New Internationalist

Room To Breathe

Issue 118

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THE FAMILY [image, unknown] Feminist myths

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Room to breathe
Feminists in the West have been criticised for sacrificing the loving care of children and the stability of the family for their own selfish ends. But, says Kathleen McDonnell, the women's movement doesn't want to destroy the family only to open a few windows and allow it to breathe.

ONE of the most common misconceptions about feminists is that they are against the family’. They are opposed to having children and completely caught up in their exciting careers. Like many popular ideas, this does have a core of truth in it.

In the early phase of the feminist movement women did attack the nuclear family. Motherhood was seen as a form of bondage preventing them from participating in the real’ world of work, politics and culture. And issues that had priority for women in that early period — the right to abortion and safe, effective birth control, for example —concentrated on freeing women from the oppressive and constricting aspects of motherhood.

A stigma became attached to ‘staying home with the children’ or being ‘just a housewife’. And this attitude has driven a tremendous wedge between women who work inside the home and those who work outside it. One of the tasks of feminists in the 1980s is to heal this rift and set the feminist record straight.

Contemporary feminists have a much more complex view of mothering and the family than is generally thought. They no longer advocate (if in fact, they ever did) doing away with the family or herding all children into state run day care centres at six months. What they are doing is exposing some of the myths surrounding the family and woman’s place within it— myths which oppress not only women but men and children as well: and which prevent the family from being a vehicle for deep human love and commitment.

One myth is that our society honours motherhood. There are songs and poems to mother, there is Mother’s Day. But being on a pedestal is not all it’s cracked up to be. Mother’s work is not really respected in our society at all or even recognized as real work. Without pay and without status, the skills and experience of a housewife count for nothing outside the family— as women find to their dismay when attempting to reenter the work force.

Another myth that feminists are meeting head on is the notion of the ‘happy family’ where all our needs for intimacy, love and emotional bonding are met. Yet all around us are families in turmoiL Divorce, child abuse, wife battering, incest: where are the happy families?

Marxist-feminist writer Eli Zaretsky suggests the problems arise because today’s family is expected to live up to an impossible set of expectations. The family is the only escape from the alienating and impersonal world of work. At work our only value lies in what we produce. But at home we are supposed to be loved for what we are. Only in private are we allowed to express our emotional needs. And only all the focus of private life, in our families, are those needs supposed to be met. The family must stick together, present a happy, united face and not wash its dirty linen in public. In the end, says Zaretsky, many families crack under the weight of these expectations. They ‘simply can’t meet the pressure of being the only refuge in a brutal society.’ The dark underside of this weighty burden is the violence that surges up when family members turn their rage, their deep sense of betrayaL upon each other.

Women are subject to a particular kind of pressure because they are supposed to orchestrate the family’s emotional life. Their job is to ease tensions and soothe ruffled egos and broken hearts. Feminists are now questioning whether any single human being can or should be expected to perform such a demanding and self-sacrificing role. The answer, they think, is to start breaking the isolation of the family and link it up with support groups and services in the community. And that is where many feminists are concentrating their efforts: into parent-child drop-in centres, new mothers’ support groups, shelters for battered women and their children.

A third issue feminists are coming to grips with is perhaps the thorniest one of all — and the one least resistant to change, the myth that children belong exclusively with their mothers. A great deal of research by people like John Bowlby, Marshall Klaus and John Kennell suggests that very young children need to form an intense bond with their mothers in order to grow into mature, healthy adults. Many women with children believe this and have fought for things like more humane birthing practices and extended maternity leave to provide the optimal conditions for this attachment to occur.

But feminists question to what extent the the exclusive attachment to the mother is necessary or even desirable. Many see the emphasis on a baby’s ’instincts’ and mother’s biological role as simply another way of denying women any power in the outside world They would like to see a shift in emphasis to widening the choices of childcare open to mothers and fathers.

Day care, of course, has allowed women to work outside the home in ever-increasing numbers. But day care still has a bad name with those who think that it can’t hold a candle to a mother’s undivided love and attention. (Though this view neatly overlooks the hours of work a mother has to do while junior waits in his playpen). However. researchers Jay Belsky and Laurence Steinberg reported in 1978 that high-quality day care is not disruptive of the child’s emotional bond with the mother. They also found that day-care children were less shy with other children and more forthcoming with strangers.

The operative words are high quality. Feminists have long fought for adequate funding, a high level of training and low staff-child ratios for day-care centres and have always suspected private centres of a tendency to sacrifice quality for profit. They have also fought for part-time care, for better standards of day care and for the establishment of parent drop ins and play groups where mothers who don’t work outside the home can still bring their children to play together and have contact with other parents in a similar situation.

So feminists don’t want to smash the family — only to open it up and allow it to breathe. Whether we like it or not, the family is undergoing a radical transformation anyway. The two-parent family with mother in the kitchen cooking the bacon dad has brought home is becoming more and more of a rarity. Instead, we are witnessing the development of a broad range of family styles that would have been considered wildly unconventional only a generation ago. Fathers are staying home while mothers go out to work. Divorced parents are working out elaborate shared custody arrangements to maintain maximum contact with their children. Single parents are getting together in coops to share expenses and child rearing responsibilities.

All of these are true families. And feminists believe that a widening of the options must be a good thing — not only for women, but for men and children too. By becoming more open and flexible, the family will in fact become more real, more truly suited to today’s world rather than some fairy-tale echo of a romanticized past. And it is only by being grounded in reality that the family can begin to meet our most deep seated needs for intimacy and love.

Kathleen McDowell is a Canadian playwright journalist and new mother.

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