Reclaiming Feminist Motherhood
In 2003, _The New York Times Magazine _published “The Opt-Out Revolution,” by Lisa Belkin, a now nearly infamous contribution to the never-ending “mommy wars” collection of work. The cover story asserted that the nation’s most educated career women were “opting out” of their professional lives to become full-time stay-at-home moms. A revolution it was not—as the piece focused narrowly on select female Princeton University graduates and failed to document a real sea change in the landscape of American motherhood.
Yet seven months after its publication, feminist activist and writer Amy Richards attended a get-together with other feminist moms who couldn’t stop talking about the piece—despite the fact that their lives were, as Richards writes, the “living rebuttal” to Belkin’s claims. Richards - a founder of the Third Wave Foundation who cowrote two popular feminist works (Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism) - realized that these moms were devaluing their own realities and valuing another’s opinion simply because it was “codified in prestigious print.” Yet she also understood that there was a pressing need for real dialogue about one essential question: “What is feminism’s relationship to motherhood?”
Four years later, Richards answers the question in her latest book, Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself. The book is both her rebuttal to Belkin’s “Opt-Out Revolution” and her exploration of what it truly means to be a feminist mother. She examines feminism’s relationship to motherhood and asserts a philosophy of feminist parenting that values women’s individual, unique choices over any monolithic expert advice. Elevate Difference recently interviewed Richards, who lives in New York City with her partner and two sons, about her latest work.
Opting In addresses the divide between “feminism” and “motherhood” that has been present in the movement for quite some time. When did that divide become clear to you as a feminist activist—and what propelled you to do something about it?
Since the mid-’90s, I have had an online advice column, Ask Amy, located at Feminist.com. I frequently received questions to the tune of “can stay-at-home mothers be feminists?” or “how can I be a mother without giving up my own identity?”
Simultaneous to receiving those questions, I was traveling the country more and more, lecturing on college campuses, and I was struck by how many younger people had their lives all planned out: “babies and then career” or “career for a few years and then baby.” I was especially shocked that they were factoring babies into their future planning. Of course, when I was in college, I thought about it, but I just assumed it would happen. I took from that that most younger people wanted both or wanted it all and really assumed they could have it all, though maybe not at the same time.
While I was having these conversations, I was also becoming more enmeshed in my life as a feminist activist and started to pay attention to why mothers might feel excluded from the feminist movement. Certainly feminism had prioritized mothers and motherhood historically, but had it perhaps done so at the expense of some mothers (i.e., the way to be a good feminist was to work, have a midwife, and never allow pink or blue into your house)? Most mothers can’t and/or don’t want to adhere to all or any of those standards and thus felt confused about how they fit in as a feminist.
What was particularly challenging for this generation is that not only were women still struggling with society’s definition of what it meant to be a good woman (i.e., marry and procreate), but they were also struggling with feminism’s definition of what it meant to be a good woman (i.e., reject societal expectations).
You write that being a feminist parent was easier to define for your mother’s generation, in the Free to Be You and Me era of parenting. How is defining oneself as a feminist parent today a more complicated endeavor?
In past generations, being a feminist was more specifically about going against what was a prescribed role—for men and women alike. If you were a man, that meant rejecting some of your masculinity, and for women, that meant embracing your masculine side. There was the feminist hope that nurture had a lot more to do with “us” than we initially thought. Now, a generation or two later, we are seeing more scientific research that points to gender differences, thus requiring feminism to switch gears. It’s not about being the same or even having access to the same things, but about equally valuing our differences and our strengths.
Also, feminism initially was more explicitly about ensuring that girls had access to “boy things” (gym class, competitive sports, advanced math classed, competitive jobs). Today, even with that, inequalities persist because we have only made masculinity more valuable by giving boys and girls access to it, but that leaves femininity still marginalized. I also think it’s so much harder today because it’s so much easier to point out what’s wrong than it is to propose how to make it right—and that’s where we seem to be stuck.
As you detail in Opting In, an abundance of so-called “mommy wars” books are published in the mainstream today, and most seem to capitalize on women’s anxieties about motherhood and work. Why does this subject get so much media play, and, at the same time, still provoke people on such a deep level?
People love to see women fight—and that’s certainly part of the reason. We also want to see people’s facade of perfection cracked open. That’s the same motivation behind ogling over celebrity magazines or watching reality TV; we want people to be exposed, and that’s what we are hoping to find.
Sadly, I think we also devour these books - and the hype and controversy surrounding them - because women and mothers are terribly insecure, and socially we have been shown that to make ourselves feel better, we have to make other people feel worse. I don’t agree with that approach, and, more importantly, I want to understand it. And the way I have come to understand it is that many women prefer to shirk their own perspectives in favor of what the books say or what the experts say. They depend on them to say what they are too insecure to acknowledge on their own.
Your overall message in Opting In is that change begins with us—and that what is most important for mothers is to figure things out for themselves. Why—after so many years of the feminist movement—do these points even need to be made?
Most women have an easier time believing in change for others more than they believe in it for themselves—hence the popularity of “helping” women in other countries. If we look outside of ourselves, we are exempt from evaluating ourselves. Also, I think feminists initially thought that we would change the world, and now we realize that we also have to change ourselves—an evolution of an age-old problem.
Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice really helped me understand this. She was documenting the status of women post Roe v. Wade—a decision that ostensibly gave women autonomy over their own bodies, a very radical act. But years after that decision, why did it feel like we were regressing? Yes, in part it had to do with a radical-right surge in this country, but it had to do more with women not really believing they were entitled to the change they were advocating for.
We suffer too much from a nice girl syndrome—wanting to please others and not wanting to ask for more, assuming that actualizing that might invalidate someone else.
While your message is that change begins with us, you do not abandon the call for systematic change in society for all families. What would radically improve parents’ lives in the United States?
The Family and Medical Leave Act should be expanded to companies with twenty-five or more employees; as is, it only covers for companies with fifty or more employees. As California has done, and New York has proposed, we need to extend this to paid leave. At a minimum, employers should have to pay into Social Security, even if their employee is taking unpaid leave.
The government should subsidize childcare—not in the form of marginalized publicly funded centers, but in the form of sponsorship to attend private groups. As is, publicly funded day care is so bad that it is known to do harm to children, while the best centers are those with a balance of paid and subsidized spots.
Pressure employers—though tax incentives—to provide options for more work/life, not exclusively work/family, balances. But more than “providing” any of these options, the government must mandate the changes it does enact. What makes Europe so ideal when it comes to the status of child-rearing is less that options are available and more that most people take advantage of them.
The dilemma between working and staying home to raise kids is really a privileged one, as you point out that many women, even if they want to, simply cannot afford to stay home full-time to raise their kids. Your book—and, through example, your own life—illustrates a middle way. What does that way entail?
If both parents are balancing work and family, it’s likely that you will have to sacrifice some financial security, but that can be balanced with the emotional security you gain from being with your family more. For me, personally, I also have to sacrifice some perceived middle class “needs”—how many music lessons, how many summer camps. For women, in particular, we need to relinquish control, and for men, they need to take control.
But what will make a middle way possible is belief that both work and family are essential to men’s and women’s lives. As much as we fought for women to have access to the workplace, we have to ensure that men have more access to home. That is, assume it’s a must for men, as we have always assumed it’s a must for women.
You quote many mothers in your book, but the voices of poor mothers—and mothers who live at the very margins of our society—seem to be missing in the text. How did you make decisions about whose voices to include in Opting In?
Though few poor mothers’ voices are in Opting In, their experiences are. Plus, part of my intention was to stop assuming that the only way to close the economic divide was to give poorer people more resources and access. Yes, we need to do that, but that only ratchets up, and we simultaneously need to put pressure on richer folks to do with less. It’s not enough to give poor people access to excellent public schools without draining the importance of private schools. Another example is giving fertility help to middle class families without examining who can’t afford it. Often that leads right back to a conversation about health care and who does and doesn’t have access to it.
In essence, I want richer people to own the fact that their privileged choices are at the expense of others. In my neighborhood, which is statistically one of the poorest in Manhattan, I increasingly see more expensive strollers. On the one hand, I think, “Great, good for them for having a fancy $800 stroller,” but my more pragmatic side thinks, “Damn those rich people for making them so popular, something they can readily purchase and others have to go into debt to get.”
Your chapter “Friends Forever” on how motherhood changes friendships and the not-so-subtle level of competition that exists between many mothers is something that many women can relate to. Why is true mutual support for parenting choices something that is hard for some feminists to give to one another?
Women naturally see another woman’s choice as a challenge to her own. And sadly, few women are confident enough in their own choices and, instead, hide behind the supposed experts or have to resort to being extra-righteous about their own choices, rather than be sympathetic to why we can’t all make the same choices.
I also think that women can, and should, raise the bar for their friends, and so some of the pressure is coming from a more thoughtful place; we want women to raise their expectations. The challenging of their choices can be an attempt to get them to demand more.
Your book is part memoir and includes passages about your own choices about pregnancy, parenting issues with your partner, and your feelings as both the daughter of a single mother and the mother of two sons. Will you speak about the importance and role of personal disclosure in your work as a feminist activist and writer?
Speaking personally is more difficult than having political opinions. You are certainly vulnerable. Initially, this was hard for me, because I want to be liked, and I know that some of my personal experiences might make people not like me. But I quickly learned that speaking my truths both made it easier for other people to do the same and, ultimately, made me feel better, because what I used to think was an exception I soon learned was more commonplace.
Also, my goal as an activist is to progress the conversation—about women’s status, around abortion, around what it means to be a parent - and in order to do that, we need to have more honesty. In the short term, speaking truthfully can be painful, but in the long run, I think you realize how it serves everyone to have it exposed.
You’ve been a feminist organizer for fifteen years and have spoken to countless women and men across the country. What do you continue to find remarkable about the feminist landscape in our country?
The treatment of Hillary Clinton has really exposed how much people don’t respect women, and it’s not shocking at all to me that elite women are her biggest haters. They are threatened by her. If a woman can have a successful career, keep a relationship intact despite big bumps, and raise a child, that raises the bar for other women to do the same.
I think that as much as some women want equality, they also like the short-term comfort of inequality—less is expected and, thus, they have to produce less. And this is what I see women struggling with. As oppressive as it was not to have choice, this generation is struggling equally with how difficult it is to choose when you have a range. I hope that women can believe in the change they advocate for others.
Photo Credit: Victoria Cohen