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The eyes of her child are just not enough - childhood, parenthood and work

Agnieszka Graff teaches literature, culture, film and feminist history at the American Studies Center and the Gender Studies Program, University of Warsaw. She is a member of the team of Krytyka Polityczna (a new left center of public debate); founding member of the Women’s 8th of March Alliance (which organizes annual women’s marches in Warsaw). Since has never missed a Manifa and has been active in the Congress of Polish Women since its founding moments. She is the author of three books: Świat bez Kobiet (World without Women, 2001); Rykoszetem (Ricochet, 2008) and Magma (The Quagmire Effect, 2010). She writes on gender, sexuality, nationalism and the role of the Catholic Church in Polish public life in both scholarly journals and the mainstream press (mainly in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza); her columns appear regularly in Wysokie Obcasy and Dziecko. Her articles have also appeared in Feminist Studies and Public Culture

It is with nostalgia but also with great sense of distance that I remember this radical silliness from a dozen years ago. Today I might not laugh so freely; the culture’s obsession with mother-love does not seem quite so ridiculous to me. Yes, the mother-child bond is deep beyond words. Its foundation is utter dependence on one side, total responsibility on the other. This experience might lead to solidarity among women, but rarely does. Far more often, women live through the feelings and dilemmas of motherhood in isolation from each other, while the power, joy and hard work of motherhood is used against us by enemies of women’s freedom. What they offer is an ideology of “true womanhood,” an idealization of domesticity. Lack of freedom is supposedly the inevitable outcome of having a child. Women give birth to and love their children, it is argued, and this naturally defines what we can and cannot do with our lives, or rather what we no longer wish to do once we become mothers. It is emotional blackmail thinly veiled as affectionate concern. You desire freedom? But have you considered what this desire might do to your children? The figure of the bad mother (the one who “chose a career”) and the lonely child (who misses mommy desperately) are the central tropes of anti-equality rhetoric. They are used so often because they work so well. To many women, their power is paralyzing.

Pompous and suffused with tearful sentimentality, the ideology that views motherhood as the one true “calling” for women is all that the state has had to offer us for two decades. Platitudes about mother-love come instead of a social policy that would take the lives and needs of parents seriously, or deal with the burning problems of fertility and childcare. A mother loves her children, so she will take care of it all. She will manage somehow. Why invest in nursery schools, kindergartens or after-school care? It’s much more fun to build football fields. No need for child-support execution; no need for support networks for single mothers. Women won’t let their children starve, will they? Mothers are expected to struggle and pay their way in the free market economy. Free anesthesia during childbirth? State-subsidized contraception? Sidewalks built with prams and wheelchairs in mind? Diaper-changing stations in public facilities? No need for any of it. Women will manage. And indeed, most of us do manage somehow. But at the price of becoming second class citizens.

It is seldom that mothers feel or act as an interest group. But it is as a group that we bear the costs of negligence of the Polish state, and its strategy of withdrawal from the sphere of reproduction. Sociologists have a name for what has happened in Poland during the last two decades: “re-privatization of care”.

Yes, women love their kids and manage somehow. They are ready to give up their needs, even their own selves. Is it the mission of the women’s movement to forbid them to do so? Certainly not.

What is needed is a social situation which would make such self-sacrifice unnecessary: a child-friendly and parent-friendly culture, appropriate rules and practices on the job market, a decent child-care system. It should not be necessary for women to abandon everything that matters to them in order to “manage” their role as mothers. What is at stake here is not choice but the sharing of responsibility: men must become parents to an equal extent and society must treat them seriously as parents, while the state must fulfill its obligations to parents and children. There is much to do and much to talk about.

1. Fatherhood. Without it, we will not move forward. Men must take on half of housework and half of the care-work. They must do their share of staring into their children’s eyes. This will not happen by itself. The state must actively encourage it. How should this be done? Let’s talk.

2. Reproductive rights. Poland is a country that offers no sex education in schools; access to contraception is limited, and abortion is banned with very few exceptions (and recently the Parliament declared it is willing to discuss a total ban). In such a scenario gender equality is not even a dream but a delusion. We must struggle to take the sphere of reproduction back from the Church. Women must reclaim their right to decide if and when they want to be mothers. How to achieve this? Let’s at least not be silenced. Let’s talk.

3. Profound changes on the labor market. Reconciling work and parenting is not a whim, but an everyday necessity. Employers must respect parenthood as a fact of life and stop treating it as a flaw that makes women less dependable workers. There are various solutions, but some of the seemingly excellent ones (like flexible work-time) give rise to much controversy. The key point is this: whatever solutions we pick, they must be offered to men and women equally. How to do this? Let’s begin by talking about it.

4. An equality-based model of child-raising. For girls: freedom from the good girl stereotype, which makes her a future mommy and nothing else. More self-confidence, more encouragement to be brave and ambitious. For boys: more emphasis on care, empathy and responsibility. Let’s begin by giving a doll to him and a jumbo jet to her. And let’s read them children’s books that promote equality, not stereotypes. There are more of those now than there used to be.

5. A childcare system that truly works. One that allows parents to balance work and parenting and gives kids a true educational base, an equal start in life. This is a huge challenge, and the recently passed childcare law is a mere first step. There is a long way ahead of us.


Added: 3 listopada 2011 Category: General
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