Sunday, July 29, 2012

swifter, higher, stronger?

Despite a lifetime antipathy to sports - or at least the beatification of sports-stars - I was one of the millions watching the opening ceremony of Olympics 2012. From the man with the jet-pack zooming round the stadium in Los Angeles way back in 1984, to the footprint fireworks in Beijing 2008, the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics have offered even the most sports-phobic something to ‘ooh’, ‘aah’, and ‘tsk’ at.

London 2012 didn’t disappoint on that score. Despite wondering when Gandalf would turn up during the bucolic opening scenes and feeling gobsmacked when the giant phalluses emerged from the earth during the homage (?) to the industrial revolution, there was plenty to smile at. Not least the slightly bonkers but nonetheless fabulous tribute to the National Health Service, the selective romp through British history - we got industrialisation, but imperialism clearly forgot the way to the stadium - and British music. You know it’s got to be doing something right when a Tory MP dismisses it as ‘leftie, multi-cultural crap’. 
There was even plenty to cheer about from a feminist perspective: as Guardian columnist Caitlin Moran exclaimed ‘it's all Mary Poppins, suffragettes, JK Rowling and THE QUEEN IN A PARACHUTE.’ And there was more. During his opening remarks, the big boss of the Olympics Jacques Rogge announced that this was the first Olympics in which every one of the more than 200 countries taking part fielded female athletes. Rogge called it a ‘major boost for gender equality.’ 
A boost, perhaps, but not necessarily a boon. 
Because, elsewhere, female Olympic athletes were being criticised for their physical appearance and lack of sex appeal. Australian swimmer Liesel Jones, for example, who is taking part in her fourth Olympics after collecting a fair number of medals and breaking records in the last three, has been called out for her weight. Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun, published pictures of Liesel ‘then and now’ and speculated on the cause of her weight gain between her first Olympics in Sydney (aged 14) and 2012. Never mind the fact that Liesel is an athlete at the peak of fitness and performance and ... um ... that’s kind of what you need to do well at the Olympics. Never mind that a 14-year old is still a developing adolescent and a 26-year old is a grown woman and looking the same might be a cause for concern rather than celebration. Never mind any of that ... because Liesel is a woman, and no matter how talented she is, she’s still not exempt from sexist scrutiny of her appearance.
At least Liesel is allowed to be a woman. British weightlifter 18-year old Zoe Smith has been criticised for being too masculine i.e. being too strong and having too many muscles (because that’s what all men are like, right?) Disappointingly, Smith and her colleagues have received such criticisms from both men and women. Not one to let such sexism go unchallenged, Smith hit back saying, amongst other things, “apparently we’re ‘weird’ for not constantly eating crap, binge drinking regularly and wearing the shortest, tightest dresses that the high street has to offer. Sigh…”
All of this takes place mere weeks after Wimbledon commentators angsted yet again over women tennis players daring to push for equal pay ... not to mention daring to vocalise while playing. Clearly when women do something with their bodies other than constantly beautifying them or having babies, the gender police start pounding the beat.
But what about the mothers?
I’ve tried to find statistics on how many of the female athletes at the Games are mothers too. So far, my extremely sketchy research hasn’t found the numbers. There have, however, been profiles of some of the mum-athletes, including tennis player Kim Clijsters, beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh, and hurdler Tiffany M. Williams.
Apparently, they’re a growing breed (pardon the pun), so much so that there’s now even a dedicated marketing campaign centred around ‘Olympic moms’. With undisguised capitalist glee, advertisers such as Pampers, McDonald’s and others have snapped up these new cash-cows. Ker-ching!
‘Olympic moms’ are also harder to stereotype as sexless, unattractive - perhaps, gasp, even lesbian - women, because they’ve at least partially fulfilled the cultural script set down for women. But their specific challenges as working mothers are often airbrushed out of the advertising copy: regaining peak physical condition after giving birth, and training to be a world-class athlete while balancing school-runs and ‘quality time’.
Much easier, of course, for mothers to just cheer from the sidelines. As this 2012 Proctor & Gamble advertisement shows, a mother’s conventional role in the Olympics is to bear the athletes, ferry them to and from practice, wash their clothes, feed them, and support them in every possible way (apparently all Olympians have deadbeat dads - who knew?). P&G describe themselves as ‘proud sponsor of moms’ - specifically through their laundry detergents and nappies. Why? Because ‘the hardest job in the world is the best job in the word. Thank you, mom’. 
If sentimentality was an Olympic event, they’d win the gold.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

