Am I a parent, or am I a mother?
Am I a uterus, or am I a person?
It sounds funny, but actually, it’s quite serious. From the age of eleven, I have been reminded every few weeks of my ‘reproductive potential’. Now, in my mid-forties, the odd sweat emanating from my left armpit as I embark on an apparently one-sided menopause, reminds me of that potential coming to an end. Now more than ever, I am consciously unpicking what it means to be a woman. What it is that really constitutes the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ beyond body parts and hormones? What are the scientific facts about ‘gender’ and how many of my assumptions are the result of nothing more than cultural mythology and social conditioning?*
I have always bought into the idea of ‘the feminine’ as a universal principle. I absorbed the western interpretation of Taoist yin/yang thinking from childhood and have never really questioned it until now. This idea of the feminine representing the creative dark, the yin, the nurturing principles of community and communication has much appeal, but I am beginning to understand the ways in which this concept as a subtle cultural principle polarizes men and women. It narrows the economic, social and human potential of both sexes. I have been thinking a lot about whether it would be helpful for women’s equality if I played down what I feel is my ‘difference’ from men; the fact that I birth and breastfeed, the fact that I bleed.
The problem, as I see it, is that if we stick with the feminine and masculine principles as cultural rather than something housed within each individual, how can men ever meet us in the domestic sphere so that we ‘parent’ our children together? If we assume that women are innately better at nurturing, we tie ourselves to the kitchen sink and limit our possibilities, at the same time sentencing men to a life outside the home, chasing some intangible goal that takes them away from their families and the hard work of bringing up children. Men too can be nurturing, intuitive, loving, and caring; these qualities are not somehow innately bound up in motherhood are they? Before you say it, men get a hit of the love hormone oxytocin when they hug their children too!
Does it empower mothers and increase their status in society of we say they are nature’s homemakers and innately nurturing? I am beginning to see how this helps to keep mothers in a place of cultural servitude, maintaining nothing but status quo. Equally, does it really ‘empower’ men to have a social script that says they should be ‘out there’ earning money, locking them into a lifetime of ladder-climbing and provider-stress that keeps them away from their offspring?
Yet, I am left with a glaring issue if I deny the glory, power and mystical wonder of my uterus! HEAR ME ROOAAAR! The issue is where to put the fact that mothering my daughters has been the best, most enlightening and empowering experience of my life. Of all the ‘careers’ I have had (and there have been many) mothering my children has been the most natural fit for my personal strengths and weaknesses.
But I have begun to question whether I am ‘mothering’ my children or actually just ‘parenting’ them? What, when we go beyond birth and breastfeeding, am I giving them that my husband does not, other than some experience-based empathy about periods? If I’m honest, my husband is a better shoulder to cry on. He is the ‘nurturing force’ of calm in our home. I am not innately better at laundry and finding lost homework folders. I am far more the outwardly-focussed forager-spirit traditionally associated with masculinity. My partner and I have found ourselves in different (and I would claim, the wrong) spheres as a result of our own social/cultural expectations, education and upbringing.
I despair when gentle fathers who are great with their children, get derided for ‘being in touch with their feminine side’ as if it’s a bad thing. Surely these men are simply evolved human beings. If I hear one more excuse for friend’s sons being allowed to hit me with sticks because, “Oh! They’re just being a boy,” I might choke on my yin/yang necklace. How limiting, how sad. LET’S SHAKE IT UP!
If you take the gender-based social conditioning out of parenting (as in the case of many single sex couples) things get really interesting. It becomes a question of individual temperament, laying the groundwork for a more equal distribution of the task of bringing up children. Plus, a whole load of women can unburden themselves of the guilt they carry about the fact that motherhood, for them, is not enough.
I have found motherhood to be very tribal and divided, with no unified or unifying political voice. Part of the problem is that we see ‘the other’ woman’s choice as the thing that holds us back. Stay-at-home mothers view full-time working mums and nanny-culture as part of the reason motherhood is not valued, and working mums see the stay-at-homers as upholding cultural stereotypes that maintain inequality in pay and rubbish parental leave legislation. We are at a paralysing impasse.
Can and should ‘motherhood’ be absorbed into the word ‘parenthood’, or is it more important to raise the status of motherhood as a ‘career choice’? Can we ever go beyond gender and simply be humans, together, doing this thing called life? Do we need to let men into the cult of motherhood and bridge the divide, one dirty nappy at a time?
I’d love to know what you think and especially hear about any good books on the subject; I’ll compile them into a reading list and share.
*Gender Delusions by Cordelia Fine is a good starting point on all this.