These are my answers to Blue Milk’s ten questions.
1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence?
My feminism strengthens, thrills and scares me and is intertwined with my support for human rights in general and queer and women's rights in particular, as well as issues related to body image and acceptance.
When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?
I don’t remember any details about the incident, what caused it or how I reacted, but I’ll always remember a boy at school accusing me of being a feminist when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Despite this auspicious start, I only started calling myself a feminist recently. Like many women I’ve wanted to avoid being associated with the straw feminist trope even though I’ve been one at heart for years. When I was 13 I became seriously concerned about body-image issues and eating disorders and when I was 16 Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth got me all fired up. Unfortunately none of this prevented me from succumbing to an eating disorder myself in my late teens and early twenties. The gradual development of my feminist identity has paralleled my healing from that and my acceptance of my body and myself.
Though in many ways my parents had a traditional marriage, with my mum largely responsible for raising us while my dad traveled constantly for work, they were both feminists in their own ways. My dad was a human rights scholar who raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. He never made me feel lesser than for being female. My mom completed a PhD and worked while raising us. After my dad passed away her feminism kind of exploded and we really bonded over that in the years before her own death twelve years later. My maternal grandmother was also a feminist—an emotionally distant intellectual who had her first kid at 35 (with a man 10 years her junior) when that was still unheard of, who asked me at 14 why I wore a bra and who I suspect would have chosen a career over a family had she been born decades later.
My own feminism has only truly emerged since becoming a mother. In 2008 I came across a reference to the “feminist motherhood movement” that in retrospect was a huge turning point for me. I was taking a documentary film-making class at the time and decided to focus on this subject for my class project. Unfortunately I ended up dropping the class but not before interviewing Dr. Andrea O’Reilly and through her discovering Andie Fox's Blue Milk, who became like an evangelist for me and whose blog I’ve followed ever since.
So I was already immersing myself in feminist motherhood thought before ever joining the ranks. Yet I was still not necessarily expecting I would feel this strongly about feminism after becoming a mother. Residing in the provincial Italian city of Florence has both fueled and challenged this. I do feel a bit lonely as a feminist mum over here. I wish there was a Mother Outlaw group like the one in Toronto that I could join. I suppose I'm hoping this new blog will act as a substitute. However I must also admit that, as a writer, Italy provides me with juicy material. It’s at once daunting and exhilarating to be on the feminist front lines in this overwhelmingly sexist country.
2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
Because of the brutally honest way feminist mothers write about how hard parenting can be, it has actually been better than I expected! Especially in the beginning. How’s that for a twist on the old overwhelmed new mum scenario? Just goes to show how important that kind of sharing can be for future parents. I’m also a little surprised by my ability to compartmentalize and totally focus on my work, without feeling guilty about being away from my baby. I’ve heard and read often about how agonizing it can be for mums to leave their children and return to work, but it hasn’t been like that for me. This is also where my profound privilege comes in, because I recognize how extremely lucky I’ve been to have flexible work and enviable childcare arrangements.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
As mentioned above, my feminism has been bubbling below my surface for years. It has long informed how I live and the decisions I make, yet I’ve been a bit of a coward about actually calling myself a feminist. One of my greatest weaknesses, one of the things I like least about myself, is how much I care what others think of me. And let’s face it, it’s still not very cool or glamourous to call yourself a feminist. I credit motherhood as the catalyst for helping me finally make significant steps to get over that.
I still feel like a baby feminist. The most radical thing I’ve done is write this blog. I’ve never taken a women’s or gender studies class so I’m still learning how to use all the proper terms like cisgender, intersectionality, even patriarchy. I sometimes feel intimidated by the women’s studies majors and would like to see and interact with more Caitlin-Moran-style non-academic feminists. Professionally I’ve been most fulfilled acting as a kind of translator/interpreter, whether literally from one language to another or figuratively by using accessible language to explain difficult concepts to wider audiences (which, interestingly, is a very non-Italian thing to do). I know a lot of intellectual/academic purists accuse fence-straddlers like me of dumbing down their subjects, but the democratic idealist in me thinks everyone deserves some kind of access to beautiful and/or important ideas.