review: The Conflict

Having just finished French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, I remain conflicted.
On the one hand, I agreed with her about the return to naturalism, the rise of the child-free woman and the conservatism of dominant ideologies of motherhood. On the other hand, I found myself closing the book with a dissatisfied ‘and?’. I was right there with her as she critiqued the cult of the ‘natural’ starting off with Rousseau and coming into the present (including certain strands of feminism), I was interested to read about the origins of La Leche League in fundamentalist Christianity and its continued proselytising mission regarding breastfeeding, and I was intrigued by her diagnosis of the rise of child-free women as a ‘nuclear option’ - a kind of Lysistrata-like riposte to the impossible demands placed on women and mothers in the present moment. I was also interested in what she appeared to pose as an answer: individualistic hedonism, most especially as seen in France. Was the answer to the question of how to manage motherhood and everything else as simple as hopping on a plane?
Um ... no.
For me, alarm bells start ringing when exceptionalism is posed as an answer, whether it’s nationality-based or class-based. What France does do well is provide State support for mothering, in the form of at least four months’ paid parental leave, jobs held open for three years (although this is not solely applicable to new mothers) long post-natal stays in hospital, free community-based referral services to find childcare, affordable high-quality child-care and pre-schools, and after-school care that enables full-time working. What this improves, according to Badinter’s analysis, is not necessarily women’s options in the wider society, nor men's ability to fully enter the domestic sphere but the birth-rate, most especially the number of women having children. While France has a high, but not outrageously high, birth-rate by Western European standards (New Zealand’s is much higher, for example, for particular demographic reasons of our own), where France differs from other countries is that far fewer women choose not to have children at all. Badinter contrasts this with neighbouring Germany, where a third of women of child-bearing age are choosing not to have children. She concludes that this ‘must be because they feel that becoming mothers is not worth the cost ... it must mean they are fulfilling their potential through something other than the kind of motherhood imposed on them’. (The Conflict, p 169) 
US journalist Judith Warner, who spent her early mothering years in France before returning to the States, agrees that there are many positive aspects of mothering in France. Aside from the material benefits, she notes that:
Guilt just wasn’t in the air. It wasn’t considered a natural consequence of working motherhood. Neither was the word ‘selfish’ considered the necessary accoutrement of a woman with children who wanted to take time for herself. On the contrary, work was considered a normal part, even a desirable part, of a modern mother’s life .... Taking time for herself was equally considered to be a mother’s right - indeed, a mother’s responsibility - as was taking the time for romance and a social life. The general French conviction that a person should live a ‘balanced’ life was especially true for mothers - particularly, I would say for stay-at-home mothers, who were otherwise considered at risk of falling into excessive child-centredness. (Perfect Madness, p 10)
Warner is convinced, however, that ‘there is a price to pay for the wonderful (and expensive) benefits [French women] enjoy: a pervasive and all-but-unchallenged kind of institutional sexism.’ (Perfect Madness, p 281). According to Warner, this sexism can prevent women of childbearing age from being hired in the first place, and can affectthe rights of women who do become pregnant while working. Even Badinter admits things are far from perfect: French fathers take on few domestic responsibilities and the decisions regarding children are still the primary responsibility of the mother (The Conflict, p 167). She also has little to say - in this book, at least - about how women and mothers fare in the wider society. More women may work - but what do they work at and how do they deal with obstacles in their careers? What about French fathers - are they making strong inroads into the domestic sphere? What is the composition of the State-funded army of childcarers and how are they remunerated? More broadly, are French women free of the influence of the beauty myth, eating disorders and body fascism? What about domestic violence? In short, is patriarchy on its knees in France because of the more generous State support of mothers, and the cultural vibe that it’s okay to have a glass of vin rouge while pregnant? 
Um ... no.
In addition, France is not the only European country that has generous parental leave provisions (for both mothers and fathers). But here’s the thing.  It’s hard to read this as solely a feminist triumph, even though it undoubtedly benefits women, not least because the origins of some of these policies pre-date second-wave feminism. Leaving aside the issue that there are still numerous cultural obstacles to men and women sharing the benefits equally (Badinter notes that where paternity leave provisions exist, men may be unwilling or unable to take them up), these provisions were developed less to free women from the drudgery of childcare and home-making, but more to protect children. Arguably, they represent less an affirmation of women’s rights, than the rights of their children (this is a topic I want to address in a future post: why should it be one or the other?).

