Feminist Mothering

After the class discussion on Thursday, one of my students asked, “Why isn’t there a class on these issues? We talk about it in some classes, but never for more than thirty minutes.” I told her I’d look into it, but we don’t have a class on the books for it. So, I’m thinking of proposing a class, but I don’t know what to call it? Maybe you can help.

The class would probably read some Judith Warner, Barbara Kingsolver (especially Small Wonder), policy proposals on child care, Audre Lorde and others on lesbian parenting, check in with Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog (which is often most telling from the comments section), work on some of the issues with women in prison and their children. Other thoughts on what makes good topics or things to read? Writing assignments would certainly include activist proposals. It’s floating around in my head, and I really want to teach this class someday, but it won’t be this year, because I’m already booked.

Since I can’t teach this class this year, I’m thinking about starting a support group through the campus’s Women’s Resource Center. This would look very different from the academic format, but it would probably solicit topics of interest to the women, especially with regard to the university. In some ways, the resources on campus are strange: there’s Women Studies for teaching and learning in classes, the Feminist Research Institute for scholarly work (mostly for professors and advanced graduate students), and the Women’s Resource Center for support, safe space, library, and computer lab, so it serves mostly students. And we do all work together. This project then takes me away from research and teaching a little, which is really good, because I haven’t been involved in the practical real difference for people work in a couple of years.

Moreover, the topic–Feminist Mothering–is important because it’s both an oxymoron to segments of the population and a tautology to other segments of the country. But it’s not a simple red state/blue state question either. The group (or the class) would tackle questions like how might a workable child care scenario exist in our community? How do cultural expectations for mothers (or women who might possibly become mothers) limit women’s work and sense of self? How do commitments to reproductive justice fit into conversations about mothering? There’s the Association for Research on Mothering which has taken up several of these topics in a scholarly way.

What do you think? More successful as a class or a group? Is it just too self-indulgent?



  1. Not self-indulgent at all!!

    This is an extremely valid direction educationally speaking. Mothering/parenting/nurture is at the root of society and culture. This is so basic. Comparisons of styles of mothering in different times, cultures, classes, etc. could help mothers in day-to-day ways, and a broader academic overview could open up some potentially very helpful research. Awareness seems to me so key in facilitating meaningful and positive change – and you would be raising awareness about something so fundamental and key to human behavior. I think it would be extremely meaningful.

    As for group or class, as it’s not my line of work, I just don’t know. But as a friend of various thoughtful new mothers over time, I can say for a fact that women attending a public/support group would benefit from a safe place to explore motherhood from different points of view.

    Perhaps a group would help build up the bones and meat ideas for a class…

    Great idea!

    1. I hadn’t thought about making the group as prep for the class, but that will be really valuable. Thanks for the idea! The support group seems really feasible, even if a class isn’t in the immediate future. I’m working on getting it started now. Thanks, Phoebe!

  2. Yes, this is a subject that must be addressed by academia. I remember an article in the NY Times a few years back that focused on professional women with graduate degrees from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country. After going to work for a few years, many of these women became conflicted about the work/family balance and eventually left their jobs to be at home with children. In a sense, societal expectations and customs have transformed the modern woman into a schizophrenic mess. The desire to achieve both professionally and domestically leaves little room for excellence in either realm. It doesn’t help that the work environment still promotes single-income homes where one parent is expected to remain in the house to take care of the other duties such as caring for children, tending to daily chores, etc. Yet, instead of balancing these activities between both parents, most women take on the “second shift” in addition to their professional obligations. This is a serious problem because while most women pretend to be superhuman, they lose their sense of self and become depressed.

    1. Do you think it would have helped when you were in grad school? Because I’m also thinking about how the group changes when it’s a mix of grad students and undergrads, and maybe faculty? But I think the different perspectives are really valuable for all of us. I agree with so much you’re saying, Amanda. And the flip side is that it’s often difficult for single or childless women to reach the highest realms in corporate America because they don’t have a “wife” at home to do entertaining an all that second shift work. Thanks for the comment!

  3. This probably has absolutely nothing to do with the subject, but when I think about “Feminist Mothering” I instantly think of the gender roles society forces onto our children. When Junko and I first had Naomi, one of the things we discussed at great length was how to avoid pushing our daughter towards certain gender conventions. From where we are standing this problem seems insurmountable. Every toy, TV program, and movie seems to have some sort of gender agenda. I know that new parents are always a little paranoid, but this seems like a problem that I, as a parent, could use some help with.

    The way things are going it seems like I might be staying home and taking care of the baby while Junko works on her engineering career. This makes perfect sense for our family dynamic, unfortunately, I’ve already started taking flack from certain people because this is not the way a family “traditionally” runs. By social standards I will be considered nothing more than a mooch, living off the hard work of Junko, but this is going in a completely different direction than your post so I will stop this line of thought here. Actually I’ll say one more thing, I’m glad that Naomi will grow up in a house where she can see that it is okay for mommy to work hard on a career and it is also okay for daddy to stay home and take care of her.

    There are so many things to consider as Naomi grows up, what kind of toys should we buy her, what kind of shows do we let her watch, and so on so forth. I think that the concept of how to raise a child without letting society dictate their gender roles is a topic that might fit in the subject discussed in your post. Maybe. I don’t know.

    Sorry if this post is convoluted, I just typed what was running through my head as I read your post.

    1. I absolutely think the things you’re bringing up fit into this post and are important. It is so important that Naomi see in you all the role models you want for her. You start to bring up something that I think is problematic, in that “Mothering” is a verb that implies a long term commitment, whereas “fathering” is a verb that is a one off action. Clearly, perceptions need to shift on these constructs as well.

      Good luck to Junko and you with the jobs and staying home; most of all, and so cliche! but Naomi benefits from having happy parents. Sucks to those who want you to “work” (because we know being at home is work!).

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