The mother of all assumptions

In the days since I spoke with Kate Bolick about her famous magazine essay All The Single Ladies, whether by coincidence or not, I have been reminded how deeply attached we are to women as wives and mothers first and foremost.

In a television report last week, and then in an article published by the ABC profiling the woman who might soon lead Queensland’s government, Annastacia Palaszczuk’s fertility was raised. How is this detail about her personal life relevant, many viewers and readers asked?

The answer is it’s not relevant. At least it wouldn’t be if we didn’t emphasise a woman’s status as a mother as being paramount. Whether it’s conscious or not, it is evident that is the prism through which women are still viewed. 

When a female is appointed to a new role it is de rigueur for the number of children she has to be included in any related media reports. If it’s not in the headline – like it was for Suzanne Young and Rona Fairhead last year - then it’s usually in the first paragraph. 

A quick scan of the news coverage of newly-elected Queensland MP Kate Jones, who unseated Premier Campbell Newman, shows ‘mother-of-two’ often sits next to her name. Newman is also a parent of two children but a similar search brings up different results: ‘father-of-two’ doesn’t appear.

When a man is appointed CEO or profiled in the media the number of children he has is rarely cited. If it is raised then it’s usually treated as a secondary matter that warrants a mention further down the page.

Women who don’t have children are often asked to explain their choice and women who do have children are similarly expected to discuss and explain why and how they manage their family life.

Whilst it is almost impossible for women in public life to avoid scrutiny of their childbearing status, men in public life seem much freer to have children or not have children without it being a defining feature of their life or success. George Clooney’s role as a perpetual bachelor was always framed as a cause for celebration whilst the world is frequently reminded how lost and lonely his female counterpart, Jennifer Anniston, is. Being single and childfree is neither here nor there for Clooney, but it’s catastrophic for Anniston. Notwithstanding a spectactualrly successful career, how could she possibly be happy without a husband or a family?

Why the difference? It’s difficult to disagree with Kate Bolick that it reflects the fact that societally a woman’s status as a mother is still considered definitive; it matters more than anything else.  

Historically a woman’s success in life was defined by her domestic life so it’s unsurprising the legacy of that life still lingers. But is it too much to expect that in 2015 we’d have progressed beyond this?

Highlighting our attachment to “women as mothers” is not to say that being a mother is irrelevant or unimportant. Nor is it to say that individual women like Suzanne Young or Kate Jones want to distance themselves from the fact they are mothers. Far from it.

Being a mother is a hugely important aspect of who I am but it is no more important than being a father is to my husband.I have previously written of the bewilderment we experienced upon having children. The assumption that either one of us was better equipped, by virtue of our anatomy, to navigate the realities of a newborn baby was as baseless as it was prolific. Yes, I was biologically equipped to feed our babies but beyond that the capacity to care for our children was not determined by gender. It was - and is - determined by willingness.

Yet culturally we remain wedded to the notion that motherhood is all consuming for women, whilst fatherhood tends to be considered just one piece of a man’s life puzzle.

The popular #QuestionsForMen expose the double standards that mothers and fathers face. Women are still considered “lucky” if their husbands help with the kids whilst very few newly married men are asked about their plans for babies, presumably because the assumption is that any babies who come along won’t be their primary responsibility. Fathers “babysit” their kids whilst mothers are asked how they juggle it all.

For many families the #QuestionsforMen don’t accurately reflect their reality and that’s the point. The purpose is not to point out that men are hopeless and women are brilliant; it’s to illustrate the different standards and expectations they face. These expectations are prolific and the implications are significant. I would argue that viewing women through the prism of motherhood is the mother of all assumptions that limits both men and women.

What do you think?

Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a Contributing Editor at Women's Agenda. She began her working life as a lawyer before building a career in journalism as an editor, reporter and recognised advocate for women. Follow her on Twitter here and Facebook here.    

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