The conflict Badinter is concerned with, then, is that between 'the woman' and 'the mother' (the French subtitle of the book) - as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive. As some reviewers have noted, this opposition risks harking back to the untenable position that motherhood itself is at odds with women's emancipation. Others have noted that Badinter seems to let men off the hook when it comes to parenting, as if it's solely the responsibility of the mother, whether she be French and 'mediocre' or intensively attached. For the conspiracy theorists out there, still others have noted the links between Badinter and Nestle, controversial manufacturers of infant formula, and questioned her ethical stand-point.
Between all the myth-busting and truth-telling surrounding modern motherhood, there’s plenty of analysis about what the problem is (whether it's offered from an explicitly feminist point-of-view or not). Much more difficult, of course, is solving the problem. Looked at this way, Badinter’s recourse to individualistic hedonism as the answer seems limited at best. As that arch-feminist (ha!) Karl Marx once observed, ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

eating your cake too?

As I’ve been experiencing, thinking, reading, and writing about motherhood and feminism, there’s been something that has continued to bug me. The more I encounter the language of ‘income penalties’, ‘mommy tracks’, ‘balancing acts’, and ‘having it all’, alongside the demands for high-quality childcare, extended paid parental leave, and family subsidies, the more it bugs me. And what might ‘it’ be?
It’s cake. The having of and, more especially, the eating of it too.
As I read Rebecca Asher’s book Shattered, which articulated policy programmes for more equitable parenting parental leave, I found myself questioning her assumptions. She talked about ‘income penalties’ faced by mothers: assuming a heterosexual, stable couple - not always a given - one or other parent would suffer an income penalty by staying at home, for however little time, to look after young children in terms of lost earnings and opportunities. But, even if our hypothetical couple were able to get their young child into high-quality childcare so both parents could work full-time at demanding careers without any discernible penalty, someone pays the income penalty. Parents pay less than they earn to the carers of their children: early childhood care is still an overwhelmingly female occupation, and still a comparatively poorly-paid one. Based on this policy solution, solving ‘income penalties’ for one group of parents, means shifting the financial penalties of parenthood on to someone else.
I also wondered about measures of success based solely on income. If I take my own example, measured solely on income, I have lost very little  by staying at home for over a year. My income has risen as it would’ve whether I was actually doing my job or not. Despite the lost earnings over a few months, the threat to my career is fairly negligible. I appreciate that that is far from the case for every mother, even ones in similar positions to me. But it does make me wonder about the narrow definitions of success: income level (high and continually rising), career trajectory (aim for the top and keep going till you get there) and conspicuous consumption (buy as much as you can for as much as you can). Without being naive about power and how it is exercised, isn’t this buying in to extremely narrow patriarchal definitions of success? 
I think this is true, but, at the same time, women do earn less than men (even if they don’t have children), and there are fewer women in power. Patriarchal definitions of success might be narrow, but they are still powerful and pervasive. It is still depressingly common to hear of women who are fired, demoted or otherwise pushed out of their careers by getting pregnant or having children. In Emily Monosson’s edited collection Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out (2008), a graduate scientist describes being fired for getting pregnant .... in 2006. She has successfully taken action against her institution, but warns others that sex discrimination based on motherhood is still a real and present danger, even in apparently liberal academic institutions. 
Other essays in Monosson’s fascinating collection detail the lives and choices of women scientists who are trying to balance careers and motherhood. Covering a period from the 1970s - where women scientists were still a relative rarity - to the 2000s - where young women make up around a third of science graduates, the book describes varying routes to success. Some of these involve the traditional route, with high levels of support from partners, extended family and quality child-carers (all, I note, to make the impact on the institution rather than the families negligible). Others involve paths less taken that were not in any way planned or expected.  
