Friday, November 19, 2004

Conflicted motherhood

Joanna Murray-Smith confesses in this morning's Age,

I am leading the life the feminists of the '70s dreamed of: successful professional and mother - but it's no dream.

Why not? Because of the mental anguish she feels at not having time to spend with her children. She asks,

Where is the play time with our kids? Where are the long hours of unhurried togetherness?

She admits that "I go to bed at night asking myself over and over again how much our working lives really benefit our children?" and that "increasingly I resent the dishonesty of pretending that our children are not guinea pigs in an experiment that is, in many ways, a failure."

What is her response to this situation? On the negative side, she claims that "the true feminist quest [is] to continually re-examine women's choices", as if feminism itself could redress the balance and support the choice of women to stay at home and look after their children. As I've pointed out previously, the logic of feminist theory runs counter to women choosing to stay at home to care for their own children. It's a forlorn hope that feminism might reform itself and allow women to freely choose this option.

More positively, though, Joanna Murray-Smith does question the liberal idea that we should aim for unimpeded individual choice. She realises that women can't do, in reality, what they are told they can do, and simply choose to have everything at the same time. There will always exist impediments to individual choice. She relates how,

my generation of middle-class women, desperate to realise our mothers' dreams, sailed into the professions with the bluster of undimmable expectations

but having also become mothers,

we have woken up in our 30s and 40s and found that you can not be a master of parallel lives, only, with a little luck, of one.

She has become aware, too, that unimpeded individual choice has little to say about what we owe others or what our adult responsibilities are. She writes that women need to be,

vigilant not only to our desires but also to our mistakes, to find the elusive balance between our needs and our responsibilities to our children ... We have been taught to applaud our own rights, but now we need to question how the volume of that applause has rendered mute the rights of our children.

Her conclusion casts doubt on the whole political culture of unimpeded individual choice. She writes,

Perhaps we have reached the point where the feminist cliche of having choices is finally undressed. The gift of choices is booby trapped. The concept of choices is laden with the grief of loss. Something is always lost.

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