How liberal feminism and patriarchy work together to create the detached mother

Hannah Webb Photography

By Tracy Cassels

The following is a talk I presented at the 2016 Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement Conference in Toronto, ON. I enjoyed my time at the conference, but will add that I was a little dismayed to see that many of the people there were still so focused on mothers, that babies were being completely left out. If people who want to represent mothers can’t get behind the dyadic nature of parent-child then the root of our problem is far bigger than I feared.  I hope we can move towards a matricentric feminism, but only insofar as it manages to represent all of motherhood (or parenthood really as you’ll see in my talk below) and that includes the child. 


About a year and a half ago an article by Lauren Apfel, the editor of Brain, Child Magazine, made the rounds arguing that sleep training – namely extinction sleep training like crying-it-out and controlled crying – is a feminist issue. In it she states that arguing against leaving babies to cry (presumably in hopes of teaching them “good sleep habits”) isn’t right as it sets women back. How? Because women do most of the nighttime caregiving and to “fully function” in society they need a full night’s sleep. 

Given I spend a lot of time talking about extinction sleep training and why it’s wrong, this was what was brought to my attention by many different people. I know the science well enough to tell you in detail how extinction sleep methods do nothing for our infants’ sleep and why children sleep the way they do. I can and do regularly work with families to find methods that respect their infants’ biological needs while respecting the family’s need for more sleep.

But this was actually the first time I had heard a feminist argument in favour of sleep training.

Most feminists I know are against the practice, but I know the type of feminists we would call matricentric feminists. 

What struck me with this article is that it highlighted two assumptions that are central to the marriage between patriarchy and liberal, or neoliberal, feminism. When I speak of liberal feminism, I speak of the feminism which began in the 80s and has continued to today: A feminism driven to show the world that us women can do whatever it is that you thought only men could do, that we are not slaves to our biology (in fact, should we even care about biology?) and can be “so much more” than mothers. The feminism, in short, that flourishes on the patriarchal playground. 

These assumptions – which I’ll get to in a minute – expose how both patriarchy and liberal feminism have merged to create what I refer to as “the detached mother”. I know much of what I say may raise eyebrows and may elicit strong feelings of defensiveness based on the position I take, but I want to assure you that I don’t think the mothers of this generation and before are “bad”, but rather we’ve done what we can with the playground we’re playing on, yet we likely struggle more than any other group on the playground because the two forces driving our narrative – patriarchy and liberal feminism – don’t have us as mothers, or our children, in mind. 

The Assumptions 

So what are these assumptions? 

1) The first assumption is that whatever is happening during the day, or what Ms. Apfel calls “fully functioning”, is more important than what happens at night, specifically nighttime mothering. This has implications for both work and mothering, neither of which benefits the mother (or the person doing “mothering” as it is not always the mother). 

a) The argument put forward by Ms. Apfel and other liberal feminists is that mothers need to be “fully functional” for work; heck, most people will tell you the same.

The difference lies in how we value this need to be “fully functional” and the need to care for the weakest members in our society.

The industrial era brought about an increased push for this type of daytime productivity that led to massive wealth, and therefore the devaluation of anything that didn’t produce this type of wealth. Despite new studies showing us that money doesn’t make us happier (I can cite the work of my friend Dr. Lara Aknin at SFU for this), we live and work and raise our children on the patriarchal playground in which the only game available is Monopoly. Our culture is obsessed with money because we can view it as the measure of the work we’re putting in to our society. How well we’re playing in the system. 

Liberal feminism hasn’t disavowed us of this notion, instead it has decided to roll with it. Instead of arguing against the notion that monetary output is the be-all and end-all of society, of the family, of success, it simply has said, “Us women can enter that game and win at it too.” The value for mothering – at all times – is still low, which is why I’m sure every one of us who is a mother and has identified herself as such has been asked, “When are you returning to work?” or “But what do you do to contribute?” or “You’re not just a mother are you?” or some variant. When someone asks you what you do, if you have not ever answered “I’m a mother”, I suggest you try it – it’s eye-opening. 

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