One could argue that the authors of the essays are at pains to champion their own choices and inevitable compromises, but I think there is more to it than that. After having children, priorities change, and passions can become more focussed: while all of the women in this book are scientists - in the broadest definition of the term - many have turned their passion for science into policy, teaching, advocacy, and research that can be conducted outside the laboratory. They do so partly in the hope of making the world a better place, partly because there is better flexibility in public service, teaching and non-laboratory-based work, and partly because they want to role-model female career success for their children (especially their daughters). 
Inspiring as these stories are, they also got me thinking. These women are highly-educated and ambitious, yet most have made sacrifices to start families and maintain a career. With one or two exceptions in the thirty-four stories on offer, their partners did not sacrifice to the same level. Is it then the case - however much we might not want to admit it - that it isn't possible to have your cake and eat it too?
Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University, is no longer so sure that it is possible, at least not without serious societal change. Imbibing the second-wave feminist mantra that women can have it all, Slaughter was able to balance her academic career and family to some extent. Until she took up a powerful position in Washington DC at as the first female director of policy planning at the State Department, that is.  After two years of relentlessly long hours, and continual travel, she gave up her role, returned to her teaching job at Princeton, and wrote a provocative article, published in July 2012 in the Atlantic: ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All’.
Slaughter frankly says:
Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating “you can have it all” is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.
Slaughter believes that It is time for women in leadership positions to recognise that ‘although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that “having it all” is, more than anything, a function of personal determination’.
She then identifies a series of ‘half-truths’ women tell themselves about having it all, all of which try to address structural problems at the individual level:
  • ‘It’s possible, if you’re just committed enough’: and if you can’t balance career and family, and let the former slide to focus on the latter, you are ‘letting the side down’.
  • ‘It’s possible, if you marry the right person’: sure having a supportive partner is great, and a woman’s career can flourish if her partner is effectively the ‘stay-at-home mum’. It’s more unusual, but it is still essentially the same breadwinner-homemaker model.
  • ‘It’s possible, if you sequence it right’: have babies young, then try to get ahead (um, then you’ll be at least a decade behind everyone else, and be battling ageism as well as sexism) or progress your career first, then have babies (fine, but then you might experience physiological problems you hadn’t anticipated or risk being marginalised during a crucial career advancement period). Bottom-line? There is no right time.
To be clear, after dealing with these ‘half-truths’, she does not then go on to say women can’t have it all, so why bother trying? Instead, she offers some hard-won insight on what cultural changes need to be made to enable women - or more particularly, women of her demographic (i.e. ‘highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place’) - to be successful at home and at work. These include: changing the culture of ‘face-time’; revaluing family values; redefining the arc of a successful career; rediscovering the pursuit of happiness; and enlisting men. 
As a teacher, she sees a role for herself in creating future generations who will be able to have it all:

I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.
After reading about the women scientists, and about Slaughter’s experiences, I sat looking at my own piece of cake. I opted to stay at home with my baby for nearly eighteen months, during which time my job was held open for me. I was only paid for a fraction of that time, but I have still received incremental increases in my rate of pay. I had the option to determine when and how I would return to work: full-time, transitioning from part-time to full-time, or part-time. For now, I have chosen to return part-time, and have a job-share partner, who also has a young child. It may not seem like a high-powered return to work, but, for now, it is working for me and my family. The time out has made me really think a lot more - and in concrete and practical ways - about what I (and we) want our lives and priorities to be. I want a successful career - and I have a few ideas up my sleeve about how that might unfold in the next three decades - but I also want a successful family too.
So rather than having my cake and eating it too, I think I’ll have a small piece for now, and save the rest for later. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

what are you afraid of?

‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’
‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’
‘Feel the fear ... and do it anyway.’
Cliches abound about fear, more particularly about how to get over your fears: take a deep breath, square your shoulders, trust to luck, God, or gravity, and take the plunge into whatever it is you’re afraid of (exams, a really deep swimming pool, the Great Pit of Carkoon) . Less attention is directed at the source of fear: fear, instead, is dismissed as irrational, pointless, disabling, and ‘all in your head.’ While it may be true to say that fear is all of those things, I think it is no less true to describe fear as rational, focussed, enabling and physiological.  
Take childbirth, for example (somebody, please!)
I have to confess my innate cowardice and say that one of the things that put me off having children sooner was fear of childbirth (and also fear of losing my identity, autonomy and ambitions - but that is a story for a another post, one that I am more keen than ever to write after reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article on whether women can have it all in The Atlantic).
I don’t think I’m alone with my fears, either. According to the The Association for Improvement in the Maternity Services (UK) there has been an unquestionable surge in women's birth anxiety in the past 20 years. Evidence in the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing suggests that one in four women now currently suffer high levels of childbirth fear.
And it’s no wonder. We’ve all heard the horror-stories - unbelievable pain, bodies ripped to shreds, uncaring doctors, incompetent midwives - and felt our eyes water at the thought of pushing something pumpkin-sized out of something that is ... well, let’s just say, ordinarily not pumpkin-sized. Fear seems a pretty rational and sensible response to all this, if you ask me. 
A couple of years ago, however, I did indeed get pregnant and found myself in the position of having to face down my fears and find a way to manage them. Not only was the die now cast, but fear could also potentially make the birth process worse by increasing stress levels and producing unhelpful adrenalin. Talk about your vicious circle. 
Fear of the unknown was at least as much a part of it as fear of pain. As Western women tend to live in smaller nuclear families, have fewer children, have them in hospital, and have them later in life, many women (and men, for that matter) do not routinely experience the trials of childbirth as a ‘normal’ part of life. Instead, it is shrouded in mystery, often interventionist, and made to seem as an irruption into normal life. 
Rather than pretend I wasn’t afraid, I soon realised that I would need to face my fears. These included fear of painful natural labour and fear of epidural needles, fear of having an unwanted caesarean and not being strong enough to get through the birth. And that’s all without even starting on hospital food and institutional night-gowns.
Facing birthing fears is partly about demystifying the process. New Zealand has been a leader in championing midwife care, home births and natural births as a way of returning to the idea that childbirth is a normal part of life, and pregnancy is a state of health. Doulas - who are not midwives, but birthing support people who assist before, during and after birth - are common overseas, but are relatively new here. In the UK, mothers, doulas and midwives are using the internet and social media to help each other overcome their fears about childbirth. They mainly do this by telling each other their stories. Hearing what actually happened to other women in the recent past, rather than having your imagination run wild with worst-case scenarios and well-meaning yet ghoulish advice and anecdotes, has helped women who use this service face their fears.  
As I prepared for birth, I too heard birth stories. Some were of empowered natural births, without any form of intervention, of which the women who experienced them were immensely proud. Some were stories of grief, of ideals shattered and lives endangered. Some were stories of fears faced, and dealing with whatever twist the birth process took as it came up. Each was different, but each reminded me that women can do this. No matter how bad - and there were a fair few where something went pear-shaped - each of these women got through it and lived to tell the tale. Their talking cures not only helped them work through their experiences, but also helped prepare their audience, lifting their confidence and working on their expectations.
I have told my own tale elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I offer some of my hard-earned tips for facing your fears:
  • Don’t watch birthing videos (unless you really want to). Face it, as the mother you are not going to experience birth this way anyway, so what purpose will it serve, other than scare the bejesus out of you? 
  • Admit you’re afraid (assuming you are, of course) and address what you’re afraid of. Positive affirmations are one thing - ‘every contraction brings my baby closer to me’ sounds nice and uplifting - but if you don’t really believe it because you’ve worried about how you’ll cope with that contraction - never mind the bloody baby - then it’s not going to be much use.
  • Have some coping strategies up your sleeve. Even if things don't go according to plan, having some different things to try - acupressure, going for a walk, getting in a birthing pool, running screaming from the birthing pool - gives a sense of control in the face of the uncontrollable and affirms that you’re not completely helpless in the face of pain. 
  • Surround yourself by people you trust, including partners / family / friends and the health professionals who will assist you. Knowing you have professionals in your corner who will let you know what’s going on, and give you space to make decisions is invaluable - they’ve been through this birth business before and have experience and insight that us first-timers don’t. Knowing you have family or friends in your corner who will support you when you need it, fight your corner if you can’t, and still be there after everything they witness is equally important.
My birth experience did not end up in any way being what I wanted or expected. But facing my fears to some extent, reminding myself that six billion people wouldn’t be here if women couldn’t do it, trusting the people around me to provide any help I might need kept the fear at arms’ length. I was not afraid during the labour and birth; although I had some decidedly mixed feelings immediately post-birth, fear wasn’t one of them! I can honestly say that the only time I felt afraid in the whole process was when I was taken to theatre for the second time and they were going to put me under a general anaesthetic. My fear was not that I wouldn’t or couldn’t deliver a baby or survive the pain - I already had - but that I would not wake up. 

