It’s often amusing to observe the mental acrobatics of feminist writers who try to skirt the logical conclusions of their own premises. Like the stereotypical belle who can’t decide which gown to wear at the ball, some feminists seem to reject all attempts at definitive description.
Somewhat along those lines, Chris Bobel’s The Paradox of Natural Mothering is an examination of a subset of feminists, so-called “natural mothers,” that probes deep into the lives and core beliefs of these women. On the whole, it gives an extremely careful, thoughtful, and intriguing description of their views which makes for good reading and much food for thought. But Bobel is critical of these women, who call themselves feminists. Feminism and motherhood is the “paradox” here.
“Natural mothers” are a growing subset within feminist circles and among the “stay-at-home mom” crowd who see their work in the home as the natural outgrowth of their radical left-wing politics. These women and their movement (as described by Bobel) combine three interconnected elements: Voluntary Simplicity (they reject most material definitions of success and try to live as simply as possible), Attachment Parenting (the belief that one’s children are best reared at home in a child-centered world), and cultural feminism.
“Natural mothers” vigorously reject the feminist model of putting women on an equal footing with men in order to make them equal competitors in the marketplace. Like more traditional or conservative women, they see men and women as equal in importance but different in their roles. Unlike traditional women, however, “natural mothers” reject the marketplace altogether. It is a real question (which Bobel asks but never answers) as to what role men should play in their world. Motherhood and things female are so esteemed by these women that their claim to support equal but different roles for men seems a little disingenuous. As breadwinners, men seem to play a minimal role in their lives because the goal seems to be to get as far away as possible from needing the bread they win.
In the end, Bobel questions the claim to feminism made by “natural mothers” because she cannot fathom their apparent acceptance of traditional gender roles. This is disappointing, because the argument is so shallow. There is no paradox in accepting feminism and accepting “natural motherhood.” The “natural motherhood” Bobel describes is the closest thing to an authentic feminism that I’ve seen. It embraces the female in the feminists and defends it as a superior way of life. These women seem to be far more interesting and worthy challengers of conservatives than Bobel and other garden-variety feminists. Ultimately, the real paradox of “natural motherhood” is the paradox of feminism itself. The tension that exists between things male and female is there for a purpose that is both beautiful and maddening. We ignore it or glorify it at our peril.