Feminist moms reject intensive mothering, York prof says

Feminist mothers have learned a lesson that anyone who has been in a plane during an emergency knows, according to York University Professor Andrea O’Reilly – a mother must put on her oxygen mask first, in order to be able to help her children. 

"I see this instruction on airplanes as an appropriate metaphor for feminist mothering. Mothers, empowered, are able to better care for and protect their children," says O’Reilly, founder and director of the Association for Research on Mothering (ARM) at York. 

In celebration of Mother’s Day and the International Day of Families, ARM and the feminist mothers group Mother Outlaws will host a panel on May 15 – Unbecoming Mothers: Redefining Motherhood and Family for the 21st Century. The event will be held 7-10pm at The 519 Church Street Community Centre in Toronto.

Being empowered as a mother means rejecting a patriarchal type of motherhood which views childcare as the sole responsibility of the mother and 24/7 mothering as necessary and good for children, says O’Reilly. An empowered mother looks to her partner, friends, family and the community to help raise their children, and sees developing herself as beneficial to her children.

Feminist mothering is a particular style of empowered mothering. A feminist mother resists patriarchal motherhood because she recognizes it perpetuates gender inequity through sexist childrearing. Feminists’ challenges to motherhood have been misconstrued as attacks on mothers, says O’Reilly, when in fact they are challenges to the institution itself.

"Women are experiencing a real disconnect between their expectations about motherhood and the reality of motherhood. Many moms feel they are alone, isolated, have all of the responsibility and no power," says O’Reilly. "That’s the problem – not mothering."

O’Reilly designed and has taught the course "Mothering and Motherhood" at York since the early 1990s. The course starts again this week with 180 students and a long waiting list, as well as a soon-to-be-published 850-page reader by ARM’s publishing division Demeter Press that brings together leading researchers in the field.

In her chapter in the collection, O’Reilly points out the post-war idea of good motherhood demanded that mothers be at home full time with their children, but it did not require the kind of intensive mothering expected of mothers today.

"As the children in the 50s and 60s would jump rope or play hide-and-seek with the neighbourhood children or their siblings, today’s children dance, swim and ‘cut and paste’ with their mothers in one of many ‘moms and tots’ programs," writes O’Reilly.

Although they have fewer children and more labour-saving devices, mothers today spend more time and energy on their children than their mothers did in the 1960s and, unlike 40 years ago, they practise this intensive mothering while working full time, she says.

O’Reilly has noticed, however, that a huge shift is taking place, with more women questioning the institution of motherhood. Women who are having children now were raised to believe equality is a right.

"They may have been living comfortably with their spouses for a decade, but when they become mothers, the gender inequality becomes more noticeable to them," says O’Reilly. "These women are really trying to question how we do motherhood."