Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Blog

Why Motherhood is Intensely Political

Elaine Glaser


Echo Grid

| 8 mins read

In 1970, the British Women’s Liberation Movement held its first conference at Ruskin College in Oxford. Among its four key demands were free twenty-four-hour nurseries. Better childcare provision was ‘an absolutely urgent need’, declared the American National Organisation for Women (NOW) in 1969. From breakfast programmes to mass meal preparation, volunteer-run nurseries to experiments in communal living, second wave feminists in the UK, US and beyond lobbied for mothers to be properly supported – practically, emotionally, and financially. Selma James founded the Wages for Housework campaign and Arlie Hochschild highlighted the working mother’s domestic ‘second shift’.

Yet now, despite decades of further social progress, motherhood has become a curiously politics-free zone. Schoolgirls are encouraged in rallying careers presentations to reach for the stars, and young women enthusiastically sign up to the principles of #metoo; but when they have a baby, all that youthful idealism seems to go out the window. A traumatic birth, a difficult first few weeks or an attritional childcare imbalance between partners too often produces a kind of sober realism, a seemingly inexorable renunciation of ‘the old life’.

Progress for mothers has stalled or gone into reverse

In many ways, where motherhood is concerned, progress has either stalled or gone into reverse. Until the mid-twentieth century, standard postnatal care would involve a ten-day stay in hospital with the newborn taken to the nursery at night to allow its mother to rest. But this practice of ‘lying in’ has given way to new mothers being discharged as soon as possible to fend for themselves at home. Extended family and community networks have broken down. Childcare has become privatised and unaffordable.

Before perfectionist attitudes set in towards the end of the twentieth century, childcare experts used to openly acknowledge the reality of maternal ambivalence: in a 1949 essay, the psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott explained that of course every mother ‘hates her infant from the word go’: after all, he ‘treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave’.

Contrary to common assumptions about women being increasingly liberated, mothers spend more time with their children now than they did fifty years ago. The pandemic has increased domestic loads and isolated mothers still further: one interviewee told researchers exploring the effects of lockdowns on family life: ‘I feel like a 1950s housewife’.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that in the UK, half of all mothers develop a mental health problem before or after birth; up to 15 per cent develop post-natal depression. Suicide is the leading cause of death for mothers during their baby’s first year. Research for the Red Cross and the Co-op in 2016 found that nearly half of mothers under 30 feel lonely often or all the time. Fewer than seven per cent of couples, according to a 2019 study from University College London, split childcare and housework equally. Most mothers work part time, where pay is lower and prospects for promotion are reduced by more than half. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average mother ends up being paid a third less than a man.

So what are the obstacles in the way of mothers making collective demands? First, a well-meaning movement to promote the wellbeing and rights of children has resulted inadvertently in a false zero sum game in which the needs of mothers are regarded almost as below consideration; simply acknowledging them is read as selfish. Second, in an era of fewer children and widely publicised fertility struggles, women feel fortunate to have children at all: many, therefore, don’t feel entitled to complain. And third, stuck at home and silenced by the anxious competitiveness of our social-media-scrutinised, global-competitive world, mothers are prevented from joining the dots. Yet their troubles are the result not of their own failings, but of structural problems in the way society organises (or rather fails to organise) child-rearing – and are therefore almost universal.

Why motherhood is political

While mothers are not meant to politicise their plight, motherhood itself is intensely, yet covertly, politicised.

Groaning shelves of baby manuals and busy internet message boards provide the impression of a marketplace of competing ideas: natural versus medicalised birth, breast versus bottle, feeding on demand or by the clock, parent-facing or forward-facing buggies. But choices are not free when ‘natural’ motherhood is valorised by society. The ‘natural’ approach – breastfeeding for one or even two years, baby-led weaning, co-sleeping, washable nappies – is in fact an elite, Western concept that imposes a heavy burden on mothers, particularly if they also wish to pursue a life outside the home.

After all, if motherhood is purely ‘natural’, why has it varied so widely across time and geographical space?

From Soviet propaganda claiming that Pavlovian conditioning renders childbirth painless to the American Christian breastfeeding movement, La Leche League, parenting is driven by ideological agendas and cultural norms. Norwegian parents put their babies out for naps in the freezing cold: they apparently sleep better. Spanish children stay up late, and Italian pre-teens drink wine with their meals. Japanese parents let seven-year-olds ride the underground by themselves.

Yet since child-rearing is now presumed to be a timeless, universal constant, determined by maternal instinct, mothers are prevented from questioning societal expectations and lobbying for better treatment.

Neoconservatism – a political movement – has eroded collective responsibility for raising children, devolving it onto the shoulders of individual mothers. But this is disavowed as an ideological decision as the domestic sphere is regarded as purely private. The ubiquitous rhetoric of choice – for example to ‘go out to work’ or ‘stay at home’ – obscures the structural barriers that constrain mothers’ freedom and fulfilment.

Solutions are within reach

It is time for mothers to rise up and assert that the principle of equality should not end when women have children. This means challenging punitive, paternalistic attitudes and debunking prevailing myths about women alone being the rightful primary carers. We must support new mothers, normalising imperfection and fostering comradeship, tolerance and acceptance. At a time when the pandemic is prompting a rethink of the way we work, we should strengthen calls for flexible working and – even better – a four-day week for both women and men.

Solutions are within reach – such as a tax on wealth to fund a first-class state childcare service – but only if we recognise that raising the next generation is the responsibility of mothers, fathers, and society at large. Motherhood is political.

Motherhood: A Manifesto, by Eliane Glaser, is published by Fourth Estate (2021). 

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    Elaine Glaser

    Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, an associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and a BBC radio producer.

    Articles by Elaine Glaser