The Maternal Instinct Versus The Realities Of Unwaged Labor
By Hadley Suter
29 August, 2012
The scariest part of being pregnant with my first kid has been the overwhelming fear that an impending maternal instinct will, upon the little creature’s arrival, wipe out all traces of my former self and transform me into the kind of psycho-mom who not only rejoices at negating her own identity in the name of her child but vaunts this state of sacrificial maternal nothingness as the epitome of female existential plenitude. In other words, I’ve been worried sick over the past nine months that I’m about to turn into a mommy-slave—and like it.
Lucky for me, I’ve been able to grapple with this fear in tandem with the well-timed onslaught of books and articles about the so-called “Mommy Wars.” Some main contenders: In February, Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, which claims that parenting à la française not only raises superior children but prevents one’s identity as a Woman from being usurped by one’s role as Mother. Then there was the April arrival of the English translation of Elisabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, which lambasts the new ecologically-obsessed naturalism and essentialized notions of gender at the heart of modern motherhood. In May came the ridiculous “Are You Mom Enough?” Time cover story featuring toddlers with full sets of teeth chomping away at their mothers’ nipples, a “controversy” the magazine was no doubt thrilled to declare itself relevant for having triggered—you could just hear the echoes of editorial back-slapping for weeks afterwards. Finally, in July, came Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article on “Why Women Can’t Have It All,” a sentiment repeated recently by British Conservative Louise Mensch’s retirement from Parliament to spend more time with her three children.
While some of these writings were thought-provoking and others nauseous-making, it’s been nice having the growth of my uterus paralleled by the crescendo of debate about what, exactly, motherhood is. Much of the recent U.S. media discussion about mommy-ing boils down to this question: how much sacrifice is natural to the maternal role and how much is socially imposed?
Here we find ourselves in vintage Badinter territory. Though The Conflict continues her exposition of the pernicious underbelly of naturalism, it’s a question the French intellectual first broached with her 1981 L’Amour en plus : histoire de l’amour maternel (XVIIe – XXe siècle), where she claims that the maternal instinct is not primal, innate, but a social construct, propagated by the naturalist-misogynist par excellence, 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Critics of Badinter are right to point out the cartoonishly corrupt conflict of interest at the heart of her condemnation of eco-naturalist maternalism—she argues against breastfeeding yet she chairs the supervisory board of a P.R. firm representing Nestlé, maker of infant formula Similac. But her assault on naturalism as the most poisonous legacy of Rousseau is completely justified; his interpretation of the “natural” differences between the sexes is insidious enough to be more widely reviled.
When certain strands of feminism buy into these supposedly natural differences, they become the fodder for all sorts of moralistic, irrational proclamations, often beginning with “If women ruled the world…” and ending with the disappearance of war, violence, and evil in general. This sort of thinking—call it Goddess Feminism—worships the physiological as some magical source of nurturing love and female power, while tacitly embracing the disproportionate responsibility these “innate” qualities translate into for women.
Naturalism, in the realm of gender, is bad for feminism because it justifies the division of the sexes and their societal roles in the name of a return to some long-lost, prelapsarian state of humanity. But more importantly, naturalism is bad for feminism because its very premise—that the division of labor between the sexes is less fixed now than it used to be—is a blatant lie, a rewriting of human nature that warps pre-industrial history in order to ignore the economic changes that paved the way for these divisions.
In their 1972 pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James recount the shift from the gender-neutral oppression of the feudal system to the division of the sexes that came about with the rise of capitalism and that was sealed as fate with industrialization. The organization of pre-capitalist patriarchal society, they argue, was organized around the family, which represented the central unit of agricultural and artisan production. Men and women, children and the elderly, all the serfs lived in a communal state of “unfreedom” under their feudal lord. When the family was replaced by the factory as the productive center of society, men were expelled from the home, as were children as they began to be educated in schools rather than by their family, leaving domestic life—and, more importantly, domestic labor—to women alone. “The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children.” Whether we accept them as “natural” or not, our conception of “traditional” gender roles as being since the dawn of humanity divided down domestic lines is bogus; in fact, this separation of the sexes is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, powered by industrial innovations that we universally characterize as Progress, or a step towards the enlightened freedom we believe ourselves to enjoy today as individuals.
