18 Feminist Perspectives on Motherwork

Anisha Johal

A liberal feminist analysis of work sees representational inequality as an issue. If women are placed in leadership and other influential positions equal to that of men, equality is achieved. That being said, despite women having more of a presence in the workforce than they ever have had historically, they still continue to face discrimination and biases in the workplace. Pay equality is another liberal feminist issue of concern. The gender pay gap may be related to gender-based biases in workplaces.

This can make us wonder: would representational and pay-based equality eradicate patriarchy?

Socialist feminism presents one critique of liberal feminism, which is that this is a limited view of equality, and furthermore, it is not only patriarchy but also capitalism that is foundational to women’s oppression. Socialist feminists point out that if women take on the same roles as men in the workforce, they still continue to face a double workload, or the second shift, as they are predominantly responsible for work in the home and are given little reward or recognition for this work.

"A line drawing of a house with a woman stick figure holding the hand of a child inside. Beside the woman figure is a drawing of a brain. One side has two gears on it, and the other side as a heart."

The gendered division of labour supports capitalism and patriarchy. This is because when women do housework, like making breakfast and doing laundry, they are preparing others to go out into the public and work. The assumption under patriarchy and capitalism is that women do not need to be financially rewarded for their labour done at home because being a mother/caretaker is “innate” for women. This assumption becomes a justification to exploit women; capitalism thrives and is sustained under this assumption. It is important to note that under capitalism, people who get paid for their labours are seen as valuable people in society because they work hard to sustain the economy. Some might think there is nothing wrong with this structure, however there are many implications to this system. Because it has become quite expensive to raise a family, women have to also work to make ends meet; likewise, women head many families as single parents.

“Nuclear family” describes a mom and dad who are cisgender and heterosexual and their minor children. Gendered social roles are ascribed to these parents, as already noted above, where men work in public and women do housework in the private home. Intersectional feminism identifies a flaw in liberal and socialist feminisms, which assume the universal category of “women” when producing their analysis of the nuclear family. However, women of colour and working class or poor women often have to work outside of their homes to make ends meet; likewise, the gendered social roles in families can be different than assumed in the nuclear family described above. For example, other female family members may primarily be responsible for taking care of the children, such as grandmothers. When governments assume that the nuclear family structure is the common reality, this can lead to the erasure of intergenerational, chosen, or other kinds of families. Race and class must be considered alongside gender when making an analysis of work.

Furthermore, white privilege characterizes the idealized vision of motherhood espoused in the notion of the nuclear family. If mothers are meant to stay at home and allocate most of their time and energy to taking care of their children and husband, how does this idealized vision exclude those who must work outside the home to meet survival needs? For example, often migrant workers have to leave their kids with relatives in their home countries to come to Canada to work, remit money, and support their family back home. Under the rigid definition of motherhood, this would portray migrant mothers as “bad moms” who do not tend to their children.

In western societies, there is immense responsibility forced on mothers to take care of their family and kids. This notion of intensive mothering is engrained in societal standards of what makes a great mother. For example, mothers should not be selfish, mothers should meet their kids mental and emotional needs, and mothers should not be negatively affected by this type of work because it is “innate in their biology” for them to carry out these motherly tasks. Mothers must manage the million details of a household, like schedules, booking appointments, making mental grocery lists, and so on – often referred to as the mental load. Relying on one person to meet the family’s needs is extremely labour intensive; instead, having others who can step in and help the mother can be a better way to promote community and togetherness. Specifically, the act of mothering should not just be for mothers, but for anyone who takes care of children; likewise, social expectations for who can do this work need to shift. This would help to lift some of the burdens that are placed on mothers who are often the sole caretakers of children. Just because some women have the ability to give birth and bring life onto the planet does not mean they have special capabilities in child rearing that others do not possess. Overall, it is important to consider that the definitions of work, nuclear family, motherhood, and mothering are all based on heteronormative standards that exclude racialized and poor families.

Mothering: women’s work of nurturing and taking care of children
Motherhood: ideological descriptions of roles a mother should take in a family
Motherwork: physical, mental, and emotional labour provided to families, mostly performed invisibly by women
Mental load: the mental demands of organizing and maintaining a household or family



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Gender in Canada: A Companion Workbook Copyright © 2023 by Anisha Johal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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