Activist Mamas: An Interview With Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
by Amy Anderson
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards are the co-authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism. We emailed recently about motherhood, feminism, and activism.
mamazine: The New York Times recently published an article about Yale undergraduates planning to be stay-at-home moms after college. What were your responses to this article and the uproar it caused?
Amy Richards: When I was 19, I probably would have answered in exactly the same way—not because I really thought that I would take time off from work to care for small children, but I would have wanted to sound back what I thought was the socially acceptable answer. Plus, it's so much easier to be asked to "imagine" your life than to actual live it and the reality for most of these young women will be very different than what they project it will be. Also, I think it's interesting that these types of "news" articles always focus on women from the most elite colleges (Princeton, Yale, Harvard, etc...). They do so on the premise that these will be the leaders of tomorrow—when in fact if you look at women who are in top positions and leading—the range of schools they come from is much wider. There were some good articles and conversations that came as a result of this article—people certainly spoke up—thus I think confirming that people are tired of this conversation—if moms work, feminism is a success; if they don't, feminism failed. The conversation is so much broader than that and the responses confirmed that.
mamazine: One of the misconceptions about feminism that we often hear is that it's only about women, whereas I see equal rights for women as being a crucial step toward men and women both being able to make meaningful choices about work and family, rather than men feeling pressured to be providers and women to be caretakers. How do you think feminism benefits families?
Jennifer Baumgardner: Feminism benefits families in all sorts of ways, from making it so that a woman like me who doesn't feel like the father of her baby is going to be a good partner for her can create her own kind of family to making it so that girls and boys have access to both sports and cooking lessons.
mamazine: As a feminist woman married to a feminist man, I was a little shocked by how biology affected our shared parenting plans—my husband obviously couldn't breastfeed, and pumping so he could bottlefeed seemed like more work than it was worth, at least in the first weeks, and, you know, he hadn't actually been pregnant for nine months, which was a pretty huge difference between us. So, for me, the reality of motherhood was very different from the fantasy. You both are mothers now. How has the reality matched up to your expectations?
Amy Richards: I benefited from not having an idea of how parenting would play out and thus have only been more shocked at how easily I can integrate it into my life. I think it's better to assume you will get nothing done or that you will do it all yourself and then you can be pleasantly surprised when that isn't the case. Yes, there are certain realities of pregnancy and parenting that put a disproportionate amount of expectations of women—however, if you look at the larger picture of everything that needs to get done to run your household there is ample opportunity to share. For instance, of course I did all the pumping, but I rarely was the one to freeze the milk and clean up. Also, I barely changed a diaper for the first month and remember thinking that I needed to get in better practice. We have a car, which has to be moved two times a week—Peter mostly does that—ditto with the grocery shopping and the laundry. These roles aren't scripted, but evolved naturally in our lives. Peter lived alone before I came into his life and thus he was used to doing most of those things—which I actually wasn't accustomed to doing—I mostly ate out and sent my laundry out. Looking at our relationship from the outside, I think many people assume it functions the way it does as the result of my being a feminist, but I think it's precisely because it came naturally to us that it made it work. When it comes to parenting specifically, I also had to learn to let go and not try to control everything, which is my instinct. If I have to "tell" Peter everything that needs to get done, that's almost the same as my doing it all myself—so I have to let go and trust that they will figure it out—and they do. For instance, I have to travel a lot for work and initially I think I was apprehensive and worried that it would stress Peter out too much—but I've learned to just go and not ask questions.
mamazine: Mamas judge other mamas. It happens, and we all know it. Why do we do it, do you think?
Jennifer Baumgardner: I am very judgmental of one of my friends, but not really any of the others. I think, in that case, I judged her because she and her partner were very sanctimonious about having kids—how hard it is, how sacred—and they seemed to think it gave them special dispensation to act as if their schedules or lives were more important. Superficially, I think, I was protesting that assumption—knowing that you can have a busy, hectic, meaningful life without procreating. On a deeper level, though, I think the fact that this friend—whom I love—and I don't share sensibilities about childrearing is threatening to me. I want to be acknowledged for doing a good job, so does she—and it is as if we don't know how to get the reassurance we seek if we aren't doing things the same way.
I have to admit, I have never addressed this issue directly with that friend—I'm a coward!
mamazine: There's a lot of talk in certain circles about a growing mothers' movement which would advocate for issues such as social security credits for caregivers, more access to paid parental leave, wider access to high-quality, affordable daycare and preschools. What are your thoughts on the mothers' movement?
Amy Richards: I just met with a group of mothers in Brooklyn, NY and they were trying to harness their energy for some campaign like those you mentioned. The one they focused on was to lower the work week to 35 hours. However, the observation that I made was that while these women wanted to advocate for that on some larger level, they also had husbands, whom they insisted had jobs that just wouldn't allow them to work less, i.e. it's okay for others, but not okay for me. This is all to say that I think all of these things are important, but we have to check ourselves before advocating for others. I constantly complain about how little child-care workers and teachers make and yet I don't what the cost of my child-care to go up, even though I could probably spend a little more in lieu of say a dinner out once a month. Also, even if we had federally funded child care, but also the option of private child care—the latter would probably emerge as being better and thus though we had a choice it would soon just be a choice between those who can afford quality care and those who can't. I think that when we do advocate for such things, we have to be clear about what our goals are—a mothers' movement is a great idea in theory, but will it make the change we envision or does this calling need to come from someone more powerful? On all of these issues, I think we have to start incrementally. For instance, with Social Security—employers should be mandated to at least pay into the system on behalf of those employees on parental leave, even if they aren't earning a salary during this time. It's great to call for sweeping change, but it's more effective if we can build it from the bottom up.
mamazine: What are you working on these days?
Jennifer Baumgardner: Well, I just completed a book called Look Both Ways: Sex, Power, and Feminism that is due out February 2007. I also have a book of photos (by Tara Todras Whitehill) and text by me coming out next year sometime. I also co-produced a documentary called Speak Out: I Had an Abortion last year (with director Gillian Aldrich) and am participating in many screenings of that film and I have a column on Alternet. Amy is in the middle of a book very germane to this website--it's called Opting In: The Case for Feminism and Motherhood and is still the voice behind Ask Amy, her feminist/activist advice column and feminist.com. Amy and I are busy with Soapbox, our speakers bureau, and touring in support of Grassroots and Manifesta. We have a full spring tour booked, despite the fact that she is due with her second child in early February.
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