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Sue Palmer: Feminists have much to answer for. Downgrading motherhood to a career setback is one of the worst

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To mark the paperback edition of Sue Palmer’s 21st Century Girls, How the Modern World is Damaging our Daughters and What we can do about it, we have been kindly granted permission to republish some extracts.

The 1960s feminists defined sexual equality mainly in terms of economic independence, so women’s status has ever since been based, like men’s, on the type of job they do and their earning power.

Motherhood is irrelevant to this public identity, and having a baby is widely treated as little more than an inconvenient interruption to women’s working lives. Over time the very idea of motherhood has been subsumed into the gender-neutral concept of ‘parenting’, while childcare is regarded as something to be fitted around parents’ jobs, or farmed out to low-paid, low-status carers.

It’s increasingly apparent, however, that in the first couple of years of children’s lives, motherhood matters. First and foremost, it matters to the children. Babies need someone to care for them, someone who loves them unconditionally, and is therefore prepared to be there twenty-four hours a day, tending to all their physical and emotional needs.

While anyone can fulfil this role, the most obvious candidate is the child’s mother, who already (as a result of pregnancy and childbirth) has a close physical and emotional connection to her baby. So mothers are overwhelmingly the most likely people to become the child’s primary attachment figure.

Motherhood also matters to society.

In her book ‘The Selfish Society: how we all forgot to love one other and made money instead’ the psychologist Sue Gerhardt explains how influential primary attachment figures are in terms of each generation’s social development:

‘The moral and emotional issues that we have to deal with as a society are

the same as those we begin to grasp in the cradle: how we learn to pay attention

 to others and their feelings, how we manage conflict and how we balance our

own needs with those of others.

Morality is about the way we manage the interface between self and society, an

 interface that starts in babyhood and is learned from the actual practice of early

relating.  This gives early child-rearing a prime place in our cultural life.’

Gerhardt argues cogently that lack of attention to early attachment over several decades is implicated in many contemporary social ills, not least the growth of selfish individualism, increasingly fragile personal relationships, and the widening gap between rich and poor.

Finally, and unsurprisingly, motherhood matters to mothers. Pregnancy and childbirth are significant emotional experiences in a woman’s life, as is the rush of mother-love with which nature prepares her to care for her infant.  Most new mothers soon realise they want (even need) to take on this caring role, despite the problems involved in a career break and the implications of a period of financial dependency.

Yet our cultural concept of motherhood is so wrapped up in negative attitudes to traditional women’s work that many women (particularly well-educated ones with reasonably high status jobs) find the sudden transition to the low-status occupation of child-carer triggers a serious identity crisis. Stopping work to be stay-at-home mums for a year or so results in what Naomi Wolf has described as ‘acute social demotion’.

With hindsight it’s obvious that under-estimating the significance of motherhood would eventually lead the sexual equality project into serious difficulties. When they failed to take this critical biological factor into account in the definition of sexual equality, those 1960s feminists unintentionally created the conditions for a new version of female ‘victimhood’.

Any woman who judges her worth in terms of the ability to compete on male terms in the workplace is bound to feel wanting when biology tugs her so decisively in another direction: Wolf’s ‘social demotion’ is in the mother’s own eyes as much as anyone else’s. A great female strength – the capacity to care for her babies – has been turned into a social liability.

Genuine equality obviously depends on men and women sharing the rewards and responsibilities of parenthood, and – after the first couple of years of their baby’s life – this should be perfectly possible, with both parents organising their working lives to accommodate childcare in the way that works best for them. But if every baby’s birth is accompanied by an emotional, practical and/or financial dilemma for the mother (leaving her feeling put-upon, socially devalued and exhausted) it’s not surprising that the majority of men haven’t yet seen the ‘rewards’ of hands-on care as worth sharing at all.

Now that science is proving the huge social importance of the primary attachment figure, there’s an opportunity to re-evaluate the significance of mothers’ contribution to society – and, in so doing – to change the cultural concept of care.

If the feminist movement were to take it, we could start to unpick some of the damage wrought by the socio-cultural storm of the last few decades. It does, however, depend on women rediscovering the personal rewards of motherhood.

21st Century Girls: how the modern world is damaging our daughters and what we can do about it by Sue Palmer is published by Orion at £8.99

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Sue Palmer
Sue Palmer is a former primary headteacher in the Scottish Borders and is an independent writer and consultant on primary education, particularly literacy.

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