I want to look at the common complaint of ‘feeling invisible’ that many, if not most, mothers will describe at some time or another, and offer a new way of looking at why this might be, and at reframing that feeling.
In our society, our androcentric, misogynist, and capitalist society, I believe that women are shaped and posited as commodities for men. I have long been influenced by the French feminist, Luce Irigaray, who first put forward this theory in her seminal work, This Sex Which Is Not One (1977).
In a nutshell, in such a society, all exchange is conducted between men. Therefore, the only place for women, and their only contribution, is as a commodity for exchange between men. This commodification usually takes the form of sexual objectification. Females are defined by their exchange status; as a commodity available for exchange and for what they offer in terms of exchange value.
This exchange system, which underpins our society, unconsciously teaches males and female their part in it. It becomes the identity and worth of women without them realising it, even if they would find the concept highly offensive when described to them. Even though it is a flawed and imbalanced form of identity, it is a normalised and approved-of identity nevertheless.
So what happens to women when they become mothers and their exchange value drops or even ceases? As mothers, we are de-commodified, and we are de-sexualised and de-objectified (to a lesser extent), especially so if the mother breastfeeds her child(ren). This holds true regardless of a mother having an active sex life (hey, stranger things have happened, right?!). What then, can patriarchy ‘do’ with us? What worth do we have, what point is there to women if they are not defined by what they can be for men, give to men? In Irigaray’s theory of exchange value, women do have value as mothers, but I think this is no longer true in a system where the capital that women can produce is now valued above the work they do as mothers. The importance of mothering cannot be denied on a basic level, however, for men need women to bear their children and to raise them for them, especially as their system defined mothering as demeaning. How then, can they re-objectify us?
The answer, for some men (but certainly not all) is to recreate/maintain a hierarchical interplay between the two by the money they earn from working. Instead of money earnt being for all the family, in some cases the woman has to ask for, sometimes beg, and be grateful for money given to her. Paternalism is introduced and enforced, and thus the woman is redefined in terms of her relationship with and dependence on a man. Of course, the obvious solution would appear to be for the mother to re-enter paid employment. But that is just to re-commodify herself, re-enter a system that defines her in terms of her availability to men in some way, even if that feels more familiar and falsely powerful.
When mothers talk of losing their identity upon entering motherhood, this is always framed as negative. But I would like to offer the argument that part of the confusion and sense of feeling lost is because the mother has ‘unplugged’ from the matrix, as it were. She no longer has that identity as object and commodity, and, even though those are negative and unequal, they are, nevertheless, the ways in which she knows herself, or knows how to define herself, more importantly. What now, asks the mother. For some, the answer is to reclaim her former commodification and objectification. For others, new objectification is either accidentally or deliberately created – ‘better the devil you know’. Many more struggle and continue to feel lost, and find unhealthy outlets for their confusion and pain, often in negative parenting. Others find something new. Others realise the opportunities that motherhood gives them to be self-defined, free, autonomous and powerful. Helping women realise and experience this is at the heart of the work of AMW.
Commodities and objects are ‘things’; if we are not ‘things’, a patriarchal system cannot categorise us. We are half-formed things, not tangible, not fully real, in its eyes. Little wonder, then that we receive the constant conscious and unconscious messages, and reactions, from so many sources, that caring is a form of debasing, of lessening one’s self, of masochistically choosing to be subservient, as though anyone involved in caring is somehow a bit pathetic and lacking; too inadequate, feeble, incapable, or maybe plain old boring, to participate in ‘real life’.
Loving, helping and keeping vulnerable others happy, healthy, safe, and alive is, then, supposedly demeaning, whereas performing often meaningless undertakings for others we have to treat as our superiors, for monetary reward is empowering and worthwhile. Well, I call bullshit on that. Having to grit my teeth whilst some twat in a suit, who talks down to me even though he’s easily 10 years younger, pulls fuckwitted ideas out of his arse in an interminably long meeting, or running around a park pretending to be a magical flying cat with an amazing, hilarious, scrumptious child who worships me like a living god? It’s no contest for me. Hell, I’d even do it for free… Oh, wait, I DO do it for free!
It might seem strange to some people to talk of motherhood bringing autonomy and self-definition when one’s identity often feels subsumed with that of one’s child or children, particularly in their infancy. However, here again, I see profound power and strength of self. Not only do we find the maturity, lack of ego and rejection of unhealthy types of power to prioritise our own needs according to those of others dependent on us, or with more urgent needs, we eschew implementing hierarchy and superiority in relationships where we actually hold all the power. We hold the power over our children, even if it doesn’t feel like that at times! And yet, we do not make ourselves ‘the boss’, or objectify them. We endlessly find myriad ways to shape and help them, all with a determination not to dominate or oppress them into acquiescence. All this, again, is a rejection of, and refusal to participate in patriarchy and androcentrism. I’m not saying that motherhood holds all the answers to unlocking total self-definition and fulfilment, just that it is far from the dull and demeaning experience and rôle that it is too often depicted as.
No wonder motherhood confuses, repulses and scares misogynists. They do not know what to do with us, now we’re not sexual objects, or capitalist commodities. Now for the good news: when someone does not know what to do with you, YOU get to define that for yourself. The question is, can we find a way to do this when our whole lives up to this point have been about having it clear that we mustn’t and shouldn’t define ourselves. The answer to that is, we must, however strange or hard it might be. In a truly equal society, even discussing this sort of thing would be seen as bizarre. Let that thought keep you angry enough to not stop pushing to always be yourself. – EP
In further articles, I will discuss how to redefine oneself and find ways of working (including for pay) that does not commodify one as a women (or is as non-commodifying as is possible for anyone in a capitalist state), and also look at why mothering is made invisible, or inconvenient, in depictions of, and discussions about, daily life and ‘real’ life, and what we can and should do to address that, to normalise, reposit, and to more correctly represent parenting within societal understanding.