Friday, June 20, 2008

What Class Identity Constitutes A Good Mother?

It has been my intention to focus on a class issue on this blog for awhile now.  Last night I was in a conversation with a girlfriend of mine, and we ended up discussing motherhood.  She has recently experienced a change in her class location and as such, how people perceive her as a mother has changed.  You may be thinking what does motherhood have to do with class?  I contend that there is a direct relation to how motherhood is understood based specifically in class.

In Ontario a woman living alone with a child earns just under 900 dollars a month on welfare.  The average rent for a one bedroom apartment is 800 dollars.  It will of course be supplemented by the 100 dollar a month universal child care benefit, and a further 200 dollars a month in child tax benefit. I am sure that you quickly did the math, and have realized that this does not leave very much for food, clothing, and utilities.  A family can only access a food bank once a month, and they must provide birth certificates for every single member of the family to receive aid.  The entire process of being on social assistance is a demeaning one.  Single mothers that are dependent on the system are characterized as lazy, irresponsible women. While we do have a social safety net that prevents complete starvation, they are constantly demonized by people who bemoan the tax dollars that are spent supporting single mothers, and their children.  Their very right to motherhood is challenged specifically on the basis of class.  That they might raise children who go on to add great value to our society is discounted, as Canadians do not want to take on the financial burden of supporting them.  In this case motherhood is seen as a privilege, and not the right of every woman capable of conceiving.

It would seem then that all one needs to qualify to be considered a good mother is to have a good job, that is able to provide for all of the subsistence needs of the family. That would be a wrong assumption.  Middle class working moms are also penalized for motherhood.  They are constantly made to feel guilty for "choosing" to work.  They are told that they are neglecting their obligations by placing their children in daycare.  When you have a child you should raise them, and not yield that responsibility to someone else. Apparently you cannot have it all, and this mantra is repeated consistently by the media, and parroted in the social discourse. Working mothers are slower to move up in companies, and are constantly trying to juggle the responsibilities of home, and the workplace.  They are continually accused of not taking their work seriously enough when they request time off to deal with family concerns. Working mothers also have the added joy of the "double day".

Well the last model of motherhood must have it down perfect right?   The suburban middle/upper class stay at home mom has got to be what women aspire to be, correct? They are prefect in every way, and are never stigmatized? From the moment a SAHM awakes she never leaves her place of work. Her entire life is dedicated to her family. Imagine never being able to leave your place of employment, how trapped would you feel?    The work of maintaining a household is undervalued in a capitalist society, not only because it is traditionally the labor of women, but because it does not produce a profit.  Since the male is the breadwinner when he asks, "what did you do today", it is actually a request for the breakdown of labor that was performed. A SAHM, and her husband have an unequal distribution of power within their relationship, simply because he is paid for his labor, and she is dependent on his magnanimity. Imagine having to justify how you spent your day? 

Each day is a repetition of tedious tasks that never end, in the service of others. Even while they run around town ferrying children to appointments, and picking up dry cleaning, their lives are ridiculed.  They are told, that what they do is meaningless, and counter to the objectives of advancing women. Imagine having your entire life held up to ridicule. To society she is just an air headed soccer mom without any real value. Though SAHM's are not considered the drain that welfare moms are on the system, they are seen as not contributing to the greater good by having removed themselves from economic labor. Socially the fulfillment of their biological imperative is seen as acceptable, as long as their husband continues to support them financially. The limited social acceptance that these women receive is completely dependent upon their marital state.

So I ask, what class do you have to be a part of, to be considered a good mother?  Each day we are inundated with cries of a declining birth rate, and yet women that choose to become mothers are socially constructed as less than. Welfare mothers are routinely denigrated, working moms are incompetent, and SAHM's lack the ability to reason.  Once a year we celebrate mothers day, but for 364 days a year this role is undervalued by our society. No matter what class position a woman occupies, mothering is tiring, soul exhausting work.  There is always someone to plant the seeds of doubt, to correct any small slight, or to demean any achievement, after all it's just motherhood.  Yet we continue on, daily loving, and caring for our families.

Many studies have been dedicated to estimating the value of household work and mothering, yet the stigmatization continues. Women don't need a hallmark card, and a dozen roses once a year, we need real and substantive change to the construction of motherhood. Though it is unpaid labor, it must be recognized as vital to our country.  A family cannot function without one member completely dedicated to its success, and that is what mothers do. Each and every act in the public sphere is dependent upon the success, and the maintenance done in the private sphere. The cost of actually paying mothers the value of their labor would bankrupt the Canadian economy, and yet we cannot as a country achieve the smallest concessions to make this role any easier.  We have no socialized day care program, there are no pensions benefits for a SAHM that pay at a subsistence level, and employers are not required to offer women hours that are more conducive to the role of mothering.  It seems that no matter what class a woman belongs to, motherhood is a losing proposition, a thankless never ending job.  Yet we continue on in the face of all of this adversity. There is a saying,...the strength of a people is placed upon a woman's back, and nowhere is that more reflective than an examination of motherhood.


Ebony Intuition said...

Thank you for writing this, I'm not a mother as yet in my life, but I do encounter plenty of people who always have something to say about women having children. Even women ridicule women. I just don't understand it.

Everyone swear thinks that women who are on welfare are stealing their tax dollars (fyi if they were making so much money they wouldn't be in a lower class bracket) People seriously need to get a reality check.

And your very correct about the amounts given for a women living alone. The average cost of rent in Toronto is even higher its about $1000 dollars now ( If you want to be in a clean and safe area for children)

I 100% agree with your post.

harrietsdaughter said...

Renee -
Thanks for posting this. You have said so many things that ring true here....

My oldest children are now young adults, both boys. I was a young single mother with them, having left a violent marriage. To punish me, my ex did not come through with any support. I was working a very low wage job and child care.... well, you know.

I finally bit the bullet and went to sign up for services. I didn't know anything about the system of welfare or aid to women and children, what to do, how it operated, who to talk to, etc.

Just going downtown and trying to get that information and do the things that I would have been required to do... it was the most humiliating experience of my life. It was like the system is designed to fill you with so much shame... again - the feeling of being punished for trying to protect myself and my children. Yes, the feeling I got was that I was a bad mother for evening coming in there, for not having a man, even a bad man.

I left and did not come back. Fortunately, I had a network of family, friends etc that I leaned VERY heavily on to get through that period. We lived in a tiny, bad apartment, we ate lots of rice and beans... but we did not have to endure the humiliation. But I am not so proud of that because the system exists to help vulnerable people - not push them out of the way - which is what I felt happened to me and my children. What happens to those who get pushed out of the way and don't have that network of family/friends?