The Retro Mummy debate. Care to weigh in?

Alys Gagnon


The things that are pissing me off the most about the Retro Mummy debate are a) the fact that the damn thing is capitalised (seriously, can we stop putting people in boxes?) and b) there is a bit of judgement about the choices made by mothers coming from women who are not parents.

New York Magazine published an article in March with the tag line feminists who say they’re having it all – by choosing to stay home.  At the time, Lisa Miller wrote:

Far from the Bible Belt’s conservative territories, in blue-state cities and suburbs, young, educated, married mothers find themselves not uninterested in the metaconversation about “having it all” but untouched by it. They are too busy mining their grandmothers’ old-fashioned lives for values they can appropriate like heirlooms, then wear proudly as their own.

This kicked off a lot of conversation online that is now reaching our shores. Can you really be a feminist and actively choose to stay at home? How could that possibly be fulfilling?

Yesterday, the Sydney Morning Herald published a piece that, frankly, played directly into a bunch of stereotypes about mothers and the choices we make.

Alexandra Carlton wrote:

Around the country, tertiary-educated women who grew up steeped in girl power and feminism have turned their backs on a career. They are pulling fresh scones from ovens, setting up backyard chicken coops and planning lessons for their home-schooled children.

They are posting their menu plans on lifestyle blogs, Instagramming their hand-picked flower arrangements and birthing crafting businesses from their spare rooms. You could call it retro, a retreat, or, depending on your cynicism levels, a regression.

But indisputably, it’s a slow but certain shift of consciousness towards valuing the home and the cosy, often nostalgic activities that take place within it. It’s the new cult of domesticity, with a new breed of housewife at its helm.

The front page of the Sun Herald, with the headline “Domestic Revival: the real reason women are swapping boardrooms for bake-offs.”

I was really disappointed to read it, and to read some prominent feminists’ criticisms of the choice to stay at home. They seem to think that stay at home parenting all boils down to cupcakes and quilting, which I suppose is to be expected. I used to think the same thing.

Here’s the thing about being a mum. You actually have no idea what it is like to parent a child until you do it.

I’m unequivocal in that view.

Unless you are a mum, you do not know what it is like to be a mum. You don’t understand how a mother is driven, how she is motivated, how her life changes, how she herself might change as a person.

You don’t know where she might find fulfillment.

You don’t know why she might make the choices she makes.

One mother might choose to stay at home. I know mothers who have found motivation and fulfillment in that choice (and can I say, for the most part, they were only wearing frilly aprons in the greatest spirit of irony, so let’s cool it with the stupid stereotypes, yeah?).


Her next door neighbour might work full time. I know mothers who find great satisfaction from their work, and let me be very clear: their children are pretty relaxed and well cared for.

Other mothers find combinations of the above work for them at different times in their lives. Many mothers move between different choices about juggling work and family as their needs change.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and I personally couldn’t care less which choice a mother makes. I don’t believe that her choice will somehow take the feminist movement forward or backwards. There is no one choice in which all women will find fulfillment. There is no one right choice that a feminist mother should make, simply the choice she herself chooses.

A few weeks ago, Andie Fox argued that motherhood does not have to be in direct opposition to a woman reaching her potential.

When I was pregnant with my son I had all sorts of ideas about what motherhood would look like and feel like. These were born of all sorts of ideas of what I thought “good” mothers did. When William was born though, I very quickly realised that those ideas were pretty romanticised and had almost no bearing on reality.

Is this retro, really?

There’s nothing quite like the great joy and the rude shock of your first newborn.

And here’s the thing. Until you have your first newborn, you have absolutely no idea what to expect. Don’t burden me with carrying the weight of the future of feminism as well as making sure my child stays alive. And don’t tell me what the implications of my choices are, because actually you don’t know.

What do you think about the ‘Retro Mummy’ debate? Is a woman being ‘retro’ if she chooses to be a stay at home mother?

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