[edited after a lunch argument with a friend]
Our workshop on Motherhood and HCI at the CHI 2013 conference seems to have angered some feminists. I wouldn't have predicted this, but then I don't devote much time to studying feminist theory. We didn't get any negative comments from men that I'm aware of. Maybe they were fearfully gathered in the corner of the men's toilets, worrying about being marginalised by powerful women.
[EDIT: I just recalled a criticism of the general area of Motherhood and HCI which emerged from a pre CHI event from a man. This memory was provoked at the weekend by a male doctor friend who was criticising a mum in a cafe for cuddling a very new baby while reading her phone. "Look at the perfect example of mother baby bonding", he said in his doctorly way. "The baby thinks her mum is wrapped up in cuddling her, but she's actually ignoring her". The comment from the male HCI academic was similar: "Isn't it a bit sad that all these new mums are using technology instead of spending time with their babies?" The baby in the cafe WAS ASLEEP! Newborns do that. A lot. They also feed for hours at a time. Mummy is meant to sit there enjoying the platonic ideal of motherhood and do nothing else? Mummy is meant to soley devote her cognitice capacity to watching a mini-person sleep? I realise this argument is presented as a bit of a straw man, but I find it too irritating to spell out that yes, of course, parents should attend to their children but there is a balance to be found between the well being of the mother and the needs of the child.]
The workshop was highly productive in terms of mapping out an emerging reseach area and it was also very helpful to hear about the participants' experiences as mothers, daughters, midwives, obsetricians and designers (and also from the two fathers and one baby who joined us).
For now, I want to focus on the criticisms to get the arguments clearer in my head. There were two main areas of contention which I came across.
1. Criticism of the unintended implication that only women who are mothers can perform a nurturing role. Something in the call for papers for the workshop seems to have given this impression although exactly what eludes me. To be clear: I believe that people who are not biological mothers can and do nurture others. But being a literal minded computer scientist, I did initially baulk at the statement "You don't have to have a vagina to be a mother". This is a question of semantics. The OED defines the noun "mother" as "a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth" (definition 1). This clean cut definition does leave out adoptive mothers or step mothers, who obviously can have a nurturing role. "Mothering" as a verb is potentially more useful here (definition 2), defined thus "bring up (a child) with care and affection: the art of mothering. look after (someone) kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so: she mothered her husband, insisting he should take cod liver oil in the winter". So from this point of view, dads (or anyone else) can mother people, regardless of their vagina-less state. It's maybe also worth noting that the object of the nurture is a child in the first definition, but is more generally a person in the second definition. So, as mentioned at the workshop, the mothering of students could potentially be included, but the mothering of cats would be out. Maybe the workshop should have been entitled "Mothering and HCI" to encompass this broader notion.
2. Criticism of the focus on mothers rather than parents, the (again unintended) implication being that it is only women's work. At the ACM Women's Breakfast, Kia Hook took a swipe at the workshop without really explaining what her problem with it is. But in response to a follow up email from me, she wrote:
"What I started from was the position that a feminist position that singles out women as having other traits and abilities than men is a problematic position. Your workshop of course makes sense when it comes to the biological aspects of becoming a mother (pregnancy and breastfeeding is, for the most part, a female only experience). But monitoring sleep? Monitoring need for food? If we write this off as only being for women - what have we done to fathers? What have we done to the possibility of sharing maternity/paternity leave? The word for this in Swedish is "särartsfeminism" - in english it might be "specificity feminism"? To me, deeply problematic! CHI has had a range of papers on "mother's work", "soccer moms" etc. In essence telling fathers that this is not their work, their duty, their fun, their life. Problematic if we want to share responsibilities, share the work-life-balance, and move forwards with our equality strive. "
It is not the first time I have had this sort of comment from a person from Sweden, that world leader in gender equality . Here parental rather than maternity leave is enshrined in law: both parents may share the leave although in fact only 25% of it is actually taken by men. In the UK, men are entitled to two weeks paternity leave, and women one year of maternity leave. This may change to a more equal arrangement by 2015 but I am not holding my breath. Being a pragmatic computer scientist, I say we should help the users who are actually performing the tasks here and now. And the evidence base is that more women perform nurturing and domestic work than men. An Australian study found that children add (an alarming) thirty five hours of domestic chores a week to a couple’s household . In childless couples in the UK, 62% of domestic chores are done by women; for couples with a child, this rises to 75% . Furthermore, there is evidence that mothers and fathers have different expectations about fathers’ roles in parenting. A study in the US found that mothers have higher expectations of support from the father in housework and emotional support. Men have lower expectations of themselves in terms of emotional support and baby care. .
Focus on blood, milk and tears
I can't remember which workshop participant used this evocative phrase, but "blood, milk and tears" covers the challenging biological aspects of being a mother (definition 1 above) rather nicely. Let's not write off the biological aspects so glibly. In the political correctness of including more people with a wider definition of mothering, or telling fathers that nurturing is their joint responsbility, let's not forget the millions of women who mop up their blood, milk and tears every day. Let's design technology which assists in small ways, by helping mothers monitor the changes in their bodies, or find information or share experiences when they need to. Let's consult with mothers about the design of the technology they use, and invent new consultation methodologies to suit this user group if necessary.
Until we reach the wonderful era of gender equality, I say we should focus considerable design effort on women, on mothers and on mothering. If technology can make some of the more mundane tasks just a little easier, or some of the challenging experiences slightly more bearable then it will have been worth it.
 Craig, L., & Bittman, M. (2005). The effects of children on adults' time-use: Analysis of the incremental time costs of children in Australia. Social Policy Research Centre. Retrieved on 8/1/13 from http://education.arts.unsw.edu.au/media/File/DP143.pdf
 Schober, P. (2013). Gender equality and outsourcing of domestic work, childbearing, and relationship stability among British couples. Journal of Family Issues.34(1). 25-52.
 Fox, G. L., Bruce, C., & CombsâOrme, T. (2000). Parenting Expectations and Concerns of Fathers and Mothers of Newborn Infants. Family relations. 49(2). 123-131