Sitting on the airplane home to Sweden after the workshop, I was filled by a buzzling sensation of adventure. This had been the first time I ever met a group of other scholars working on motherhood in a context where literature was in focus, and I was excited.
Victoria asked me the other day if I wanted to write a report from the workshop to post here on the blog. It had been more than a week since the workshop, and I realized, after looking at my notes from the day, that I would have little help from them (they are mostly questions and associations) but I gave it a try. The result, I’m afraid, is closer to “blog-notes on the workshop” than to a formal report. Please comment, elaborate and/or protest!
1. The aim of the workshop was “to identify specific problem areas relating to the relationship between mothering and paid work in Europe, asking what kind of insights literature may offer to the issues raised”. A very optimistic objective, to be sure, but I think that we, to some extent at least, achieved it. Problem areas which I observed, and which reappeared throughout the day, were vulnerability/precarity, isolation, and the (inherent?) contradictions of the maternal experience. I think we also saw several example of how literature, by its capacity to capture life’s fundamental complexity and contradictions, and doing so by intuitive and direct understanding, can help us resist schematic conceptions of maternal experiences.
2. The structure of the workshop
The workshop was organized into three blocks. Two of them (1 & 3) were interdisciplinary plenary panels, with one sociologist and one literary scholar in each one, the first panel also including the paper of a historian. The remaining block (2) was constituted by three breakout sessions, where literary extracts were discussed in smaller groups, which then reported back to the whole workshop. The literary texts were from a diverse range of countries: Italy, France, Greece, Czechoslovakia and Sweden. The social science presentations were from Italy (one paper) and the UK (three papers).
A note I wrote on the airplane home: In what ways can research which produces knowledge in one national context be of use for researchers working both in other national contexts and in different disciplines? (i.e. how is British literature of interest for German sociologists etc)
3. The Social science presentations
In her response to the first interdisciplinary panel, Janneke van Mens-Verhulst stated that “the similarities between our West-European nations appear to be more impressive than the differences. F.e. the motherhood penalty in earnings, the role of grand-parents, and society’s half-heartedness and ambivalence in providing parental leave and day-care for children.”
Indeed, all of the presentations during the workshop told of social-political contexts in which the opportunity of mothers to combine parenthood and work is not facilitated enough. In her historical overview of the UK, Pat Thane underlined the significance both of economic impetus, psychological experts’ discourses on motherhood and the (lack of) political will, for the shaping of the conditions for mothers’ work. The sociological presentations showed that the conflict between caring responsibilities and job constraints is still a women’s issue (not something which concerns parents of both sexes), both in the UK and in Italy. Bertoloni’s research demonstrates for example that couples do not respond to the conflict childcare/work by questioning the institutional arrangements (or the father’s role), but by reducing the mothers commitment to work. Miller stated that deeply entrenched assumptions about gender roles still govern the way parents organize the work-life balance. Despite a positive attitude towards the idea of gender equal parenting, in practice little has changed during the last decades.
It is important, I think, to keep in mind that the only national contexts discussed from the non-literary disciplines during the day was the UK and Italy, two of the countries where provisions of parental leave are the lowest in Europe. Variations within Europe, differences between countries, were only very slightly part of the discussion during the day, but would be interesting to pursue.
4. The literary presentations
A rich array of questions were discussed in relation to the literary texts. Here are some of the aspects I recall (please feel free to correct and/or complement my list):
a) The transition to motherhood, and the discrepancy between expectations and reality. The interesting fact that knowledge of the more difficult sides of motherhood, still seem to be very difficult to transfer to the next generation. Why is this so? (Susan Maushart’s idea of the mask of motherhood comes to my mind.)
b) The insecurity, the precarity, of the mother’s work situation. In Carmen Covito’s “Tempo parziale”, working conditions forces a work-oriented mother to become a full-time mother. This is an Italian text, but the conflict is applicable to the reality of several European countries where working life includes long hours and scarce opportunities for part-time work, where day-care is either difficult to get or very expensive and where the idea of the father is that of a breadwinner, not a care-taker.
c) Monica Jansen talked about the use of irony as a form of resistance, and irony as a literary technique. The idea that collective precarity can be transformative.
This raises the more general question of maternal revolt against socio-political structures. It is interesting that the revolt of the Italian mother (if there is one in the text) is never turned against the father. In the Swedish mother narrative novels that I study this is the primary focus. But even if a mother sees the inequalities inside the couple, revolt is difficult. How do you show resistance in your daily life without putting your children’s well-being at risk? It is easy to fight against gender inequality in the home by refusing to do the dishes, for example, or even pretend that you don’t know how to. Dirty dishes won’t get harmed by neglect. It is not as easy not to pick up your children after school because you think it’s your husband’s turn to do it, if you know he won’t.
d) Mothers putting her children first vs. Mothers putting herself first. Helena Forsås-Scott’s presentation involved a mother who, even as she is being attacked in her own home, thinks about her children before the protection of her own body. Margarita Lymperaki, on the other hand, gives us a mother who puts her artistic work before the care of her daughter, a mother who is not a bodily presence for her child, but has given the child her name. (The traditional male position.) What is a mother, and what is she supposed to be?
e) In the French text, work is described as the mother’s only safe haven, in the Czecz text work is described as something that motherhood can liberate the woman from. Work means very different things. And how do we define work? Is the structuring “mothering and work” a good way to conceptualize the problem if we seek to challenge the dichotomy “mother/work”?
To illustrate that the issue of motherhood and work in Europe is not all dark, and that there is hope, I will end with a quote from the Swedish novel Bitter bitch (2007) in which the narrator shares the parental leave with her husband.
“When it was Johan’s turn to stay at home everything changed, slowly but surely. Suddenly Johan was the one who knew everything, from when something was missing from the fridge or that Sigge needed a new winter coat, to which story Sigge liked the best. Suddenly I was the one who came home to a tired Johan in need of relief. I came home happy and filled with stories from the outside world”.