4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?
This is a hard one. Since my son just turned two, I feel like I’m still doing recon, gathering information and preparing for the fieldwork! It’s hard to pinpoint any concrete actions I’ve taken so far in my mothering that are specifically feminist besides painting my boy's toenails or giving him something pink. I suppose my determination to resist outside pressure to conform is another. Making it a priority to socialize regularly with my women friends (without my child) and meet various other personal needs to model my autonomy. Nurturing and championing my husband’s equal involvement with our child. Italian non-feminist mothers in particular differ from me in how possessive they seem to be of the parenting and home-making reigns, possibly in a bid to retain some power in a society that grants them so little in the other areas of their lives.
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
Here in Italy, all the time! It is simply too exhausting to challenge every demonstration of sexism in my and my child’s daily lives. Also, being a shit disturber isn’t in my nature. I know that’s a huge thing I need to work on for my feminism to have any impact.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
It was hardest at the very beginning, when I was still finding my footing. It’s getting easier thanks to the confidence I’m developing through becoming a mother. If I’m honest though it still feels scary. Even if I know deep down that the people who matter are those who accept me as I am, I worry about being rejected for being a vocal feminist. Many of my friends don’t think we even need feminism anymore and seem to have the same tired ideas about feminists that are ubiquitously and insidiously perpetuated by the patriarchy. It’s hard when you don’t feel like you have a solid likeminded community. Don’t get me wrong, I have an incredible network of amazing friends. We just don’t often talk about feminist issues. It also feels especially challenging here in Italy because it’s hard enough trying to fit in as a foreigner, let alone one that brazenly challenges widespread entrenched traditions.
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
That’s something I struggle with. On the one hand, I resent having had to give up so many things. On the other hand, I went into it with my eyes wide open and there’s something beautifully primal about surrendering to the all-encompassing intensity of my child’s need for me. The freedom that I’ve lost in exchange — that sucks. I try to keep the resentment at bay by tending to myself as much as possible, personally and professionally. It’s crazy how hard it is, but it ultimately makes me a more positive and patient mother, wife and daughter-in-law.
8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood?
If anything, becoming a parent has turned my husband into a feminist! Even if he has a long way to go about certain things, I really feel like he deserves a lot of credit for the extent to which he bucks his country’s tradition. He has also taken my feminist blossoming admirably in his stride, considering how recent it all is. On second thought, it’s not like it happened overnight. We’ve been together for 11 years and there have certainly been signs along the way that he has supported, consciously or not.
9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
I am an attachment parenting mother. Since my feminism is very much about respecting other parents’ freedom to do what works best for them, it hasn’t posed challenges in that sense. What’s been hard for me is justifying myself to others and navigating decisions with my husband, and I can’t say I’ve quite resolved these. Despite my increased confidence, it’s incredibly challenging to hold strong when the pressure to make non-AP choices is coming from all sides: doctors, family members, friends, etc. etc., especially when my husband doesn’t feel quite as invested in this approach as I do. In fact, precisely because he’s such an involved dad he deserves to make these decisions with me. On the other hand, the physicality of it makes it feel so personal, so intimately tied to just me and my child. It’s an emotional minefield.
10 . Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
Yes, in some ways I do feel feminism has failed mothers. I agree with Dr. Andrea O’Reilly that securing equal rights for mothers is the “unfinished business of feminism”. So many feminist issues affect mothers and their children. I don’t even get why there is this division within feminism between mothers and non-mothers. We are an integral part of the battle! What feminism has given mothers, however, is the permission to be whole, separate individuals who can fulfill themselves with more than just their partners and their children without feeling guilty about it. And it has made (attempts at) equal parenting more of a rule than an exception in the western world, which is no small feat. Of course, a vital, pressing task for today’s feminists is finding ways to help marginalized mothers appreciate such privileges too. We still have A LOT of work to do.