Should motherhood define us?

The scale of the adjustment from no children to one has never since been matched despite the best efforts of the arrival of a second child and the departure of my career. There’s no doubt that motherhood has changed me.

I’m confident I’m not alone in that assertion but does motherhood, should motherhood, define us?

Elements of the media clearly feel motherhood does define women who squeeze out a sprog or few. The obsession with labelling women as mumboss, mumpreneur, Instamum, the grandmother of them all yummy-mummy, or its backlash slummy-mummy, make it clear that whether a woman is groomed or not; running a household, a business or a team; or perhaps is vlogging and flogging herself to the highest bidder on the internet, the most significant thing to remember about her in every context is that she’s someone’s mum.

For most mothers at least trying to do a good job, the centre of every decision is occupied by their children. Where they live, the hours they (don’t?) work, whether they pursue career advancement, how often they wee – children are generally speaking the Most Valued Players in every game.

But what is insulting is the obsession with reducing the rest of a mother’s life, personality, interests, abilities, qualifications, passions and experiences to bit-parts in a mother’s world. We see them relegated to the subs bench, only allowed onto the pitch once the real work is done and the most important player, Mum, has received the right amount of attention.

Not everyone feels these terms are negative – some people insist they are a compliment, shorthand for, “Wow she’s a mum AND a boss/ entrepeneur/ looks good – she’s smashing it!” but isn’t this a bit patronising?

It suggests that managing to spin all the plates without them smashing all over the floor is surprising – you clever girl!  But this exclamation mark is one that never gets applied to dads – no one ever questions how a father can have children and be successful elsewhere – and so you start to apply a question mark instead.

If it takes two to tango, why, like DNA, is the raising of a new life not split 50-50? The possession of a vagina does not determine the superiority of one’s ability as a parent. Once birth and breastfeeding are out of the way, what exactly can women do that men can’t?

Facing down a four year old’s determined resistance to dressing herself in the morning feels akin to watching the change in outdated gender norms. We all know it needs to happen, it’s for everyone’s benefit, but progress is painfully slow. Cheek-biting and concerns about the future are shared responses to both, but society’s obsession with defining women with children as mums first is a problem that is not going to be solved with stickers and a trip down the supermarket toy aisle.

Men have their status as entrepeneurs, bosses, or just plain old breadwinners taken for granted. They are committed to their graft, their attention is never divided so the words used to describe them have no need to be either.

In contrast, the mum-isms suggest a mother’s attention is always divided and whenever a woman grows a new one the assumption is triggered that to be a good mother she must always be available to her children.

Being called a mumboss or otherwise is only a compliment when we assume we are congratulating a women for managing to juggle it all. The absence of a fatherhood equivalent suggests dads are never even expected to do the juggle. Being a good father does not hinge on being available – being a mum comes first, we are told, but being a dad doesn’t.

This problem is huge, systemic, wrapped up in generations of gender norms and predetermination and simply changing the words we use is not even close to the whole answer.  But is a start.

And while we’re at it, perhaps we also need to reject the premise of the question that asks does motherhood define us – a question that pits women against one another and often tells us nothing other than what an individual believes “define” means.

Instead, until we adjust the compass to make it possible for fathers to be dadbosses, or mums just plain old bosses, the pointing, probing, relentless question we should all continue to demand the uncomfortable answers to is, should motherhood limit us?

Image credit: Lola Hoad Design

I’ve marched before but this time was different

This time it was personal.

It became even more personal when on my way to the march a man approached me as I was making my way through the Underground carrying my placard. Genial enough at first he asked me what protest I was making my way to. It became apparent that he already knew.

A few steps after I answered he launched into homophobic, misogynist rant that, while it did not quite intimidate me, left me wondering why he felt it was necessary.

Why did he approach me when he clearly already knew why I was there? And why me when there were plenty of other people walking through the underground carrying placards (although unlike me, they were in groups, not alone – explanation provided, perhaps)?

His rant was intense and bizarre in equal measure, starting with the assertion that we had to make a choice between “John Wayne type leaders…real men”, or having “some nancy-boy who’s probably going to bring AIDS into the house”.

As he followed me up through the tunnels and up the escalator he continued that male serial killers in America were murdering women because they had “bossy mothers” or were “sick of women nagging and telling them what to do”. Apparently mass murder is the fault of womankind too.

Just like watching Trump’s inauguration, it felt like a spoof of right-vs-left-wing politics, when the right-wing are stupid/ mad and bad, and yet somehow manage to outsmart the left-wing good-but-ineffectual guys.

I was shocked, tongue-tied, and frustratingly impotent in my efforts to force out a “fuck off” – for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to be rude to this walking, talking definition of bigot.

