In recent years, feminist
motherhood has been the source of a steady stream of contentious public debate.
Much of the "mommy wars" began with Lisa Belkin’s "Opting Out," a 2003 New York Times Magazine article claiming
that successful professional women were rejecting the boardroom to return to
the nursery and raise their kids. The story’s limited scope (Belkin’s interview
subjects were all college-educated, married white women) sparked a backlash, but it also
prompted many women to wonder — both privately and in the media — whether having kids and having a life were, in practice, mutually
exclusive. Of course not, Third Wave activist/author Amy Richards asserts in her
new book, Opting In, which
illustrates the infinite variety of ways to be
a feminist mother.
An insightful mix of memoir,
feminist history, and how-to, Opting In
brings clarity and perspective to the quandaries of feminist mothering, both
major and minute, from gendered toys to the child care crisis. Richards — an
unmarried but attached mother of two sons — artfully forges a new path for
finding personal and professional
fulfillment within today’s mish-mash of conflicting attitudes about parenting.
RH Reality Check sat down with
Richards in San Francisco
to discuss her latest "baby."
Laura Barcella: What sparked your interest in writing this book?
Amy Richards: I wanted to talk about the relationship between mothers and feminism. It’s an interesting time for these issues. Feminism of the ‘70s was based on women trying to free themselves from traditional roles – looking back, there’s a big difference from one generation to the next. Thirty years ago, women became feminists after they were mothers; today it’s the opposite. In past generations, when you talked about motherhood you were also talking about marriage, but today we’re not imagining kids and marriage as [automatically] interconnected.
Women today are confused about what qualifies them to be feminists; they wonder, "If I want [motherhood], am I still a feminist?" They are wondering how they can have kids and still be true to themselves… I see lots of confident women who thought they wanted to be successful, then found it hard to be as successful as they wanted to be [so they decided to have kids].
When I was thinking about writing this book, the Sylvia Ann Hewlett controversy was in full effect. What was missing was women’s own choice. Most women weren’t making very genuine choices…they felt trapped. Women are frustrated by their female peers living in feminist idealism and then going out and buying Volvos or getting steady jobs… they had been so progressive until they had kids!
LB: You write about Hewlett’s controversial book Creating a Life, and the backlash that surrounded her claims that 20- and 30-something women should "hurry up" if they want to have kids. How did your attitude change as you wrote your book?
AR: Initially I misunderstood her to be saying that every [woman] should want to have babies, now. Then I reread it. What she was really saying was that if women want to have babies, they need to think about it sooner rather than later. I became more sympathetic [to Hewlett's message]. No one wants to use ART [Assisted Reproductive Technology] to have children; most want to have their own biological children. If that’s what most women want, it’s lying to tell them that it’s safe to put it off until their late thirties/forties.
So many women thought ART would always be an option, but it’s not an indefinite option. Once I started asking women about their birth stories, I realized how unsympathetic to women it is to tell them, "wait; you can [have kids] later." In their early thirties, women should be starting to ask themselves, "Do I want kids?" Know what your options are before you’re in a vulnerable or desperate place.
LB: What are some of the myths you uncovered about single moms?
AR: There’s a lot of mythologizing about single celebrities having kids.
A single mom raised me, and I never met my dad. It’s inspiring that women today are deciding to be single moms. Parenting is about expectations. What keeps you down is expectations – I have seen more frustrated parents in two-person households than single parents. Single women are more thankful for what they get.
There is also more general sympathy for single moms now — people are more willing to help them out. What they need is help — but not necessarily in a conventional way. They need to be able to ask for seats on the subway, or ask for help in taking their boots off at night. Being pregnant can be the only time that women feel comfortable asking for what they need.
LB: What are some of the prevailing myths about how it differs being a single white woman vs. being a single mom of color?
AR: There’s more of a division around economics than race when it comes to single motherhood.
Middle class mothers are more caught up in figuring out the right or wrong way to parent. But most kids don’t need as much material or financial success; they need love and support. For most middle class women, it’s hard to choose a "poor woman’s route" – single motherhood — which isn’t as respected by society. People don’t always think single motherhood is a choice. But because there is less expectation placed on poor single moms, they’re not as likely to buy into that.
The biggest myth is about what their decision is going to cost. People are more supportive of white single moms; we’re doing everything we can to prevent poor women from reproducing, yet we have no concern about white women doing that. But the middle-class four-person family does more damage to government resources than the poor kids. Why aren’t we putting pressure on wealthier families to only have one kid? Why aren’t their choices ever questioned?
LB: You write about your belief that feminism isn’t necessarily associated with motherhood because it’s been overshadowed by the abortion debate. Can you explain?
AR: What’s known as the reproductive rights movement (i.e. Planned Parenthood) thinks that if they say something is "pro-choice," that it means pro any choice [for women and mothers]. Theoretically, I believe them, but choice has become so closely equated with abortion. People have lots of discomfort with abortion, pitting women against each other. We need to be more honest about what’s at play. Abortion is a beleaguered right. A lot of the reproductive rights debate is still about 70s-era reproductive choices – "abortion stops a beating heart" vs. "no it doesn’t." But the more we indulge reproductive technology, the more we need to indulge abortion.
LB: How did your politics change after giving birth to your two sons?
AR: Parenting is more of a liberal art than a science. As much as you want to be passionate [about raising your kids according to your politics], it’s not black and white. It’s not that clean. Kids force you to be more honest; they challenge you.
Before I seriously considered having kids, I thought kids were about nurture more than nature. I thought "no trucks; no blue or pink or dolls." Then I realized how pointless that kind of bean-counting is.
Instead, I try to subtly disrupt their thinking. My role as a parent is not to control their choices, but to protect and inform them so they make good choices on their own.
LB: Do you have any advice on how to raise children in a more gender-neutral fashion?
AR: In my house, I try not to make Peter [my boyfriend] be the disciplinarian, and I try to avoid being the comforter. But they still call for Mommy [when they're hurt]… Parents owe it to their kids to show them their vulnerabilities, but not in the way that moms will tell their daughters they’re beautiful, and then comment on feeling fat.
LB: How does the childfree by choice movement fit into modern feminism?
AR: People think childfree people are lying when they say they don’t want kids, or they think they had abusive childhoods…
It’s been hard for feminists to promote the choice to be childfree because of all the obvious assumptions. People’s reasons for wanting kids in the past aren’t as relevant today. In the past it was about giving them identity and legitimacy; thirty years ago, people needed kids to justify their purpose in life. We still have kids to extend our own mortality.
LB: What’s the biggest threat to feminist moms?
AR: Lack of confidence in their choices. For instance, moms don’t always take paid leave because they think you’re "not supposed to" do it. They also obsess about things like having the right hospitals, strollers, vaccinations, and schools. This competitiveness becomes hostile to women; they see other mothers’ different choices as a condemnation of their own choices. They fear being judged by other mothers.