With perspectives like this one from Dalla Costa and James, the maternal instinct, which today is understood in practical terms as the sort of passionate and exaggerated self-sacrifice—in the name of Motherly Love—to all the demands of child-rearing and domestic labor, is much easier to reject as a social construct, one just waiting to be exploited in the late 18th century by Rousseau and his mommy-complex.
But if it’s simple to snub the concept in theory, it becomes much harder to do in practice. Or, at least, I imagine it will be once I give birth. My fear is not that the baby will be some sort of parasite, sucking away at my time and soul till I’m left with little of my former self. Rather, I’m scared the loss of self will come entirely from within: What if I start taking so much pleasure in caring for another that it becomes a convenient excuse to drop out of life? Let go of ambitions, interests, and the social obligations through which these are enacted? Willfully disappear behind diapers and nursing to avoid that other niggling duty of modern existence known as self-realization?
Though the potential for a biological component of the maternal instinct is derided by Badinter in The Conflict as downright offensive to the human race, pregnancy alone has been proof enough that there’s reason to fear the physiological.
Instead of becoming the moody nightmare I always imagined I’d be as a pregnant person, I’ve been almost creepily blissed out for most of the past nine months—much jollier, less impatient, more gregarious than I am in real life. Part of this is obviously social—people smile at pregnant ladies just for being pregnant—but mainly it’s hormonal. What if through some sick biological coup the sort of Goddess Feminism I’ve always sneered at will be my new ideological fate?
Over the past few months I’ve spent far too much time staring in wonder at the basketball that is my stomach. I’m terrified that the next step, once I have my kid, will be to adopt some sort of worldview centered on the holiness of reproduction: through no effort other than having given birth, I’ll start to profess to loving all creatures—or worse, all humans—great and small, good and vile. I’ll start thinking of everyone as the child of some mother, somewhere. In Badinter’s eyes, the sanctification of the maternal role, and the self-sacrifice it stealthily demands, is externally imposed, but what if it also comes from within?
When I call this kind of mother a happy mommy-slave I mean it literally—as an unwaged laborer. If we consider sacrifice in its least spiritual, most empirical form, it is, quite simply, work. So how much work—how much labor—is natural to the maternal role and how much is socially imposed?
The media surrounding the Mommy Wars have only danced around the economic issues that are involved, and usually just to point out that the ideological choices of motherhood—home versus workplace, breast versus bottle, cloth versus disposable—are the privilege of the elite. Which is to say that ideology itself is only for rich people, with everyone else just worried about getting by. The exclusion of the question of labor from the debate surrounding motherhood has helped turn feminism in America into a matter of freedom of consumption, as frivolous as any other luxury market where individuality and personhood are expressed through purchasing power. We might as well be talking about what kind of handbag to buy.
This hasn’t always been the case. The economics of women’s work—reproductive and domestic, two kinds of labor existing outside of the modern workplace—once occupied a much greater place in feminist discourse. Central to James and Dalla Costa’s work, for example, is their rejection of the capitalist distinction between productive and unproductive labor as falling easily down gender lines. They successfully debunk the notion that man’s work in the factory is productive in that it contributes to capital, while woman’s work is merely re-productive, both in that it is procreative and that it re-creates, every day, through domestic labor, the series of tasks necessary to win the fight against atrophy and decline—cooking, cleaning, the works—without actually contributing to the production of capital.
Not so, Dalla Costa and James prove, as both housework and child-rearing reproduce not just life but “labor power.” The mother is not just feeding and nurturing her children but preparing them for productive lives as wage-earners or future reproducers. The happy slave-mother creates the conditions that ready the happy slave-child to contribute to the production of capital. The difference between factory work and domestic work cannot then be described as productive versus unproductive, but rather as waged labor versus non-waged. This argument provided the basis for the International Wages for Housework Campaign, founded by James in 1972.
