Jenny Allen’s piece, “I’m a Mom” in The New Yorker is making fun of ‘The Angel In The House’ – the way in which mothers are put on a pedestal but once up there are too precious to dirty themselves with money and things like, workplace entitlements and divorce court settlement conditions – but eek, the article comes dangerously close to making fun of the mothers, themselves, who fall for the rhetoric. And while some of those women can be annoying they’re ultimately exploited by this rhetoric just like the rest of us.
You can sugarcoat that all you like, but Mrs. Romney chose not to, and I say good for her. Because, if you’re not a mom, you may not be a bad person, but you are an extraneous person. If there were something great about being a woman who is not a mom, something that added anything to America, if there were even one teeny-weeny example of how the non-moms hold America together the way moms do, Mrs. Romney would mention the childless gals. But she doesn’t, because there isn’t.
The article makes a very important point about the marginalising of women who are not mothers and the ways in which we render invisible their unpaid caring work and contributions to the community, but by the end of the piece Allen is cracking a joke about the over-involved mother. I can be prone to rolling my eyes at this mother, too, but I do so while relying upon a shitload of her free labour, that she pours into my kid’s school to make it all so super – no small effort when the school is one of those public, under-funded types – and I do this while being busy running off to my paid job. I think I probably give something back to this mother in other ways by fighting from within the system for mothers to be more visible and included in workplaces, but the point is we’re all enmeshed in this system that ultimately exploits mothers.
Allen’s piece is targeting the recent political use of this motherhood rhetoric in Michelle Obama’s and Ann Romney’s speeches. (The equivalent political slogan in Australia is the dreaded ‘working family’ – a term that can be just as annoying and divisive). In considering the debate around the sloganeering of mothers it is worth reading this interesting piece at Clutch Magazine – “A Black Mom-in-Chief is Revolutionary: What White Feminists Get Wrong about Michelle Obama” – because The Angel In The House was martyred but she was also white. The point Tami Winfrey Harris is making in her article is the same point some of you made in the comments on this post of mine – “How mothers are being positioned in Michelle Obama’s speech” – that is, that there is a fundamental difference between how white mothers have experienced and viewed the dangers of motherhood as compared to how black mothers have experienced and viewed the dangers of motherhood.
Consider this, white feminist motherhood has been preoccupied with how motherhood has trapped women whereas black feminist motherhood sees motherhood as a political act of resistance. This is because white mothers take preservation for granted in the dominant white culture. On the other hand, black mothers need to work hard to protect their children, teach their children how to protect themselves, ensure culture is passed on, and heal those around them who missed out on this kind of mothering. White mothers have a history of their lives being narrowed to the home and have consequently focused their fight on getting the choice to work outside the home, whereas black mothers, who were rarely able to indulge the question of whether to work or not, have instead been faced with a consistent struggle to have their femininity even recognised.
O’Reilly’s work ultimately led me to read much more of Toni Morrison’s work and I have talked about that all over the place on this blog (like, here and here and here and here), because the way Morrison defined motherhood as freedom was a profound insight for me. As I have previously discussed:
Even though my mothering, as a white mother, is not about preservation the way a black mother’s is there is something, still, that strikes a chord with me about the expression of motherhood as freedom. Black mothers and their feminist/womanist definitions of motherhood tap into a joy and liberation in the experience that white definitions frequently (but not always) miss. When American black mothers define motherhood they also tend to be more comfortable identifying the sense of ownership that can be fused with mothering. This is something white feminist mothers generally find difficult to acknowledge.