Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Feminism and having babies part 3: sharing the load

When I went into this whole having a baby enterprise, the idea was that my partner and I would be truly collaborative parents, but is this really possible?

I'd have to do the pregnancy and birth bit. But after that it was intended to be a shared enterprise with both of us feeding, changing and juggling work and childcare.

It didn't work out, and now I'm on my own, so I can only speculate on husbands' roles in childrearing, and look back at those plans and say what probably wouldn't have worked.

Mother-child bonds

I knew a few things about mother-child bonds, but until you've experienced it, it's difficult to quite comprehend this.

Within a couple of days of her birth, my daughter's eyes would follow me around the room - she knew that I was the person who was supposed to look after her.

When I first met my baby I somehow recognised her cry, and could never really mistake another child's wailing for my own. Other people might learn to recognise it, but as her mother, I just know it.

It is easier for me to comfort and calm her than anyone else - when she's really tired and her little head can't cope with the world, it's me she wants to snuggle into to help her shut it all out. Since she's the world's most amazing baby, this makes me feel pretty good.

A mum's gotta do what a mum's gotta do

Breastfeeding of course puts the onus for feeding on women, but we are also programmed to respond to our babies in ways that men just are not.

If you're expressing milk, your milk usually flows better when the baby's on hand.

Friends who had decided they would take turns in getting up in the night to tend to their new arrival soon abandoned that, as mums found they woke up anyway, so they would then have to wake their partner, which seemed a bit pointless - if you're awake anyway, you may as well just deal with the baby.

What this all means is that, when it comes to childrearing, men and women aren't equal. Men can do a lot to support their partners (when they choose to stick around), but in these early days women end up doing the bulk of the work. Of course after these early stages men can do a lot more.

This is my experience - I'd be interested and delighted to hear from people who can contradict me.

Feminism and being a mother

I had envisaged that my partner and I would equally share the work of childrearing. As I'm now on my own, that's not possible. But I can see now, that even if he had stuck around, I would have ended up doing most of the work.

In feminist terms, this means that women who choose to be parents end up living very different lives to men who make this choice. It's a 'men are from Mars, women are from Venus' situation which illustrates how different we are.

We might win the fight for equality at work, but we'll never get it in family life, and that's probably a good thing.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Feminism and having babies part 2: early motherhood

Before I had a baby I was determined not to turn into one of those people who talks about babies and nothing else.

I found babies pretty boring, so couldn't think of anything worse than this.

But then I had a baby. And now I have very little else to say, because I don't do anything else.

I have very little time to read (although occasionally I can balance a book on my knees if I'm expressing and the baby happens to be sleeping, which is pretty rare), I have few opportunities to keep up with current affairs, and going out in the evening is a dimly-remembered luxury.

Food has become little more than fuel to keep me going. Except chocolate - suddenly I need to eat a lot of chocolate.

I get out of the house a lot and see a lot of people, but they are almost always people with babies. Other people with babies are easiest because they understand, and I'm more likely to feel able to leave my little bundle of joy with them while I nip to the loo or order my latte.

Becoming boring

By my own pre-baby reckoning I am now pretty dull, and that saddens me.

The strange thing is that I now find babies pretty interesting.

I hadn't really appreciated that they come into the world knowing absolutely nothing, so their day to day lives are all about trying to decode the world around them. A newborn doesn't know the difference between a person and a table, they have to learn this.

Watching my tiny daughter try to figure out what's what and who's who is fascinating. I could do it all day, which is good because that's pretty much what I have to do. And that's about all I have to talk about.

Being a feminist and a new mum

How does this relate to feminism? Being a feminist to me means being more than the sum of my biological parts. I was able to live a full, free and independent life.

But suddenly I find myself living a life entirely dictated by biological function - changing nappies, feeding and sleeping.

OK, so I have an automatic washing machine and can admit to spending considerable time sipping lattes with my newly babyfied pals, but basically the things I now occupy myself with are the same things that women have been doing forever.

I'm not free to come and go as I please, as I have to constantly consider my child's needs.

My academic accomplishments are now entirely pointless - my daughter doesn't care about my thoughts on the patriarchy, and my attempts to interest her in highbrow literature have so far floundered - she prefers it when I blow raspberries and supply milk.

