Liberating Motherhood

Liberating Motherhood
Vanessa Olorenshaw
Womencraft Publishing, pp351, September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-910559-192
Review by Maggie Gordon-Walker

UK based writer Olorenshaw worked as a lawyer before having children. Her experiences of being marginalised for not returning straight to ‘work’ led her to write this book. She argues passionately and eloquently for the rights of mothers which are continually crushed by a capitalist, patriarchal society. Many mothers would like to spend the early years of their children’s lives with them, yet are penalised by a political system that insists they gain paid employment. Consequently many are forced into work too soon and their children are then cared for, usually by other women in nurseries, whose own children are possibly also being cared for elsewhere, in a Russian doll style set-up. As Olorenshaw states, the patient, caring nurturing that a mother does IS work and should be respected as such. Care of child often becomes conflated with upkeep of house and this is often perpetuated in the home itself, when other members of the household describe their chores as being ‘for the mother’. Olorenshaw is an advocate of the Basic Income system that some campaign groups are pushing for – a living wage available to all which would give women the freedom to choose.

If anyone thinks mothers don’t get a raw deal, then they have never been one. As she notes, the moment you announce your pregnancy, you become public property, until you have your baby, when you are seen as a nuisance. I well remember having to get off a crowded bus because I wasn’t able to fold my pushchair one handed (the other holding my screaming baby) while the tutting passengers collectively looked away. If you are ‘just a mother’ that’s seen as being lesser, when it is hugely important. But any mother who dares to ask for more support and recognition gets shut down as ‘moaning’. Member of Parliament Andrea Leadsom’s recent failed bid for the Conservative leadership started when she had the temerity to suggest that being a mother made her a better choice for Prime Minister than her rival. The resultant media outcry included the charge that she was perpetuating “societies’ fetishisation of motherhood” (Guardian, 8 July 2016).

This impressively researched and informative book is divided into sections detailing a mother’s Mind, Body, Labour and Heart. I learned that ‘oikonomia’, the Greek word for ‘economics’, in fact means ‘household management.’ It looks at how mothers are continually sidelined: Eleanor Rathbone championed the Family Allowance for mothers in 1946 in the UK, which has morphed into the Child Benefit for families in recent years. We can well believe Olorenshaw’s lament that ‘mothering’ is being erased from our language. That also provided one of the funniest footnotes; the observation that ‘fathering’ is a completely different concept to ‘mothering’. Some footnotes are a little irritating however, such as suggesting women take to motherhood like ‘ducks to water’; the footnote reads, ’All of this is what is known in the industry as irony. You might spot other examples throughout the book’(100). When a piece is as weighty and well written as this, it doesn’t sit entirely well.

There is an excellent section on breastfeeding, the rates of which are pitiably low in the UK, detailing the fixation on the content of milk, rather than the act of feeding itself. However, I was surprised there was no mention of, or exploration into why those most likely to breastfeed are professional, middle class women.

Olorenshaw believes a mother has the right to choose, but she is so fervent about their right to spend as much time with their children as she did, it feels a little prescriptive. Looking after children is described as hard and frustrating, but not (whisper it) – boring – and maybe some women reading it will feel guilty if they do find it so. In my experience of running groups with new mothers, they often confess to the cardinal sin of being bored when they are with their babies, feeling remorse and shame, but they are relieved they are able to say this and not be condemned to the status of ‘bad mother’ for their honesty.

She is harsh on liberal and social feminists, old-school ground-breaking feminists such as De Beauvoir and Friedan. If feminists do not champion the rights of mothers they are ‘patriarchy’s mouthpiece’ (44). The Women’s Equality Party of the UK, which was founded in 2015, gets a bashing. Olorenshaw had sat on the policy working group when the party first came into being and had got frustrated at their inability to be more proactive in the matter of mothers’ rights and insistence on seeing ‘mothers as a problem to be solved’ (253). She decided not to continue her involvement which is understandable, but surely she should be making allies with these people? They have potentially a higher profile than some of the organisations listed at the back of the book. Professional women too are dismissed, ‘the unwillingness of a privileged class of women to challenge the system that had given them power’ (201), but seeing as the bulk of her readers will be in this category, it might be seen as a risky move. She advocates for ‘maternal feminism’, with the concept of a Purplestockings movement – combining the Bluestockings (intellectual educated women from the eighteenth century) and Redstockings (Radical Feminists of the 1960s).

Olorenshaw wrote a pamphlet for the UK 2015 election, which maybe has coloured the tone here. While each chapter works as a stand-alone piece, it reads as quite polemical and repetitive – the words ‘patriarchy’ and ‘feminist/m’ occur a fearsome amount of times. I found the most interesting chapter to be ‘The Politics of Mothering’ – I think the original piece – containing many interesting facts about fiscal policy and statistics about mothers and families. However it is near the end and I felt quite worn out by then having been repeatedly kicked in the shins by a ‘purple-stockinged foot’ that read ‘message.’

I experienced a variety of emotions while reading – pride and tenderness for my children (good – it was lovely to be reminded of the importance and sweetness of my work as a mother), rage against the system (understandable – I felt similarly after reading Greer et al as a student), but also some dissatisfaction against my personal setup – three males in the house – one big, two small. Raging at a system created by men, then looking at your own men, is a bit unsettling. As Olorenshaw explains, patriarchy has been around as long as Plato. While there is a brief mention of the Goddess culture, it is not really expounded, so it is hard not to feel a bit hopeless at a situation that has always been so.

However, small gripes aside, this is a fluid, punchy, beautifully written piece with some poetic, memorable quotes, such as ‘becoming a mother is like learning to drive the day after being run over by a bus’, (65) or how mothers are ‘society’s paradoxical scapegoat sat on a pedestal’ (125).

Maggie Gordon-Walker is a freelance writer and performer (www.maggiegordon-walker.com) and the founder of Mothers Uncovered, a UK-based creative peer support group (www.mothersuncovered.com )

 

 

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