This post was inspired by a conversation on twitter sparked by a piece on teen mums and feminism in The Telegraph. I would like to thank prymface and blue milk, with honourable mentions to drlangtry_girl, Glosswitch, boudledidge and Sarah Ditum, for making me think about these kinds of things. I’ve included Wikipedia links for a few concepts which may be unfamiliar to some readers.
I’m 26 years old and I am not a parent. I have never had a partner who is a parent. I have never been pregnant. I have never been wholly or partly responsible for caring for another human being. The closest I have come to parenting is having a dog (and only ever for a few weeks at a time) or through my university’s LGBT+ society Parenting Scheme (a sort of mentor/buddy system for new members to meet established members).
In fact there is a good chance that I will never have children. I haven’t quite committed to that, but on the whole I lean towards a “childfree” future for myself. In any case I won’t be seriously considering starting a family for at least three years. Yet in the last year or so I have become increasingly interested in the world of parenting, especially parenting from a feminist perspective, and I thought I’d like to share the reasons why. This post somewhat joins together my interest as a feminist and my interest as a social scientist. For some aspects these are inextricably linked, however my social science background is limited to heteronormative households*.
I’ve found feminist discussions of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding have been a valuable space in helping me rethink my cissexist assumptions surrounding the kind of bodies parents have and the roles they play. Breastfeeding has become quite a contentious issue in some feminist circles, and my views have definitely been heavily informed from the Attachment Parenting that I’ve learned about from blue milk (e.g. this post). What I’ve taken from the discussions is that it’s like so many issues: people should be well informed so they can make the decisions that work best for them. Parents and their children have different needs; in trying to apply a set of rigid or narrow guidelines many people will be poorly served.
The more specific conclusion is that we, as a society, should try harder to make spaces, specifically public places and workplaces, more breastfeeding-friendly for all parents of all gender expressions and identities. There are also significant implications for how we structure workplaces and employment. The current guidelines from the UK government is that where possible children should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. The NHS has guidelines for breastfeeding parents and their employers where those breastfeeding want to return to work, but I don’t know enough about how many employers are really supportive. The challenge is to create a culture which supports breastfeeding without judging those who don’t. As an economist this appeals – the idea is that we create an environment where individuals really can make the best decision for them, their children and their families with as few constraints as we can manage.
Another aspect of parenting in couples is that it extends and heightens negotiations over and division of household responsibilities. It will come as no surprise that all the evidence from surveys in the UK and similar countries show women spend more time on domestic chores than men within different sex couples, even in couples where both work full time. In fact in some countries (e.g. USA and Australia) women who earn more than their male partners perform an even higher share of the housework to “compensate” for taking over the “breadwinner role”**. As well as requiring time and attention, children also make more general housework (laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc). How does the addition of children to a family affect the the time parents put into housework, particularly after accounting for changes in hours of paid work?
Moving on to childcare, culturally there is often a strong emphasis on young children spending time with their mothers, yet in the social sciences there are a range of research questions related to who does childcare: how does it affect family income and future employment prospects of parents, and what is best for child development. In the media the tropes are the “stay at home mother” (often abbreviated to SAHM) who has a (male) “breadwinner” partner and the “career woman” who works full time (with a partner who also works full time) and puts her children into childcare. Lone mothers are often part of a different discussion. Every so often for a bit of variety you might read about fathers who take on the role of main carer; in the household survey data from the UK these still constitute a tiny number of families***. I am particularly interested in distinguishing between the economic and social incentives for these patterns.
Finally, part of parenting is introducing children to the world and trying to explain it. This can throw certain issues into sharp relief as children ask difficult questions or you become aware of your children’s needs. The classic case is men seeing sexism for the first time or more clearly when they are responsible for a daughter (a high profile example is Jay-Z). There is also the urge to teach your children to be “good people”. For intersectional feminist parents, this means bringing up children to have an awareness of the many inequalities in our societies, which can mean there’s a motivation to develop a good understanding as adults.
There are several issues that I have seen examined with great wisdom by feminist parents; a non-exhaustive list includes being an effective ally to minority groups, accepting diverse forms of gender expression, the importance of good age-appropriate sex education, how to deal with body image when faced with the pressures from advertising and mainstream media. This are issues which are relevant for all feminists, not just parents. I don’t want to stray into the cliché that parents (and in particular mothers) have special access to empathy or social conscience (see this brilliant piece for a great riposte) but I want to recognise the contribution to these discussions from a feminist parenting perspective.
These are just the areas that leap to mind when I think about why I care about parenting. My personal focus in my research is trying to understand the mechanisms which affect how couples make decisions, and particularly how those decisions reflect, reinforce or change social norms around gender. I would love to read other thoughts on why feminists should care about parenting and what we can do.
*By heteronormative households I mean households with different sex couples where both partners are cisgender. Further the literature generally restricts attention to households where both partners are of working age and there aren’t any other adults in the household.
** Breen, Richard, and Lynn Prince Cooke. “The persistence of the gendered division of domestic labour.” European Sociological Review 21.1 (2005): 43-57
*** In the Family Resources Survey, just three per cent of families with two working age adults and at least one child aged less than 16 have a mother working full time and a father working part time or not at all.