The problem does not lie with reducing women or any other group to care work but the fact that care work is not distributed equally between women and men, the poor and the rich (at least for the upper middle class), and migrants and non-migrants.
I was intrigued by a discussion on Facebook on the morning of May 9. The subject of the discussion was a post by a leftist man that received hundreds of likes, which basically said: Mother’s Day reproduces the image of a conservative woman and reduces women to care work; it trivializes women who choose not to become a mother. Moreover, it ignores women who become mothers for selfish reasons as it implies every mother is perfect, just because they are one. Besides, in a lot of societies sanctifying motherhood goes hand in hand with denigration of women. Believe it or not, feminists can fall in the trap of Mother’s Day even when it means ritualization of patriarchy.
We could say that it’s important to take this common position among leftist men (or the sum of fragmented positions) into account and talk about them for at least two reasons. First, the suppositions inherent to this position go beyond Mother’s Day and include general ideas about gender, division of labor, care work and social inequality. Secondly, these assumptions continue to put a strain on the multi-party social coalitions beyond theoretical differences that we so urgently need in the context of pressure from right wing movements.
The challenging thing about this position is not that it is evil or malevolent; it’s how it articulates what is right in conjunction with what is wrong in a supposedly emancipatory framework (for women). If we were to start with what’s right, we could say that Mother’s Day rhetoric and practice identifies women with motherhood, and recognizes mother as the ideal woman. The commercials for this day not only reflect the hardworking, longing, obsessive compulsive women and gendered division of labor, but also reinforce them as normal. Images of spotless houses and well-groomed, happy children, joyfully celebrate how free care work is dumped on women by society, state, and capital. After all society, the target audience for these commercials, mostly considers it −biologically and socially− “natural” even when women cannot join the workforce due to housework, or benefit from social rights conditioned upon employment; and when women can join the workforce (mostly underpaid) but continue to do most of the housework. In this sense, Mother’s Day not only contributes to the mystification of women who are at the same time mothers through symbolic rituals akin to those that take place during commemoration of martyrs during national holidays but also brushes their labor and essential needs under the carpet.
Let’s look at the wrong assumptions, or those with shortcomings, that overshadow the right ones. First of all, trivializing the critique of gendered division of labor through trivialization of care work −for example, the critique of how Mother’s Day reduces women to care work− leads to a familiar stalemate. Making domestic work visible has been a priority area of struggle for second wave feminism since the 1970s. Feminists highlight the fact that mostly unpaid or underpaid care work undertaken by women −cooking, doing the laundry, sewing, caressing someone’s hair as she/he talks about her/his problems− is essential for reproduction of labor, and therefore, capitalist production and continuation of accumulation. Furthermore, feminists put a specific emphasis on how care work is essential for life. That’s exactly why Tithi Bhattacharya defines this type of work as life making. Therefore, in the context of Mother’s Day (and beyond), the problem does not lie with reducing women or any other group to care work but the fact that care work is not distributed equally between women and men, the poor and the rich (at least for the upper middle class), and migrants and non-migrants.
Now we will examine “selfishness”. Although it’s not fully explained what constitutes selfishness mentioned in the discussion that encouraged me to write this article, instances where women decide for themselves (as in divorce or abortion) in patriarchal societies are easily labeled as selfish acts. Differentiating between the decision to become a mother or not as “selfish” and “unselfish”, and attributing moral superiority to the latter, is as problematic for women’s solidarity or solidarity with women as sanctifying motherhood since it not only labels certain motivations for becoming a mother as “selfish” but also attributes altruistic meanings to motherhood. Thus, it ends up reproducing the holy motherhood rhetoric − the exact rhetoric that needs to be abolished.
Lastly, policing Mother’s Day is quite problematic in solidarity with women since it ignores the different meanings attributed to motherhood by different social groups and movements in order to overthrow or harm societal norms. The fact that representation of women and children as cis-gender and heterosexual in the abovementioned portraits of ideal families in Mother’s Day commercials is not even slightly striking can be interpreted as a consequence of its normalizing the norm (for example, heterosexual child = normal child) effect. Just when the exclusion of LGBTQI children and families from commercials corresponds to their exclusion from society; another family is imagined there. Semih Özkarakaş’s comic strip sums up the resistance and solidarity that stems from being denied the privilege of having a family upon the condition of heterosexuality. The strip shows a mother holding her son who is carrying a rainbow flag, and it reads “I chose my son over hate”. The documentary film My Child (2013) presents how the struggle of LGBTQI children and youth include a struggle to stay a family. We also see how often their families and loved ones find themselves in the same struggle. In different but related contexts, the organized women and men under Saturday Mothers and Madres de Plaza Mayo struggles show us that patriarchy does much more than forcibly/reducing women to motherhood and childcare; it shows that different meanings could be attributed to motherhood, and most probably Mother’s Day when women’s right to be mothers is taken away from them under racist and fascist regimes. When Saturday Mothers tell the authorities “Don’t celebrate our Mother’s Day; tell us what happened to our children”. They are not critiquing Mother’s Day on grounds of gendered division of labor or heteronormativity but to point at the hypocrisy of a patriarchic-racist state that supposedly holds mothers sacred and its policies against Kurdish mothers and their children.
The point of the argument above is not that critique of Mother’s Day is relative and/or it could only be directed at privileged −middle class, heterosexual, white or Turkish etc.− groups. The article argues that we should be looking at those at the intersection of different forms of oppression instead of privileged women, children, and families when we are trying to come up with arguments against Mother’s Day. The importance of founding the critiques against Mother’s Day on firm grounds is that these critiques hold assumptions about the complex workings of gender, labor, and social inequalities in a general sense, as it was mentioned at the very beginning of the article. Social movements and academics insistently emphasize how essential it is to build multi-party coalitions against gender critical and racist movements. Similarly, coalition experiences of different movements demonstrate that coalitions that do not approach all aspects of social inequality could work to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable member of the group. A way to avoid this risk could be basing the critiques and policies on the material living conditions of these groups.
Translator: Deniz İnal
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan