When I was finishing up Full Frontal Feminism and started thinking about dedications, only one name came to mind: Miss Magoo. Miss Magoo wasn't an imaginary friend from my childhood or a homage to Mr. Magoo (the crotchety old cartoon guy with the sight-problem). But Miss Magoo was someone that I never met but always wanted to: my mother when she was younger. My mom, who easily fits into the selfless "perfect mother" stereotype--balancing work, home, and everything else--was once "Miss Magoo," a feared teenage gang girl in Queens. I used to listen to stories of my mom's days as Miss Magoo with wonder--how could a mom (my mom!) once have been this tough, vodka swilling teen who caroused the streets with her friends. So it's that contradiction--and the fact that I could admire and be in awe of my mother at all ages--that I wanted to dedicate my book to. Love you, mom.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Full Frontal Feminism
"REAL" WOMEN HAVE BABIES
Whether it's repro rights, violence against women, or just plain old vanilla sexism, most issues affecting women have one thing in common--they exist to keep women "in their place." To make sure that we're acting "appropriately," whatever that means.
A huge part of keeping women in their place has to do with creating a really limited definition of what a "real" woman is like. And a ton of that what-makes-a-woman nonsense is attached to motherhood. Apparently, by virtue of having ovaries and a uterus, women are automatic mommies or mommies-to-be.
Now, don't get me wrong, I think motherhood is an awesome thing--if that's what you want. But there's something insanely disturbing about the idea that because I can have a baby, I should have a baby--and that this is something I should want to do more than anything in the whole wide world. And if I don't have that desire? Well, something is just plain wrong.
But of course the mommy pressure goes way beyond just popping them out. It's about what kind of mother you are, and anything less than perfect just won't do. If you work, you should be staying at home with your kids. If you're poor or on welfare, you should be working (sorry there's no affordable childcare, too bad). If you want to take time off from work to hang out with your kids, you're a liability, but if you don't, you're a bad mother. If you don't take perfect care of yourself while you're pregnant, you're a horrible person (and maybe even a criminal). If you don't want to get pregnant, you're unnatural. There's really no winning when it comes to motherhood.
Not only do women have to become mothers in order to be good women, we have to become "perfect" mothers. All while getting pretty much no appreciation for it.
Mommy Doesn't Know Best
Once women make their own (hopefully) decision to have children, a whole new set of expectations and problems comes up.
Before they even have the kid--outside of the punishing-pregnant-women trend--women are subject to a whole medical profession telling them the best way to have their children.
An example? The rate of cesarean sections is at an all-time high in the United States: Almost 1.2 million C-sections were performed in 2005, up 27.5 percent from 2003. And what does this have to do with women making decisions about their medical care? Well, it seems that a lot of women are being pushed into having the procedure because it's easier for doctors. Some hospitals have even banned vaginal deliveries after a woman has had a C-section in a previous pregnancy. (There's also a fear of malpractice suits if something goes wrong in a vaginal delivery.)
For example, Lani Lanchester decided that she didn't want a C-section with her second child; she had the procedure for her first birth and the recovery was difficult. Despite having a healthy pregnancy, Lanchester was told that her hospital had a policy change and was no longer allowing women who had had C-sections to deliver vaginally. Because of insurance complications, Lanchester couldn't go to another hospital. "It feels very violating to have unnecessary major surgery. . . . I had no options. But at the end, I got tired of fighting the insurance companies, the hospital, and the doctors."
Given these policies and all the opposition to natural birth, it's no wonder that more and more women are questioning whether they want to give birth in hospitals at all, C-section or otherwise. As women tire of the impersonal hospital setting, in which they're made to feel unwanted, and even diseased, midwives and doulas are becoming increasingly popular. I'm all for giving birth in a comfortable environment surrounded by supportive people, not only because women should have as many options as they can when it comes to having a kid, but also because we shouldn't be made to fear the birthing process--as if we'll drop dead if we don't go to a hospital to have a baby.
Organizations like the New York-based BirthNet actually say that 90 percent of pregnancies are natural births that don't need hospital assistance. They encourage the use of registered midwives, who can help women give birth at home or at a birthing center. (And by the way, a lot of midwife birthing centers are based in or around hospitals.)
But it's not over once you have the baby. Oh, no. Now enters a whole new set of problems, again relating to being the perfect mommy.
My pet peeve? Folks who rag on nursing mothers. This has been in the news a lot lately because moms are not taking shit anymore (and I love it). Moms--some of whom are calling themselves "lactivists"--are holding nurse-ins across the country to bring attention to stores and companies that won't let women breastfeed.
For example, a mom in Boston was asked to leave a Victoria's Secret dressing room because she was breastfeeding. Local mothers reacted by holding a nurse-in; the store ended up apologizing, and they got plenty of press. Awesome. A woman was recently even thrown off a Delta flight when she refused to stop breastfeeding. So we're supposed to be good moms and take care of our kids (and everyone knows the breast is best!), but when we want to do it in public--gross! You know, because boobies are for boys, not babies.
Some states, thankfully, have taken action by creating laws ensuring that breastfeeding women have rights. In fact, in a move to aid breastfeeding moms against those who find feeding babies objectionable, Kansas health officials decided to give out cards with a message: "A mother may breastfeed in any place she has a right to be." If a woman is asked to leave a public place for breastfeeding, the back of the card has numbers where she can report the incident. Sweet.
The point is, this is the kind of shit that mothers have to put up with constantly--no matter how old their kids are. Whether it's breastfeeding, giving birth, work choices, childcare choices, or college choices, there's just no winning.
Underappreciated Mothers: The New Norm
For all the pressure women have on them to become perfect mommies, you would think that society would make it easy (or easier) on us. But hells no. Like I've mentioned before, there's a Mommy Wage Gap, problems with paying for childcare, and issues of negotiating work life with motherhood.
I mean, just the fact that women with children make seventy-three cents to a man's dollar (single mothers make fifty-six to sixty-six cents to a man's dollar), while women without children make about ninety cents to a man's dollar, is pretty nuts. The wage gap is tied up with motherhood, and we're not even talking about it.
Not to mention, moms are just downright underappreciated. A recent study on motherhood by the University of Connecticut and the University of Minnesota shows that not only do moms feel undervalued by the people in their lives, but they also don't feel appreciated by society in general--nearly one in five moms said she felt less valued by society since becoming a mother. Now that's screwed up.
A great organization (and website) that addresses these issues is MomsRising.org, run by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner--authors of The Motherhood Manifesto: What America's Moms Want--and What to Do About It.
The organization, which has more than fifty thousand members and fifty national organizations aligned with it, aims to "build a more family-friendly America" through grassroots and online organizing. Its manifesto--which I think is fabulous--focuses on maternity and paternity leave; flexible work hours and options for parents; safe after-school options for children; healthcare for all kids; quality, universal, affordable childcare; and fair wages for parents. Seems simple and straightforward--and reasonable.
So why the hesitancy by society (and politicians) to make these seemingly simple things happen? The truth is, as much lip service as mothers are given, folks just don't care. If we cared about mothers and families, we would have universal childcare. If we cared about making motherhood easier, we would ensure that women and children got the healthcare they needed, got the flextime they needed, and got the support and--maybe most important--the trust they needed.
The sooner we start trusting women to make decisions about their lives and their families, the sooner we start valuing motherhood again.
Excerpt from Full Frontal Feminism © 2007 by Jessica Valenti. Used by permission of the author and Seal Press. All rights reserved. This book is available through local bookstores and online booksellers.