Saturday 9 September 2017

An Open Letter to Mums4Corbyn | some political and personal concerns

Dear Mums4Corbyn

First, I apologise for the length of what follows but I would be extremely grateful if you could find the time to read this letter.

As a feminist sociologist I have been researching and writing about the reproductive experience, identity and rights of and for girls and women, and to a lesser extent, of and for boys and men, for 28 years. My interest is in the experience and identity of those who mother/parent and those who do not. Amongst other things I have undertaken research in the areas of infertility and involuntary childlessness; teenage pregnancy and young parenthood; experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood for women living with long term health conditions; stay-at-home and working mothers; nonmothers as a resource for care in institutions such as higher education and prisons. So, I have researched and written about mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers (those who mother in what some define as ‘inappropriate’ social, material, sexual circumstances), within which I have been keen to reflect on the differences between the institution of motherhood and the experience of mothering. In a recent publication, in a summary of some of my, and others’, work, I wrote: 

·         Motherhood is lauded as inevitable and desirable for all BUT only if achieved in the so-called RIGHT social and material circumstances. It is very easy for one’s ‘choices’ to be labelled as inappropriate and for one’s identity as mother or not to be frowned upon. For example, teenaged mothers are often labelled irresponsible and those who seek technological help to conceive may be accused of ‘playing God’. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy of motherhood in that biological motherhood is often defined (in relation to social motherhood) as ‘real’ and ‘natural’. Thus, just as it is possible to be other than mother it is also possible to be an other mother.

·         The experience of mothering is often more complicated than the promise and mothering is portrayed as instinctual to women yet mothers are bombarded by ‘expert’ views and cautions. Mothers are expected to put their children before themselves, to engage in ‘intensive mothering’ (Hays 1998) and yet, if not careful, may be accused of psychologically damaging their children through and over-involvement in their lives and engaging in ‘helicopter’ parenting (LeMoyne and Buchanan 2011). Women who do not mother children are often thought to have no interest in or understanding of them despite the various ways that women can have connections to and with children. This is ironic given that all women – whether mother or not – are expected to display the feminine characteristics associated with mothering: not least that of caring and nurturing.

·         Nonmothers - either ‘voluntary’ or ‘involuntary’ (and … positioning as either is often not so simple as is suggested) – are often stereotyped as one-dimensional – as selfish or desperate. In reality, just as the experience of mothering can lead to feelings of ambivalence non/mothers can experience ambivalence also.

Thus, the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives, whether mother or not, and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other mother or nonmother. 
(Letherby, G. (2017) ‘To Be or Not to Be (a mother): Telling Academic and Personal Stories of Mothers and Others’ in G. Rye, V. Browne, A. Giorgio, E. Jeremiah and A. L. Six (eds.) Motherhood in Literature and Culture: interdisciplinary perspectives from Europe London: Routledge p.245-246).

Along with the political social, emotional and sometimes medical experience of mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers I am interested in the cultural representations of mothers and others. It has long been the case that, despite complexity of experience, cultural depictions of women who do not mother children or who mother children within relationships or in situations viewed by some as different, inappropriate and/or even as ‘unreal’, draw on oversimplified caricatures. Alongside this mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers have always been labelled, by the media, as well as through political and medical discourses as deserving or undeserving. With this in mind I have been struck recently by a continuation of these discourses and an, arguably, more sinister development with non and other mothers being represented as a danger to themselves and to others. I have written about this, and other issues related to reproductive rights, experiences and identities here

Within my academic work, and in other writings, I reflect on my own identity and experience as a (biologically) childless woman. A brief history: thirty years ago, in my mid/late-twenties, my central aim was to be a mother and I felt that I was only half a woman without a child. Any doubts or ambivalences I had about becoming a mother I denied. Now I feel very different. I no longer feel a lesser woman (or less than adult) for not mothering my ‘own’ children. I am also able to accept the equivocal nature of my desires - that is, a part of me enjoys the freedom that I have had and have because of my biologically childless state. I also appreciate first hand some of the pleasures and pains of caring for children on a daily basis as my late husband’s two sons lived with us full-time for more than ten years. If I had become a biological mother I know that I would have felt opposing emotions in relation to that experience also. A miscarriage, returning to higher education and the relationships this entails – as teacher, mentor and friend -  plus the relationships that I have developed with some of my younger friends and with the children (and grandchildren) of close friends have all affected my personal development. Also significant was the mothering I received (until the death of my mother in 2012) and I credit my mother’s influence in much that I do.  And yet, every day I am reminded (if only fleetingly), by friends, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers, that I am different, excluded even. A link here to piece in which I write more on these issues:

Having decided to step down from a full-time position to work freelance I am able to spend more time in voluntary activities and political activism. Having joined the Labour Party to support the current leader and the left-wing agenda he and others promote I have become involved in canvassing, protesting on the street and online and in political writing (including letters to newspapers, publishing on my own blog and contributing to the social media presence of my CLP). Two of the issues that have especially concerned me in the last few months are school summer holiday hunger and the response of politicians and others to the Grenfell Tower tragedy (see for links to writings on this). I appreciate that such involvement might be more difficult, not least in terms of organization as well as time, for friends with children and grandchildren. I strongly believe that the (small amount) of political work I do is motivated by the need for a better world for all, now and in the future. Many of my concerns then are for all ‘our’ children, their life chances and choices. With all this in mind I was disappointed (and hurt) for my difference to be highlighted yet again when I read of the launch of Mums4Corbyn at The World Transformed event organized by Momentum (of which I am also a member) which takes place alongside the Labour Party Conference this month. From what I can see of planned events many of the issues considered are those that affect all women, mother or not, and shared concerns were part of my pitch to write a piece for the New Socialist who are publishing a series of articles focusing on the contemporary politics of motherhood in support of the initiative. Thus:

My concern is with the political significance of all women whether mothers, nonmothers or other-mothers (women whose mother status is considered lesser, even ‘unreal’). This is important because the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other-mother or nonmother. Feminism can be criticized for focusing on motherhood at the expense of a consideration of sisterhood. Yet any (political) understanding of motherhood and mothering needs to embrace the experience of nonmothers and other-mothers. It is only through such holistic reflection on our similarities and our differences that as sisters together we can challenge that which divides us and holds us back and celebrate our ‘collective and communal relations’ which will enable to us work together for ‘transformative change’.

I appreciate, of course, the particular challenges and inequalities that mothers face but I maintain that we can more effectively work on this together as, in with reference to this issue, as in many others, we do indeed have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’ (Jo Cox MP).

Sadly, the editors felt that my piece did not ‘quite match’ their intended agenda. Which in turn feels, to me, a further denial of the relevance of the very many of us who have an identity and experiences defined by society as lesser. I admit that this time around my pride was hurt too. My first response was to write about how I felt: .This was followed a few days later by a letter to the New Socialist, not dissimilar from the one I write here, to which I have not as yet had a reply. I appreciate that my response to Mums4Corbyn and to the rejection by the New Socialist is personal as well as political, as indeed everything in life is. I write this letter with reference to my own experience and feelings and those of the very many women I have spoken to and whose life-choices and chances I have represented in my previous writings. I do appreciate and support all that both the group and the publication is trying to do. And yet, I have to ask you, as I did the editors of the New Socialist, to please reflect on the issues I have raised here and to perhaps think again about the message that Mums4Corbyn gives.

Yours in solidarity


(Gayle Letherby) 

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