It felt tempting to dismiss him as “crazy” – he didn’t look mad, but then, what does mental illness look like? – but then I remembered that millions of people have just legitimised similar (perhaps marginally less extreme) views to these, by electing men equally bold about sharing them, to the most powerful seat in the entire world.

And it intensified my certainty that I was in exactly the right place.

I was marching for equal pay; because I feel insulted by the idea of a man who has bragged about sexual assault becoming the most powerful man in the world; because, like many women, I know what it feels like to be heckled, grabbed and groped, followed by aggression when the violation is not welcomed.

grab-this

I was marching because I feel frustrated and personally limited by the relative status and expectations afforded men and women in our society.

I was marching because I wanted to say enough – as much to myself, as to anyone else – to give myself permission to be pissed off.

And I was marching because as parents we are programmed to want better for our children. I’ll be damned if my daughter is going to live her life the same way I have, with insidious limitations papered over with a veneer of “Having it all”, only for them to leap up and takes chunks out of our certainty when we start to make demands.

But in answer to anyone thinking, but he’s not your President, not your country, isn’t this a little pointless, I also marched in solidarity.

Because I am unlikely to ever fail to access an abortion, or birth control, does this mean I should not care about the women who can’t?

Because I was born in a body that matches the gender I identify with, does this mean I should not care about the people for whom this is not reality?

Because I love a man, not a woman, does this mean I should ignore the struggles of those who love differently to me?

And because I have white skin,  does this mean I shouldn’t acknowledge the unearned privilege that this carries with it? Shouldn’t I recognise the even greater struggles that people, particularly women, of colour have to face? Battles that carry even greater resonance because they will be my son’s and my daughter’s.

I’ve marched before on behalf of a passionate, desolate profession, beaten down and desperate about their working conditions and the prospects for the children they taught. But I’ve never marched before from a place of such deep-seated fear for the futures of people I don’t know, don’t love, but who I care about, because they are people.

As the crowds swelled, so did the lump in my throat.

The coming together of people with a common cause has always had the power to move me, but the energy felt sharper, brighter, and more certain of its justness than I have ever felt before.

One hundred thousand men and women marched in London alone, and behind them lie many more wishing them well and that they could have joined. And we wake up this Sunday full of optimism and empowerment that joy, beauty and togetherness were found yesterday in a world that feels so full of hate and division.

That greatest of human comforters was out in full-force yesterday – we are not alone.

Even so, the truth is that we also wake up to the reality that the occasion is over and nothing has changed – nothing has really been achieved.

To see the long road ahead, the reams of progress that must be made, it is tempting to wonder if it is worth it? Is it really necessary? Can I really care so much, for so long? But whenever I feel like this, I look at my children.

My beautiful brown boy and girl exist because of the tireless actions of people that have come before us, and those who continue that fight right up to today.

Things change. When it is right, they have to.

And as if I needed that reminder yesterday, my favourite memory was the young girls and boys, some barely teenagers, waving their signs, chanting and singing.

Their presence provoked the loudest cheers and chanting I heard at any point in the march as their youth bouyed us up with their promise of a different future.

I’m only 36 but already I can see we are too late for now, for us.

But we keep on keeping on because they are the future and we must not let them down.

The financial fallout of fertility

I’m a child of the 80s, teenager of the 90s, young woman of the noughties, and for My Entire Life the emphasis has been on becoming an independent, empowered woman. A concept inextricably entwined in my mind with earning my own money.

But now, as a woman in my thirties, a mother of two, set adrift from traditional employment by family circumstances that made my career impossible, I find myself battling insidious implications.

Where I was once independent, I am now reliant on someone else to provide me with security. The roof over my head, the food on the table, warmth and light in my home all depend on someone else.

Once empowered, I am now reduced to the financial status of a child.

And I ask myself if, where I was once strong, am I now weak?

How has this happened? This is not where I was supposed to be, I think, and a few weeks ago I reached the sad conclusion that I am not proud of who I am.

Like parents everywhere, I hope I am raising children who will not build walls, nor grab pussies, who will choose acceptance and welcome over fear and division, and I know there is pride to be found here.

dsc_0061-2
Please don’t grab pussies. I’d be really sad.

But I also want something else. Something selfish (and I’m totally comfortable with calling it that). Something that pays me my own money.

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m letting the sisterhood down. Like I’m laughing in the face of the hard-won increments made by the women who came before me, so that we have rights that today we take for granted.

I feel like I’m letting down my twenty-something self who sneered in her certainty that she was not one of those Goldigger’s Kanye rapped about. Instead she certain she was one of Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women who would pay her own Bills Bills Bills and Who Run the World (Girls).

I feel like my feminist ideals have been defeated by the cold-hard inflexible economics of life in the modern world. Like I gave up too soon, I should have fought harder for my job, for my ambition, for my equality.

