The absent baby in such discussions is matched by an equally absent mother in other public commentary. Feminist writer and ethicist Leslie Cannold is a case in point. She is a key public advocate promoting the removal of references to ‘maternity’ in discussions of family leave. In an article for the Melbourne Age entitled ‘Baby leave is not a women’s issue’– and in other interventions on this topic – Cannold argues that, in the interests of gender equity, the maternal should, once and for all, be written out of the leave equation.
Cannold promotes a conservative and conventional model of the contemporary family as dual-income and dual-carer that fits in perfectly with today’s workplaces. One parent is encouraged to take leave and look after the baby, so that the other can swiftly return to work. At first glance, this seems ideal – an important step towards emancipating women from an unequal care burden. Few would argue against the social, family and personal benefits of men accessing leave to better contribute to the care of their children. Dramatic shifts in conditions around employment and care are well overdue.
There are, however, problems with the model. It presents care as a transferable and marketable commodity, further marginalising questions about the impact different forms may have on those who depend on care the most (in this case, babies). It also fails to challenge work-practices that demand impossibly long working hours, and measurements of performance that ultimately devalue children and caring responsibilities.
Moreover, as an example of a dominant strand of feminism in Australia, the gender-equity paradigm is paradoxically de-gendered. Indeed, Cannold argues for ‘the parenthood conundrum’ to be ‘articulated in gender-neutral ways’. This, however, taps into a productivist ethos entirely consistent with the demands of the neoliberal marketplace, with caregivers replaceable or interchangeable in much the same way as employees in workplaces. In addition, a feminism promoting gender neutrality (in the name of equality) denies the bodily experience of women after they have given birth. Though a boon to the productive workplace, the breast pump may not necessarily protect the emotional needs of women and babies. To deny that baby leave is a women’s issue, to decouple ‘maternity’ from ‘leave’, is also to conceal human vulnerability and dependence. It reproduces what Iris Young has called ‘the normalising but impossible ideal’ that we are autonomous, unencumbered self-sufficient individuals, somehow beyond human dependency.
While researching an article I am writing I came across this and so am only now catching up on a 2010 article by Australian academic, Julie Stephens, “The Industrialised Breast” at Overland. (My use of bold in the above). I recently properly discovered Stephens’ work – I think we met briefly at a conference once – and I am thoroughly enjoying her writing. I agree with Stephens’ scepticism about certain aspects of gender-neutral parenting.
These two ways of feminism approaching issues of maternity leave and mothers working outside the home more broadly, reflect a deeper split in feminism in coming to terms with motherhood. It’s no surprise this division is deep – it’s decades old. I’ve talked about that here before with “How to explain desire”, “The split” , “Let’s get something straight about maternity leave” and “Feminists, a little perspective please”.