One of my favourite bloggers recently did a post about a conversation that she overheard between some competitive mums in a schoolyard. She hit on the concept of being 'not so much a product of feminism as a casualty of it', and whilst that comment wasn't directed at the mums, her post got me thinking that actually, perhaps it applies to them too.
To myself and other women born in the mid-70s, feminism is a bit like fluoride in the water* - you get all its benefits without noticing that it's even there. To us, it is the most obvious thing in the world that women can vote, buy and own possessions, have a mortgage, a career and lead a life free from sexual predation and abuse. On a day to day basis, unless we are actively engaged with feminist theory, those things probably don't even cross our mind.
Closer to home, it almost goes without saying that our education will have been equal to that of our male social peers, and that we were encouraged to compete with others in order to stretch ourselves to the very best of our abilities. Later in life, we will have learned about the seductive effects of money, power and status, and it is a reasonable assumption that, along with most of the rest of the population, we will have learned to define ourselves to a greater or lesser extent by how successful we are at what we do for a living.
But here's the rub...
When you have children, you can't switch all that off.
It's a bitch, it really is. You spend 30 years or so training yourself for the ordeal that is paid employment, and cultivating the mental attitudes required to succeed in it. You've made a good choice in the man you married, and between you, you have cultivated a relationship which is largely equitable, and earned just about enough filthy lucre to make it possible for you to give up the job you hated to stay at home with your adorable children.
Then, you bang out the first baby, and all of a sudden your world is turned on its head. And I don't just mean the sensation that feels a bit like your brains got slung down the medical waste chute along with your placenta...
You've got a brand new job to do, and like every other job you have done, it's vital that you are a success. You've read all the books, you think you know what's in store, and there's no way on earth you're going to end up like one of those haggard, harrassed, shouty supermarket mums who are clearly just too damn lazy to bother keeping their kids under control. You're a smart, independent, educated woman, I mean, how hard can it be?
Oh God, where do I start?
Well, firstly, try taking away all the motivational tactics that have kept you going through the tedious but respectable pain in the arse that has been your career to date. Let's start with your pay cheque, which although you probably didn't realise it, did at least serve as a monthly reminder that you had skills that someone was prepared to pay good money for. Along with that goes the promise of deserved pay rises, promotions, positive reviews, appraisals or even the basic satisfaction which accompanies the completion of a project well managed. Financially speaking, you're now just Mrs. T.H.E. Husband, and believe me, you will never again feel that you have completed anything.
So, once that's all gone, it's time to introduce a good old dose of old fashioned sexism and season it with a good pinch of feminist flagellation - self-inflicted, or otherwise. We're all familiar with the lazy stereotype of stay-at-home mums who spend their days drinking coffee, gossiping, watching Jeremy Kyle, spending their husband's money and occasionally ironing a shirt or pushing the hoover round in return. I'm mortified to admit that I was previously guilty of such intellectually lazy rubbish myself...
But we're smart, independent, educated women; we're not going to be like that, good God no, there will be no life of domestic drudgery for us, thank you very much. We are women who are good at our jobs and would frankly rather pass a good sized porcupine than stand accused of letting ourselves go, letting our houses go, not providing the most psychologically healthy, stimulating and educational envinroment for our children that we can possibly manage. We breastfeed until our nipples crack and bleed, we peel, chop and puree the finest organic ingredients, we sign up for the Baby Swim, Music and Movement, Tiny Talk, Tumble Tots, Advanced Japanese for the Executive Toddler etc...classes and all in all knacker ourselves out because we just want to regain that now elusive feeling that someone, somewhere, thinks we are doing a good job.
At the end of each day, we might collapse exhausted in front of the computer, and visit a Mums' internet forum, blog or message board in the hope of some support and encouragement from the motherly sisterhood. Once there, we will no doubt come across a slanging match between working mums and stay-at-homers, where we will find ourselves accused of living off men, being appalling role models, domestic servants, idling spongers, crashing bores, a disgrace to women, and basically just glorified prostitutes who "part their legs and iron his shirt in return for the allowance that pays for their leggings and sweat shirts."
Unsurprisingly, this sort of behaviour sends us spiralling into complete psychological annihilation. We'd always considered ourselves to be feminists, but this sort of behaviour from other self-styled feminists leaves us thinking that actually, they're a horrible bunch of bitter old hags, and hang on a minute, just exactly what is modern feminism doing for those of us who continue to subscribe to the most fundamentally feminine role of all?
So, as a smart, independent, educated woman, who's just utterly marvellous at her job you have two choices:
- The 'Competitive Mother' route. You keep on using all those skills, qualities and attributes that got you to where you were before you popped one out. You will have the most advanced, talented child in your peer group, because that's the only way you know of measuring your abilities as a mother, and without that constant self-affirmation, you will be crying into your gin on a daily basis.
- The 'Bollocks To You All' route. You accept that the choices you have made are the business of no-one but yourself and your family, that you won't be perfect, but you'll always do your best, and that you'll single handedly take on any rancid old Alpha Troll on any internet forum who might even think the words 'kept woman' in your general direction.
I choose the second route, but I can see how desperately easy it must be to fall into the first. I am lucky; I am not surrounded by other hyper-achieving super-mothers who want to compete with me. I'm also a stubborn old boot. It makes it all so much nicer. But I do understand how it can happen, and remain on my guard against it at all times.
There's not necessarily going to be any conclusions drawn here today. I'd always considered myself to be in sympathy with the feminist cause, but I'm finding more and more reasons to question it. It's not that I think it's fundamentally bollocks, but rather that it's lost its way and is hoovering up casualties and spitting them out to suffer the consequences. Whether you're finding that it's impossible to attract a good man unless you empty out your head and fill it with fluff and 'kittings', or that you can't reconcile motherhood with your duty to the Women's Lib, it's entirely possible that somewhere, somehow, Feminism is Screwing You.
* I solemnly swear that I will credit that idea properly when I remember where I found it.