And I feel embarrassed that I now take money from my partner’s pocket and put it in my own.

Questions that were irrelevant in the first 13 years of my relationship, the first 35 years of my life, have heralded an awkward new dynamic in my used-to-be-a-partnership.

How do I ask for money? Does this make me a kept woman? How much control should I expect to have over the household finances? Can I really decide how money that I haven’t earned gets spent?

Of course I KNOW I shouldn’t feel this way. If any friend of mine came out with such drivel I’d heavily exhale and call bull.shit.

I would tell her that to employ a cook, cleaner, round-the-clock nanny and life-admin-PA would cost upwards of £100,000 a year.

I’d tell her that without women (because it is over-whelmingly women) making the same decision I have, to put themselves in the back-seat of the family wagon, squashed into the tiny space between the fortified buttresses of her children’s padded thrones in a perfectly mundane metaphor for her whole existence, then we’d all be fucked.

I’d be the first to object that the value in an action is not always financial.

But I’d say it all then most likely fall back on an exhausted cliche. Something like, raising the next generation is the most important job of all, would be what I’d say next, but I’d know that in the face of this feeling there are no words that are not patronising and inadequate. That she hadn’t already thought of for herself, and still found wanting.

Like so many women of our generation, the truth is I don’t value the work done in the home.

The mind-numbing mundanity, the repetition and relentlessness, the picking up and putting down, the boundaries placed on the mind by the same four walls, and the constant requirement to put yourself last are not new – I imagine there was plenty of gin-numbed angst in Don Draper’s time.

What is new however is the expectation of more – the chance to have it all we were told we would have, but which turns out to be an illusion.

We have been conditioned to look down on being house-proud in favour of being loud-and-proud about our achievements in work – achievements accompanied by a pay-packet and while (in the words of another excruciating cliche) money isn’t everything, what it represents, is.

On the cusp of being a Millenial I took a crumb of comfort that the pay gap between men and women born between 1981 and 2000 has shrunk to five percent. My initial lukewarm reaction – it’s progress but wtf, there’s still a gap – dropped to freezing the second I read the next sentence, because when those same women turn 30, (and one assumes start having children) the pay gap starts to widen.

Projections in the study by The Resolution Foundation estimate that by the time Millenials hit 40, the pay gap between men and women will be closer to 25%. That’s TWENTY-FIVE percent, a number for which only shouty capital letters will suffice.

As a woman who had a child, took a demotion because my previous role was “too challenging” for someone with a young family, had another child, had a “difficult” return to work, and for who’s career the nursing home levels of flex in her partner’s job rang the death knell, I am a seething speck in this incredible statistic.

cracked-wood-plank
The flexibility of the Mr’s workplace.

And I’m willing to bet my substantially deflated financial worth on the fact that I’m not the only pot quietly simmering away on the stove I’ve unwillingly been tied to.

In the midst of the financial fallout of fertility, I torment myself with the thought that the money I am spending is not “mine”. I contrarily reflect on a simpler time when roles were clearly defined and we had not fallen for the falsehood that men and women are now equal.

Family, lifetime partnerships and those pesky, inconvenient, brilliant, small people are of course more valuable than how much cash you carry in your pocket, but we focus on the money because it’s easy to measure.

This, however is about more than just our bank balance because the money stands for so much more.

It stands for choice, independence, opportunity and freedom and I find myself asking why should we live without those?

The Brilliance of Trump

I cried when I listened to Michelle Obama speak last week, and I know I wasn’t alone.

With her careful thought, her clear intelligence, her black-ness and her female-ness, this ordinary, extra-ordinary woman appeared in binary opposition to the man she so resolutely refused to name.

And what a name to be refused.

It is easy to imagine the flushed pride with which this name would be bestowed upon a woman, along with the considerable expectation that she be grateful and appreciative of her good fortune.

It is now even easier to imagine how this name carries such influence and power that women let you “do anything” to them.

And it is easy to imagine how, starved of this name and its associated wealth and status, such a man would be reduced to empty bombast and a desperate grasping claim to something that never should be his.

So Obama did not name him.

Until that moment, the tangle of disgust, anger, frustration at the apologists, and confusion about what exactly was so offensive had resisted my best efforts to unravel it.

The voice that told me this was politics on another continent and asked why should I feel so charged, competed with the one that shouted, This is so much more than that, and I struggled to find my true voice amongst all the noise.

But, as the minutes past rapt in the peaks, troughs, the ebb and flow of her masterful oratory, Obama spoke to me.

She told me that the disgust, the anger, the pointless shouting at the TV and the feelings of personal violation which had shocked me with their strength, came from a place where this man’s name is inconsequential.

With her words it finally felt like we were being given permission to be outraged because we all know this man. We’ve all met him.

