The Nation: Raising the Baby Question

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Something occurred to me last week as I sifted through a series of Mother's Day specials on the feminist blogs I peruse regularly. During the rest of the year, women like me, a 24-year-old childless feminist, are surprisingly disengaged from the debates surrounding mothering and caregiving. Blogs targeting young feminists run the gamut from equal pay to women in politics, but their posts more often hash out topics like reproductive rights, sex, domestic violence, body image and women in the media. Books by young feminists in the past few years, like Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth, Courtney Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs, barely scratch the surface of issues like paid maternity leave, affordable childcare and balanced parenting.

By the same token, mother- and family-related blogs, social networking sites and activist groups rarely associate themselves with mainstream feminism. Most feminist mom organizations and websites like Sistas on the Rise or Hip Mama are local and grassroots, often excluded from discussions of feminism in the national media. The profusion of mostly white, mostly middle-class mom bloggers like Mindy Roberts from The Mommy Blog or Daphne Brogdon from Cool Mom don't promote their work as feminist or even activist.

There's a palpable disconnect between these two worlds, and it's starting to worry me.

Is it because younger feminists don't relate parenting issues to feminism? It's more likely because most young feminists in the national conversation don't have kids, and people are less likely to fight for issues that don't affect their everyday life. Or because the media hone in on hot-button feminist issues such as teen sex or women and pop culture, deeming them sexier than free daycare or family leave.

These would seem like logical explanations, but does it go deeper? Chicago-based feminist blogger Veronica Arreola says yes. She asserts that young feminists don't focus on these issues because we're fighting against the stereotype that "a woman's life is incomplete until she reproduces." It's a familiar sentiment that dates back to Second Wave feminism, when the pressure to become a mom and a wife right away was even greater.

Arreola, a 34-year-old mother who writes the blog Viva la Feminista, is a rare exception, a woman who has a strong blogger presence as a feminist and mother. She was one of the first in her group of feminist activist friends to have kids, a fact that immediately put her in "some other camp," she admits.

Charlie Rose, a 20-year-old Smith student and mom who chose to conceive at 15, doesn't exactly feel embraced by mainstream feminism, either. Rose is the site producer for Girl-Mom, a website for radical young mothers. In April she was featured on the popular young feminist website Feministing as "counter[ing] cliches with badassery"—a nod to independent young mothers that pleasantly surprised Rose. But although she considers herself a feminist and publicly tries to break down the stigma attached to teen motherhood, she'd never heard of Feministing until the site mentioned her. And the post about her prompted more than 150 comments, many of them negative. "A 15 year old girl deciding to have a baby at such a young age? Wow...I just find that really sad," one person commented. Another agreed, "I don't trust any fifteen year old to be emotionally mature enough or financially stable enough to raise a child on her own. Choosing to conceive strikes me as reckless and ignorant."

Rose says that many of the comments, like the latter, equated her age with financial instability, an attitude she says is not uncommon. "It's socially acceptable"—on both sides of the political spectrum—"to be opposed to young mothers," Rose explains. "People are actually more opposed to poor mothers, but it's less acceptable to say that, so instead they criticize teen mothers."

Rose relates the tension between young feminists and young mothers to class and race, noting that women of color, who are less visible in feminism's national conversation, are more likely to be involved with family-related activism. She points to grassroots groups like Sistas on the Rise, a Bronx-based organization that aims to empower young mothers and women of color. Leticia de la Vara, who runs a support group for Latina single mothers called Chicana Mama in Phoenix, says that women of color more frequently experience the "little village" aspect of parenting, recruiting the help of grandparents, cousins, friends and other parents rather than thinking of parents as individual units. They're also statistically more likely to be mothers themselves. There are other more practical reasons for the disharmony. When you're a single mom, de la Vara explains, "you're even more aware of the financial impact your time has. The more money you're using on gas to go to a meeting, the less money you have for food." The more time you spend on the Internet, the less time you have with your child. Besides, "there's no childcare at these feminist events," Rose says. "And our schedules conflict" with meetings, conferences and parties. Often, activism is something busy or financially struggling moms just have to sacrifice.

