The Other Mother of All Questions

By Amy Gray

Advance reviews for Rebecca Solnit’s upcoming book ‘Mother of All Questions’ are appearing in the press and, as the writer responsible for the portmanteau ‘mansplain’, many are eager to discover how she feels about her choice to not become a mother.

Remaining childless by choice is considered an almost radical notion. It’s the declaration that the clichéd ‘having it all’ can mean having what you want, not what society expects. Rejecting any expectation of motherhood also forces us to look at gender and realise people and their choices are more than their biology.

But there’s another notion to consider, removed from the media attention surrounding Solnit and her excellent work. It’s almost as radical as the choice to not have children.

It’s recognising that motherhood is also a feminist issue. Not only is it an issue, it’s a huge one.

Having written about the politics and feminism of motherhood for many years, I’ve been struck by the almost determined refusal by many feminists to engage with or elevate the topic. 

Perhaps this is due to the current media environment. The demand for fast and cheap journalism relies on freelance writers. This often prices older women out of the market, due to the fact they often have higher costs (i.e. kids) than younger writers that can’t be managed through shared accommodation, parents or part time jobs.

When you have a mostly youthful and childfree group of writers trying to churn out feminist articles as quickly as possible, they will write about their world – a media cycle of popular culture and identity politics. This rarely covers motherhood.

Even niche parenting imprints don’t devote themselves to indepth feminist discussion. When it does appear, it’s softened with first person life lesson stories easily packaged between celebrity mums and lunchboxes. It’s another resistance to explore the visceral politics of motherhood.

This creates a cycle where younger writers drive the main feminist conversations, conversations that do not include motherhood, which makes readers think that motherhood is not a feminist issue. This was seen at the recent Feminist Writers Festival, which received complaints from festivalgoers that too much of their programming covered motherhood. 

In the original essay that sparked her book, the Mother of All Questions, examines Solnit childlessness but her piece is really about finding happiness in your life without apology, happiness away from society’s demands and in tune with personal desire and trauma. It’s a worthy topic yet the use of motherhood as a Trojan horse for the discussion scatters casual assumptions about it as a topic.

The throwaway conclusions are like a broken clock: they’re right twice a day, thoroughly misleading for the rest. A case in point is the choice of books over babies in reference to herself and Virginia Woolf. It’s a common cry that one cannot make both art and babies because both require devoted labour. While this works as a personal choice, it fails to answer the real question: why is motherhood so onerous it’s an either/or choice?

She tells her readers at the end “There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we’re wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer”.  But, this approach only works when you have enough privilege to avoid answering.

And there’s reason to resist answering the complexity of motherhood and giving it greater feminist focus in mainstream media, despite one reviewer describing it as a “ a subject that’s been written about to death in the feminist blogosphere”. Motherhood is not simply biology-meets-apologies-for-the-“mummy spam”-on-Facebook (sidenote: please stop apologising for taking up public space as a mother) and becoming a mother isn’t a signal you’re a privileged woman who no longer cares about life or the struggle towards personal fulfilment and equality.

If women feel the only way to make art is to avoid motherhood, we need to question why motherhood is such a burdensome bore unworthy of feminist discussion: motherhood is where sexism, stereotypes and internal sexism swirl into a poisoned chalice.

Motherhood doesn’t only usher in a baby: it often pits women against expanded financial, physical and emotional abuse in the home. It comes burdened with social pressure and dismissal, with expectations of how women must submit to the cares and advancement of others instead of their own. A woman faces heightened discrimination at work the minute she reveals she’s pregnant, risks being made redundant while on maternity leave and comes back to either reduced work or a complete block to her career or financial advancement while her superannuation suffers. And this doesn’t even take into account the financial and logistical pressures automatically delegated to her in order to find suitable childcare.

This is where we see the unexamined reaction against motherhood – women dismiss it as a feminist issue not because it is boring or irrelevant but because it is so overwhelming.

I’m not justifying motherhood, nor am I trying to win new converts – an ever exploding world population handles that. I don’t want to question women: I want to question motherhood, a form of feminine labour and exploitation as old as the world itself.

If that doesn’t make it a public question worth answering, what the hell is?

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