I now understand that I feel outraged because I remember my sixteen-year-old self on a bus. The man who sat next to me leaned on me throughout the journey. Every time I edged away, he moved along too, forcing me to squeeze myself closer and closer to the window into a non-existent space where I could hide from his domineering presence. And when we reached my stop he stood up, but not aside, forcing me to squeeze past him. And his genitals. And he smirked.

I feel hurt because I remember the time I was out running and refused to respond to someone heckling me from his van window, so he threw a milkshake at me. It missed, but he threw it.

I feel violated because I remember the countless times on dancefloors that someone has made a fleeting grab for me as I’ve walked past them. Faceless hands on my bum, up my skirt, around my waist, on my hips – my presence enough it seems to convince them that they had that right.

These are all events that at some point I have told someone about only once I was able to achieve the dismissive, lowered tone of someone who isn’t bothered. Because that is the message we are given: it’s no big deal, take it as a compliment, don’t be so dramatic, it happens all the time.

And as I tell my stories to join with the chorus of voices saying this is not ok, it does not have to, should not, be this way, I am sad.

I am sad because why should we have to tell so many stories to prove this injustice true, as though we have to work our hardest to convince people that it really is bad, it really is important?

I am sad because I know it could have been so much worse and indeed is for too many women and girls.

And I am sad because when I first read the words I had written I had to edit them to replace “they” with “he”, as though the habit of somehow holding myself responsible is so ingrained that it makes me afraid to acknowledge the obvious. On each of these occasions of course it was a man – why am I so reluctant to point that out?

For the most part these kinds of stories are now in the past for me. I have developed a prickly “Don’t Fuck With Me” face that I can slap on at a second’s notice, and more often than not my presence on a dancefloor is accompanied by a man – sorry boys, I have been claimed – hands off…

Despite this though, their legacy remains. When it’s dark and I walk down a street I am ever vigilant, and I think about what I need to do so that should something happen, it would not be my fault.

When I pass a group of men, young, middle-aged, old, black, white, English-speakers or not, I tense. I mentally prepare myself to look the other way in case an unwanted comment finds its way to my ears. I prepare myself to pretend I have not heard.

Sometimes I use my children as a shield. I engage enthusiastically and loudly in conversation with them. Bloody hell, I even sing and always plaster on a smile like the world can just bounce off my bubble of happiness, so don’t even try to break through this with your cheap words.

But I don’t want to do these things because I am a woman, they are men, and that’s the way it has always been.

Instead, whenever I encounter this attitude, this strange and desperate maintenance of the status quo, it piques the special sweary place in my head that I reserve for such nonsense. And then I return to the safety and reassurance that if this were true then my mixed-race children, rather than being bringers of pride, would be a source of shame and perhaps would not exist at all.

I remind myself that pointing out injustice, loudly saying, “No. This is wrong. Here are the reasons why,” which is sometimes all we can do, is not pointless nor hopeless. It is where it begins.

So, there is hope.

Over a week on, since the damning video recordings were released, the tide has been seeming to turn. As this man embarrasses not only his political party, but other men, even those who we would really much rather not be “on our side” are running for the hills from the tsunami he is leaving in his wake.

We can not ignore that some of the men (finally) condemning this man for claiming proprietary rights over a woman’s body for the purpose of sexual gratification, still seek to legislate our bodies on the matter of reproduction, while others refuse to legislate on issues such as equal pay.

But, at least people are talking.

And this is The (amusingly unintentional) Brilliance of Trump.

What this man has achieved, that no amount of story telling could ever have matched, is to bring into the stark, full-beam glare of the media spotlight, just what women are dealing with.

Of course it is tempting to find frustration that it has taken one man’s miserable misogyny to attract the attention this issue deserves on its own merits, but let’s not drown in that bitter sea. Instead, let us ride this wave and make sure it washes up on hitherto unreachable shores.

Let’s harness this man’s words and the global horror they have evoked, in every classroom so that our boys know what high standards we will hold them to, and our girls know what low standards they should never accept.

Let’s keep the conversation going, and see just who we can get to join in.

Don’t tell me there is a long way to go, as though this should serve to quieten my storm and quench my fire. The length and difficulty of the journey we have to undertake makes the conversation more important, not less.

So let’s exploit this man’s repulsive words and actions to shamelessly and unapologetically raise the agenda that does not ask for more, but asks for the same.

This is how we will be heard.

Stay at home… feminist?

I’m having to come to terms with being “kept” like a pet cat. I’m painfully aware that the money I’m spending is not “mine” in the way I always planned. And if one more person calls me a yummy-mummy, I think I might eat myself.

Some SAHMs would have it no other way – a choice that has to be respected and valued – but for me it’s just not working. To read more of my thoughts on being a feminist who doesn’t do what she thought a feminist would do, head over to Cheltenham Maman who carried the guest post in September…