Meanwhile, many of the mom bloggers admit to being decidedly apolitical. Megan Calhoun of Ross, California, is the founder of the community site TwitterMoms, a spinoff of Twitter that blossomed overnight and now has over 15,000 members. Calhoun insists that she "wouldn't define TwitterMoms as a feminist or an activist community. It's a friendly and supportive group of moms who want to connect.... I think women supporting women is the important thing we can do to help each other." Rose says that even politically minded mothers, herself included, often channel their feminism into what she calls "lifestyle" activism—by trying to be a good role model for other moms, reading her son radical or queer-friendly books and having critical discussions with him about gender and race.

Whatever the reasons for the separation between moms and mainstream feminism, it will be disappointing if we don't close the gap soon—particularly when more women from my generation of feminists start to have kids. Keeping family issues off the feminist radar "is keeping our power defused," Arreola says. It's also going to force me to file six months' paid maternity leave under "wishful thinking" when I decide to become a mother.

The fact is, American society is still not very kid-friendly, and that extends to activist circles. A tangible way to get moms more involved in feminism—or any kind of activism—is to make children more welcome in public spaces. If more organizations provided free childcare at events and conferences that would be a start. Not having meetings at 10 pm in a bar would help, too. Moms also have to be able to choose their level of involvement (another reason why blogs and social networking sites are perfect venues for feminist moms). De la Vara explains that Chicana Mama works a lot better when it has a looser structure than traditional feminist advocacy. It's not that the desire isn't there, but mothers—particularly young, working-class or single mothers—are dealing with countless day-to-day issues that get in the way.

Not to mention that dads need to be part of the conversation. Whether or not fathers live with their families, they are routinely excluded from parenting and discussions surrounding it. Nearly every woman I interviewed for this piece seems convinced that once we garner a critical mass of men, parenting issues will be taken more seriously. The more allies mothers have, the more mainstream these issues will become. Freeing up moms—rich or poor, white or not, younger or older—to have time for activism would require completely restructuring the way we think about relationships and families. In the United States, raising a child rests on the shoulders of the parents. Your family is "your business." Those concerns are not framed as political or as an activist stance. Dependency on a network is seen as weak and even unfeminist, rather than essential to creating a healthy balance of work, fun, love and child-rearing.

In this sense, whether she realizes it or not, women like Calhoun are activists. They are taking their experiences in a societal structure like the nuclear family and opening it up to a network of thousands. It's a creation that is revolutionary in itself—even if that's not the intent of the creators. And not only are they breaking down the isolation mothers often feel from the "adult" world; these networking moms are admitting to each other that their lives aren't perfect. Mom blogging, like feminist blogging, parallels the late 1960s concept of consciousness-raising—or "realizing you're not alone," Arreola says. Mommy bloggers don't exactly have activist reputations (Oprah featured a few on her show last month, which, according to Arreola, caricatured moms as "whiny complainers"). But what they are doing is pretty radical.

Still, talking and connecting is only half the work. A system of what Rose calls "kinship childcare" has to be in place before parenting starts to get any easier. We direly need a more communal structure that includes extended networks, paid maternity leave and universal childcare. And kids needn't always be hidden away in daycare—they should be interwoven in the public "adult" world.

Even if society did make it easier for mothers to be activists, childless young people still have the most time and energy to devote to movements and social change. Can we realistically expect young feminists to full-on fight for parenting reform if it doesn't affect them directly? We can if we start framing "reproductive rights" (one of young feminists' prime concerns) more broadly. When feminists talk about rights to birth control and abortion, we list reasons why a woman delays motherhood: she can't take time off from work; she doesn't have the support she needs to raise a baby; childcare would be too expensive; and so on.

No woman should be forced to have a child if she doesn't feel emotionally ready. But we can't claim to be offering women real choice without a societal structure that supports mothers and children and truly makes it possible to have a healthy work-family balance. If women are terminating their pregnancies because they can't afford their babies, reproductive activism hasn't gone far enough. Rose points out that some organizations are great at this; she cites Hampshire College's Civil Liberties and Public Policy program as an example. Generally, though, this kind of logic hasn't infiltrated mainstream conversations about reproductive justice.

It may seem like a tall order to unite moms and feminists, push young women to be prescient about their futures and totally overhaul the way the nation views child-rearing. But it's possible, and it's necessary. Everyone knows that motherhood is inherently challenging, but it should be the good kind of challenging, the kind that makes women wiser and more fulfilled, not the kind that leaves them frustrated, isolated and burnt out. Don't we—and our future kids—deserve that much?

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