At which point, I really had no option but to feel the fear and do it anyway ...

Monday, July 2, 2012

'it's only natural ...'

Nature baby, Natural baby, Organic Baby, Natural Organic Bio baby: from natural birth to Only Organic pureed vegetable baby food, raising babies is as natural as it gets.  

Or so culture would have us believe.
Practically everywhere you look - proliferating the higher up the socio-economic ladder you go - are shops, websites and products galore dedicated to the cult of nature. Birth without drugs followed by breastfeeding on demand for as long as possible is the natural and best course presented to new mothers. Wrapping your baby’s bottom in organic cotton re-usable nappies is the best way to go too: this is not only best for baby, but also best for the planet. Not living up to these ideals - a highly-interventionist birth, a guilty trip to the formula aisle in the supermarket, frustration with being chained to the washing machine - can leave women feeling like failures. 
I don’t want to dismiss these products and positions entirely. I attempted a natural birth (failing dismally due to my ... um ... body and baby’s desire to not conform to hospital schedules), breastfed for a little over a year (I was physically able to and was also able to take a year-plus off from my job to enable continued breastfeeding), and have mostly opted for the make-your-own-babyfood option (occasionally feeling somewhat disheartened when the baby refused my all-natural pureed veges and opted instead for a jar of baby-food). I’m sitting on a ‘B’ then so far on the ‘nature is best’ report card. Where my grade-point-average drops way down, however, is in the nappy department. I have to confess we didn’t even try re-usable nappies. I know, I know, bad for baby (although she’s never had nappy rash) and worse for the environment (hmmm ... although we live in a country that has implemented a cap and trade emissions scheme - without a cap! - and giving the worst polluters - the dairy industry - the opportunity to delay entry into it). I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their babies when it comes to using natural products or not. Instead, I want to take a step back and ask, more broadly, what this turn to nature means.

