Content note: mothers, mothering labour, mentions of biological essentialism.
This post goes out to every mother and to every woman who looks after a family or cares for other human beings. It goes out especially to every single-mother, every non-white mother and every young mother. To every mother who is shamed for not also participating in waged work alongside being a mother, and for every mother shamed for the fact she has to spend more time in waged work than at home with her children.
Because of that, this also goes out not only, but especially, to every man. Every man who has ever known their mother and every man who has ever known a woman. Every man who has ever said he loves a woman and every man who hasn’t.
This one is for all of you.
It’s the day between Mother’s day and International Women’s day and I find myself in a strange stretch of mere hours lent to celebrate such people – a reflection of the value we give them. We seem to live in a default mode where we all accept that mothering roles and the work mothers do is undervalued, but we simultaneously do nothing to change that. Being taken for granted is almost one of the characteristics of the job. Except, it’s not.
It’s not one of the characteristics of the job because being a mother isn’t viewed as a job. Not viewed as work, not viewed as labour. In fact, because mothering is expected to be so innate and natural a role for women – whether or not they can or can’t have or do or don’t want to have children – we remark that they ‘do no work’ unless they enter some form of waged or salaried work. This clever twist means we have no reason to appreciate or value the work of mothering, the work of caring or the work that facilitates everything else to function, because it is something women who are mothers do naturally.
At the same time as not valuing mothering labour we also don’t even acknowledge it exists. We ask full-time mothers to justify how they spend their time, we shame them, we patronise them and belittle them. All the while we benefit from their labours though. From all the mundane tasks that facilitate the functioning of human lives, from buying food and other resources to feeding other people, sustaining habitable surroundings, cleaning, tidying, replacing toilet rolls, taking children and parents to hospital appointments, making appointments for other people, raising children, dropping people off at different venues, and actually turning children into adults. On top of all this relatively ignored labour comes the even more invisible, exhausting and repeated work of emotional labour. From the support given to other family members and asking about people’s days, to following up the stories of the day before, keeping in contact with extended family members and friends, keeping track of other people’s calendars, educations, futures, and all the while adapting and suppressing their own emotional needs fairly consistently. All of these intangible and expected labours that many mothers fulfil, or are expected to fulfil, also come in the framework of being intrinsic to women’s very way-of-being. For example, what we expect of parents who are men is called ‘fatherhood’ which pertains to a wholly different and usually much less laborious set of roles. By adding increased expectations to parents who are women, we unfairly burden them without acknowledgement.
For me, this cruelty seems to be a betrayal. By not expecting the same labour from all people regardless of gender we devalue such labour, especially in the lives of men. Mothers often labour for years to nourish children who become men and yet, so often, those men will be the same ones who do not acknowledge or even understand what it is that mothers do. What pains me most is that later on they may not even acknowledge the labour that women who are the mothers of their own children do. To my mind, undervaluing mothering labour and emotional work that is so gendered is to disrespect, devalue and dehumanise women, especially women who are mothers.
To continue to expect fathers to be something other than men who are mothers is to continue to expect and ask of women an immense labour whilst simultaneously refusing to acknowledge it. To continue to ask mothers what it is they do and to shame mothers who don’t or can’t also engage in waged labour, is to continue to disregard the labour they do whilst simultaneously asking more of them.To continue to belittle mothers who can’t spend time with their children because such work won’t be paid and money is what they most need to provide their families with, is to continue to trap them.To continue to see mothering as an intrinsic role rather than an effortful one is to continue to expect less from men and to ask women who have children with men to compromise.
When men take the love of mothers and the support and labours that facilitate their own lives; when they take the love of women in all forms of emotional and psychological labour and continue to find in friends who are not men a kind of refuge; I then ask why it is that they still denigrate, belittle and shame people who spend all of their time being mothers. When you devalue emotional labour and mothering you devalue every mother. You can’t simply denigrate one type of mother. To simultaneously not acknowledge and continue to expect care from women is actually an act of domination and silencing. In particular, to ask women who are single mothers, black and brown mothers, unsupported and complicated-circumstances mothers, working-class mothers, mothers who work two-job mothers, immigrant mothers, criminalised mothers and young mothers to fulfil your expectations is to commit a most reprehensible act of violence. Such women already suffer under the strains of impossible and contradictory burdens of capitalist, hetero-patriarchal, white supremacist structures; to further degrade and malign them is beyond my comprehension.
People who are mothers are doing the work of life. The work of nourishing humanity and the work that enables everything else to work. For every mother who has ever been asked to undervalue, underplay or justify their mothering role, this goes out to you. May you be appreciated.
Heaven lies beneath the feet of your mother. – Prophet Muhammed (pbuh).