation portrayed presents distinct consequences and strategical possibilities for the three political camps: mothers, children, and the childfree. We must recognize the contemporary condition of women and children as a complex product of economic history. The problem is far more complicated than just the result of bad men in places of power. The grim fact that women in feminist collectives refuse to deal with the dilemma unless mothers literally put them up against the wall, is one indication that our situation is not a simple by-product of the ideology of male supremacy.
Think, In general the feminist movement has benefited its members. It has given them a collective identity which in turn has made them stronger as individuals. Women have given of themselves freely and deeply, in order to develop this new strength. OF course we’ve had our casualties, but in general the prize has been worth the cost. In the case of childraising the prize does not yet equal the cost. We reflect society’s perception that mothers, children, and childcare are expendable. The “expendability” is often expressed in statements such as: “Childcare is a reformist issue.” But this expendability of mothers and children is built on the economic system which controls all of us. ”
From Quest a feminist quarterly
“The SELFHOOD of WOMEN” vol. 1 no.3 Winter 1975
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