Like the Romantic painters and poets of the early nineteenth century, contemporary culture idealises and sentimentalises nature. As French feminist Elisabeth Badinter points out, ‘rather than mastering and using nature to address human needs and wants, humans are instead called to submit to the laws of nature ... This call to love and respect the natural environment came hand in hand with warnings of catastrophe and revenge: if we damaged the earth, we would pay dearly. Sooner or later, Mother Nature would severely punish her children’ (The Conflict, p 34)  Beginning in the 1970s, and gathering momentum in the 1980s, Badinter identifies three areas in which naturalism has gained ascendancy, specifically to the detriment of mothers: ecology, behavioural sciences based on ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour), and a new essentialist feminism (The Conflict, p 33).  To this list, I add the following:
  • intensive mothering, which remains the dominant ideology of motherhood. Ideally, mothers are expected to devote their every waking - and many sleeping - hours to the care of their young children. Pureeing carrots and rinsing pooey cloth nappies are just parts of this mothering agenda.
  • neurosexism, which expounds the natural differences between boys and girls. As the fantastic Cordelia Fine has shown in Delusions of Gender, we’re also in a moment where the supposedly hard-wired differences between boys and girls are informing everything from product development to the school curriculum. 
  • environmentalism. While climate change is real and serious, and directly concerns our children’s future, the choices that mothers make over a few years at best seem to earn more column inches than serial industrial polluters, climate change deniers, and politicians implementing short-sighted policies. Mothers are already at risk of screwing their children up psychologically, so why not just add the guilty burden of screwing up their futures and the whole planet as well? And it’s probably the fault of their mothers that people deny climate change, institute bad environmental policy and pollute waterways anyway. A recent article I read on disposable nappies was so venomous in its polemic against selfish mothers (yep, them again) that I felt a little concerned about the writer’s state of mind. But I digress.
In the 1970s, cultural anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner asked why women were continually positioned as closer to nature than culture and what it meant. In still-pertinent observations, she said:
Woman is being identified with – or, if you will, seems to be a symbol of – something that every culture devalues, something that every culture defines as being of a lower order of existence than itself. Now it seems that there is only one thing that would fit that description, and that is “nature” in the most generalized sense. Every culture, or, generically, “culture,” is engaged in the process of generating and sustaining systems of meaningful forms (symbols, artifacts, etc.) by means of which humanity transcends the givens of natural existence, bends them to its purposes, controls them in its interest. We may thus broadly equate culture with the notion of human consciousness, or with the products of human consciousness (i.e., systems of thought and technology), by means of which humanity attempts to assert control over nature. Now the categories of “nature” and “culture” are of course conceptual categories – one can find no boundary out in the actual world between the two states or realms of being. ('Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?' p 72)
So while we we are in a moment of continuous and increasing reliance on the technological, we also reify nature and the natural. We may say nature is best - but we don’t hesitate to intervene when we think it necessary. My attempted natural birth is one such example. Neither my body nor my baby decided that time was up on pain-free labour and that artificial induction should begin, and, eventually, that the forceps should be produced. But, by the same token, I don’t want to suggest that the use of technology in my case - however botched - wasn’t instrumental in saving either mine or my baby’s life. We are mistaken if we think that Nature cares one way or another. It simply is. It is humans - with our capacity for culture or ‘human consciousness’ - that make nature mean anything at all.

To paraphrase Michel Foucault in his discussion of the ‘author-function’ in literature, when something is represented in a way that inverts its historical function then it is likely to be ideological - that is, it is a concept produced by social power relations (‘What is an author?’ p 3). In the case of literature, the truth of a text is conventionally thought to be what the author meant. This may may seem like ‘natural’ common sense; however, there are in fact many ways one could read a text: using a historical lens, a feminist one, a Marxist one and so on. These might generate meanings of which the author had no awareness and with which he or she might heartily disagree - yet they are still valid readings of the words on the page. When it comes to mothers, the idea of Nature operates in a similar way, constraining the possible meanings of motherhood. Mothers are exalted as both natural and good - as long as they follow the cultural script set for them. By contrast, women who don’t become mothers or mothers who defy cultural convention, intentionally or not, are unnatural. Nature therefore defines all women. 
But the way we think about motherhood doesn’t have to be this binary: either / or, good / bad, natural / unnatural.  As beings endowed with consciousness, women, like men, are able to draw on culture as well as nature and make meanings from both. In a 2012 article for the Huffington Post, Elisabeth Badinter concluded that a cultural response is necessary to combat the return to naturalism:
Women ... are endowed with consciousness, personal histories, desires and differing ambitions. What some do well and with pleasure, others do badly or out of duty. By failing to take account of women's diversity, by imposing a single ideal of motherhood, by pursuing the notion of a perfect mother -- one who has the exclusive responsibility of making or breaking her children -- we fall into a trap. We neglect the other business of modern women: the unfinished assault on the glass ceiling, the fight to close the salary gap, the struggle for equality at home. We overlook women's need for financial independence at a moment when one marriage in two ends in divorce.
Women might begin to reverse the trend by rallying behind the breadth of their aspirations -- personal, maternal, and professional. We might begin by affirming that whether mothers give birth by epidural or in a hydrotherapy tub, breast-feed or mix formula, co-sleep or opt for a crib, stay at home or enroll in daycare, their children will be fine. In our developed world, both sets of children will thrive. In their effect on our children, the differences in approach are marginal. By losing sight of this truth, we lose sight of another: that the choices we make as mothers have no small bearing on our status as women. ('A Philosopher's Case Against Modern Motherhood')  
Paying a little less attention to what culture says nature means, and beating ourselves up when we inevitably fall short, seems like a good place to start. Because, contrary to what culture tells us, motherhood doesn’t come naturally.