Interestingly, the false distinction between productive/workplace and unproductive/domestic labor is one upheld more rigorously today in the U.S. by left-leaning women than by right-wing men. Case in point: Democratic Party Commentator Hilary Rosen’s denouncement of Ann Romney as having “never worked a day in her life.” Meanwhile, it’s usually conservative men (like those who rushed to Romney’s defense) who shout the loudest about how stay-at-home moms are in fact doing “real” work (though I wonder if they’d so readily classify it as such if it meant that this work had by law to be remunerated through government wages).
Today, we talk about the distinction between productive and unproductive labor as if it were a thing of the past, not only because we believe ourselves to have escaped its division along gender lines but also because the nature of work has changed thanks to industrial outsourcing, the explosion of the service sector, and technological advancement. This is the movement towards what Autonomists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt call “immaterial labor,” a shift they demonstrate to be linked with the increase of precarious labor, in the form of part-time employment, self-employment, work done from home, and unpaid internships.
At first glance, precarious labor would seem like something that only the most rabid free-market freaks would celebrate. But as Silvia Federici points out in Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint, even Autonomists like Negri see the precariazation of work as “a trend towards the reduction of work and therefore the reduction of exploitation.” She goes on to show how wrong this premise is: not only does exploitation actually increase with precarious labor, but it does so disproportionately for women, who have “always had a precarious relation to waged labor” due to domestic duties, which for women in the workforce translates to more part time jobs, less security, fewer benefits, and lower salaries.
But lately, precarious labor, especially in its work-from-anywhere incarnation, has been increasingly extolled by women as a liberating force, or a way to succeed both at work and at home. This is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s premise when she vaunts the possibility of remote work as a means of proving one’s efficiency as a worker even in the midst of domestic duty: “Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments.” This basis of capitalist efficiency pervades the logic of Slaughter’s article, from her a priori acceptance that any sort of time not devoted to labor, what we used to call free time, be sacrificed, right down to her suggestion that women freeze their eggs for later use if their careers have not flourished fast enough for them to have children during their fertile years.
That precarious labor weighs heavier on women than it does on men should be obvious; what’s less apparent is how the very distinctions it seems at first to do away with—divisions between men and women, productive and unproductive labor, the office and the home—are actually reinstated. Federici’s main critique of Negri and Hardt’s theory of precarious labor is their characterization of “affective labor” as immaterial. Affective labor is defined by Negri and Hardt as service jobs, held by those such as flight attendants and waitresses, that require certain affective behaviors—friendly smiles and the like—with the goal of producing “states of being.” For Federici, the fact that work meant to produce “feelings” and “emotions” is by default categorized as immaterial is tantamount to the reduction of reproductive work to being a “labor of love”: in both cases, the work is stripped of its economic value, its contribution to the accumulation of capital, simply because its demands are affective or rooted in emotional work, and thus understood as natural to the (unproductive) female worker.
So belief in a natural maternal instinct is not just an acceptance of self-sacrifice, it’s the acceptance of affective labor as being inherently unproductive. It denies the material contributions of reproductive and domestic labor, by painting them as purely emotional products, and implicitly restores the supposedly defunct gender-lines of the distinction between productive and unproductive work—even when both labors are performed by women. Such is the case with Slaughter’s suggestion that mothers continue their work from home after completing their domestic duties: it privileges her career-related “male” tasks as productive while relegating her work as a mother as purely reproductive—because it is affective.
But what’s more, to allow for the workplace’s colonization of the domestic sphere is to repaint even the most explicitly “productive” work as affective—those midnight email sessions Slaughter suggests as being the key to women’s career success should be recognized for what they are: unwaged work parading, like motherhood, as a labor of (if not motherly, then at the very least womanly) love. The happy mommy-slave is as ripe for exploitation by her office as she is by her home.
Hadley Suter is a Ph.D Candidate in UCLA’s Department of French and Francophone Studies
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