I am no longer the free and independent woman I was. Although my convictions about feminism haven't diminished in the least, my new lifestyle undoubtedly leaves me feeling less liberated.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Feminism and having babies part 1: pregnancy

Last year I grew a baby. This meant I spent most of the year feeling sick and getting gradually larger. It was rubbish. Show me a woman who says she liked pregnancy and I'll show you one who has forgotten what it was really like.

People said I glowed. That was nice of them, and maybe it was true, but it couldn't make up for the fact that I felt like shit for eight whole fucking months (it didn't kick in for the first month). 

Unfortunately the utter shitness of pregnancy was compounded by the fact that my darling spouse decided it was a good time to leave me for someone else, transforming the shitness of pregnancy into something horrendous.

I was shocked to find that, having always prided myself on being independent and able to look after myself, I literally couldn't do this. And the person who was supposed to be there to step in and let me lean on them had left. It was just my luck that the one time in my life that I needed that support it wasn't there. 

Pregnancy and feminism

I have been musing a good deal on pregnancy and how, if at all, it relates to feminism. 

What my sad little tale told me, and why I tell it here, is that during pregnancy women are not equal to men. In some ways we're much greater, because we're doing this incredible thing of bringing a life into the world, and in other ways we are lessened because creating a new life is such debilitatingly hard work. The combination of sickness, tiredness and crazy hormones meant there were many days when I just wanted to curl up and cry. And that was before the really bad stuff happened. 

When I was pregnant, I wasn't the same person I had been. I could do a day's work, and I could go to the gym, and I could cook dinner, and I could be sociable, but I couldn't do all of those things in one day anymore. Just one of them took it out of me.

Of course, now I have a small baby to look after I don't get a chance to any of those things - ever - but that's part 2.

Sometimes I needed physical support, but more often I needed emotional support. I couldn't do it alone. I felt vulnerable and dependent - feelings that were foreign to me. I was a very different person to the pre-pregnancy me, and it was scary.

Enough about me...

Below is an interview with the feminist Naomi Wolf. She talks about how pregnancy made her a completely different person. 

What really resonated with me personally was when she said: 'My husband is next to me and I'm stunned to find that I need to lean on him. I'm not free, strong, brave.' I recognised that feeling of no longer feeling free, strong or brave.

This is a successful, confident and wealthy woman. She is an influential feminist, who gets paid to spout about female empowerment. And yet even she found that when it came to pregnancy, she needed to lean on a man.  

Our need to lean on men* when in this vulnerable state doesn't mean we're inferior in any way. It's simply that what we're growing is so incredibly knackering that we need a bit of help. Men don't have to go through pregnancy - do you think they'd fare any better if they did?


I didn't have a partner to lean on when I was pregnant, and that was awful, but I did find I had people to lean on - lots of them. Family, friends, colleagues and and people I hardly knew but now count as my friends. It felt like I had lots of people cheering me on and willing me to succeed.

* Obviously if you're pregnant and your partner is a woman, then you need to lean on her and not a man. Congratulations - she's probably a lot better at it.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

We're definitely not wasting our time with feminism

By Jim Ankan Deka, via Wikimedia Commons
Just a few days ago I was asking 'are we wasting our time with feminism?' On the same day that I wrote that, a 16-year-old girl from Calcutta died, after being gang-raped and set on fire.

She was raped twice. The second time was the day after the first, when she came home from reporting her rapists to the police. That's when they also set her on fire. She died of her injuries two months later, on New Year's Eve.

Changing India for women

Last New Year's Eve I wrote about the rape and death of another young Indian woman on a bus in Delhi: 'Rape - not a serious crime in India'.

The strength of the outcry at the Delhi bus attack was impressive, with men and women protesting, demanding justice and remembering the victim. Here are some pictures of the protests. 

People asked whether this would change India for women. But of course an entire culture isn't going to change over one case, or even one year of protests.

And this new case, one of many in India and elsewhere in the world, shows how little has changed. This 16-year-old girl, instead of being protected after reporting her ordeal, is left to face a further attack, that results in what must have been horrific injuries, and the loss of her life.

It screams that, despite what happened a year ago, and despite the strength of the protests that followed it, rape is still not taken seriously in India. The message to would-be rapists is that gang-raping a 16-year-old is OK. It's only if you do it a second time, set fire to her, she dies and the world starts to take notice that the authorities might start to bother you.

While there are still large parts of the world that have this cavalier attitude to what happens to women's bodies, then feminism still has much work to do.