When the feminist scholar and professor Andrea O’Reilly was looking for an artist to create the cover for the book, “Mother Outlaws: Theory and Practice of Empowered Mothering,” the majority of the images she received were of pregnant women’s torsos.
Though impressive, exquisite, and beautiful, the physical body of a pregnant woman is more or less a moment on the journey of motherhood.
This invites the questions: What is the collective’s image of empowered mothering?
Who is this “empowered mother?” And what does empowerment actually mean, anyway?
The answers to these questions are vitally important to our sense of worth and identity as mothers. Who is this woman we compare ourselves against? Does she even exist, and if she did, would we want to be her?
Does she work, or stay at home? Did she adopt, have an intervention free birth, or schedule a cesarean? Is she married, single, divorced, straight, gay, young, old, professional, blue collar, white, of color? Does she have one child or several, does she live in the city or on a farm, is she liberal or conservative? I could go on and on.
Empowerment is about recognizing and utilizing our resources for gaining autonomy and self-determining our lives. It is a process for coming out of a sense of powerlessness and lack of influence into determining and achieving our own goals and maximizing the quality of our lives.
I strive for empowerment in all areas of my life. I endeavor to install empowerment in my children, and to help my clients cultivate it as well. As women, and as humans, empowerment is the source of our strength from which we can face life’s challenges, make choices, and direct our lives.
On one hand, empowerment conjures up the image of someone being outspoken, vocal, and in charge. When it comes to activism and taking a stand on something, this capacity is essential.
But empowerment is also bigger than that. In my mothering, most of what I do is invisible to the outside world. Empowerment at home is something more nuanced and subtle. It enables an inner strength and knowing that can be advocated for, lived, and shared through experience and connection. Empowerment needs to be embodied. And it gives a sense of value and agency to the work of mothering.
Feminists declare the need to free mothering from the institution of motherhood, but there is still a lot of room and need for a vision of empowered mothering, which is still being shaped and created. Hopefully, by us mothers.
I am still learning how to build on this experience of empowered mothering. On days that are full of cleaning, cooking, dishes, laundry, scheduling, and driving back and forth, it is easy for me to slip into feeling trapped and oppressed. Seriously, I go there in my mind.
Remember, I am someone who CHOOSES to do all this. I choose to be home, and to work part time, so in theory I kind of have “the best of both worlds” as far as modern motherhood goes. And still, with all of my privilege and choice, and really valuing the opportunity to be home with my children, when I’m doing my fifth round of dishes of the day, I can feel like a victim and doubt the validity of my existence.
I don’t think questioning the value of my role as a mother in society is just my own trip. I think the doubt stems from a lot of outside social and cultural influences, and generations of women’s experiences (most of which are not empowering) that I am impacted by.
So if I, in my position of privilege, still can feel conflicted, disempowered, and trapped at times, it makes me feel VERY concerned for the mothers who don’t have nearly the amount of choices and options that I have.
And I don’t believe that mothering is inherently disempowering. Quite the contrary. I see mothering as a position of power and freedom that if we could fully realize it, and liberate it from the institutions that keep us invisible, it could change our entire society in extremely positive ways.
I personally feel empowered as a mother when I am in nature with my family. My children and I explore, create, wander, build, play, learn, and connect. In nature we are free from social norms, financial institutions, career expectations, parenting advice, fixed schedules, uninspired routines and obligations. My role of protection and nurturing comes most naturally, and is obvious and necessary. Mothering for me here is simple, artful, supported, inspired, and of deep relevance in each moment.
Those experiences are my touchstone for empowered mothering. They give me the landmark to live from inside myself when I reenter my full life. Nature helps me see the interconnectedness and importance of all the tasks and responsibilities of mothering.
So to keep honing in on this idea, I ask you: What image(s) does empowered mothering spark in your mind? Who is she, what is she doing, and where? How does she live, move, and express herself?
And more importantly, where are you and what are you doing when you feel authentic as a mother? How and when does your mothering convey and express your feeling of empowerment?
I want to keep zeroing in on the moments and experiences when I realize how valuable, essential, and important my role is, with all of its mundaneness, chaos, gorgeousness, and profound feelings of love and gratitude. I want to be the one defining what empowered mothering is for me, and not let the media, social movements, corporate agendas, or outdated value systems tell me what it looks like.
I would love to keep supporting the wide variety of versions of us as empowered mothers. And we can support each other in finding the way that is truly in alignment for each of us. Hell if we can raise a family, we can definitely do THIS.