Letting Men into the Cult of Motherhood

HiResI’m having a dilemma.

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.

Forget the Yummy Mummy: What About the Laddy Daddy?

Primrose Hill Russian Tea Room BliniThere was a piece in the Guardian last week in defence of the ‘yummy mummies’ accused of causing the downfall of a blini-selling tea-room, Trojka, in North London’s Primrose Hill. I have tried to trace the original story and actually, it’s rather unclear who made the original ‘yummy mummy’ comment but it appears to be attributable to another Primrose Hill cafe owner, Amit Jain.

Whatever the truth of the original story is, the subsequent emphasis on the ‘yummy mummy’ angle highlights the fact that, if things rhyme or alliterate, IT’S REALLY HANDY FOR JOURNALISTS!  It’s especially useful if you can dismiss or target large groups of women gathering together with one sweeping derisory phrase such as ‘yummy mummies’, ‘pram faces’,  ‘lipstick lesbians’ or  ‘witches’. Ok, so they don’t all rhyme or alliterate, but there does seem to be a witch-hunt mentality behind all this. So, before we get to witness a huge bonfire consisting of melting Bugaboo prams at this year’s Primrose Hill fireworks display, let’s just hold on a second. Here is my letter to the PUMPs (People Upset with the Mummies of Primrose Hill):

Dear PUMPs,

I understand that it is VERY LIKELY INDEED that the terrible fate which has befallen your High Street is more likely to have been caused by a group of lactating women than, for example, world recession or triple rent increases. Yep, definitely a bunch of ladies, especially those breeders with muffin tops and leaky boobs who should not really be seen in public until they have ‘got their body back’. But come on PUMPs, if you are going to blame an entire substrata of society for ruining your world, you must GET YOUR LINGUISTIC  CATEGORISATION OF PARENTAL GROUPS SHITE TOGETHER! It’s a bit like botany; you’ve got your Daisy family, and then all sorts of sub Daisy…

Are you sure, for example, it was not in fact the LADDY DADDIES  who destroyed your business? It is the laddy daddy who blocks your doorway, not only with an SUV-sized pram , but also an actual SUV every Sunday. This happens because their yummy mummy wife abandons her ‘domestic duties’ every weekend in favour of having a pedicure and getting her chakras realigned by that buff yoga master who wears tiny pants at Tri Yoga. Yes, it’s because of the laddy daddies, those hipster fathers with their Converse clad feet and G-Star jeans, who idle away so many hours over one Gluten-free muffin while perusing the Sunday papers and ignoring their kids, that you have thought on many occasions about homicide.  Perhaps Primrose Hill cafes are closing because the laddy daddy (unlike the yummy mummy) never notices when their hemp-clothed offspring Tarquin and Rainbow have failed, yet again, to stop the family’s Cockapoo from shitting under the table.

Or are the Zappa Pappa’s to blame? These carefully bearded men-with-children who are still  intent on pursuing the career of a Rock God are not to be confused with DJ Dad (carefully bald) whose children were conceived at a rave in Brighton years ago to the sound of Sean Ryder’s twisted melon. Their kids, Tiger and Wilderness, pop Smarties like pills and wait for the blue ones to kick in before ramming other customers with their scooters in a repetitive manner while DJ Dad orders a fry up.

LET’S BE CLEAR. Was it the Wanker Bankers? The Trad Dads? The Tubby Hubbies? WHO IS REALLY TO BLAME FOR THERE BEING NO MORE BLINIS IN PRIMROSE HILL? Or is it, like Freud always said, really mummy’s fault?

Love Me x

(A slummy mummy who can’t afford one of your lavishly iced cupcakes anyway)

All This Scratching is Making Me Itch: Are Tights a Feminist issue?

Vintage Stocking Ad

Vintage Stocking Ad image from http://vi.sualize.us

The leaves are coming down which means the tights are going up in our house. While the Teenage Songbird is dressing her shapely pins in skeins of sheer and shimmer,  the Biscuit Thief and I are just plain itchy and scratchy. We, with our highly reactive ‘sensitive’ skins,  practically BLEED with annoyance the entire autumn/winter season because of the brutal and perilous world of tights and wool in general.  As an added bonus, my seasonal look is topped off by a nose that becomes my personal temperature, mood and alcohol gauge from September to February with a neutral setting of ‘shiny, scarlet and dripping’. I spend the chilly months living in fear that the thin, papery husk of skin holding me together might, at any moment, rip open like the Hulk’s shirt, causing my guts to tumble out onto the gum-strewn pavement; the shiny burgundy reds of my liver and kidneys disappearing among the sodden autumn leaves.

Getting the Biscuit Thief dressed for school in the autumn/winter is a confusion of limbs, tears and static. She’ll put on one skirt/tights combination, dance around like a whinging monkey in tin shoes for twenty minutes, then remove the whole lot about five minutes before we have to leave. She then tries on every pair of black trousers she owns until she finds THE ONES THAT AREN’T ITCHY MUMMY. She is anti-tights, anti-trousers, anti any kind of containment really and I feel her pain. Winter is just SO CONSTRAINING. It totally elevates my desire to train as a trapeze artist or pilot to the top of my ‘to do’ list, and I come over all tubercular, pining with empty longing every time I come across an unopened pack of 70 denier. I just can’t sit still while the heating clicks through the pipes and the rain spits the earth from my window boxes for weeks on end; winter makes me figuratively and literally ITCH.

I have yet to find a cold weather solution that works clothes or activity wise and so, I feel, I must move somewhere warm where I can bake my leathery vellum dermis on slow burn all day in just a pair of pants.  I need, frankly, to let it all hang out.  I lived in California for a while and I’ve got to say,  I loved the freedom of  life lived outside all year round, released from the unbreathable layers of textiles required for English living.  However, I did miss the  toasty comfort and nostalgia of the British autumn and the ego-pummeling vehemence of our winters for that is the stuff of tortured poetry. Yes, I missed the conviction of the seasons when I lived in California because I so desperately require structure for my mind, but ah, how my body loved its freedom from fibre.

My grandfather owned a wool mill in Yorkshire and lost his world to acrylics and nylon, so perhaps it’s some kind of ancestral destiny that I should forever suffer the itch, the itch. Apparently there isn’t such a thing as a wool allergy, it’s more that the coarse wool fibres poke into one’s skin causing irritation and inflammation, frazzling the nerves and causing the release of histamines. Wool turns me into an irritable splatter-painting of blotchy crimsons. To wear it feels like allowing millions of ants shod in tiny, heated stilettos made out of needles to perform a Busby Berkley tap dancing routine on my torso leading to the incredibly sciency question, WHY DON’T SHEEP ITCH? I find acrylics, nylon and lycra no less annoying than wool; it’s a case of clothing claustrophobia! Scarves, tights, polo necks, hats, and mittens; these are the moth-luring terrorists of my clothes cupboard and I want them extradited.

Tights come packaged with all sorts of schmexy word kisses like ‘gusset’, ‘denier’, ‘sheer support’ and ‘control’, but this just disguises the fact that they are in cahoots with yeast and cystitis, home to thrush and the peppery sweat of inner thighs. Tights are basically giant acrylic-mix condoms for legs; unsexy, good for one time use only, and prone to holes. And yet leggings, leggings are just wrong, reminding me too much of my own state of permanent indecision. “Are you trousers or are you fucking tights?” That’s what I want to say to leggings. And as for jeggings! Jeggings are in such a state of identity crisis that the idea of them makes me shudder even more than the thought of Jeremy Clarkson leaving a pube hair in the soap.

The important question is, are men doing it? Are men doing tights? Are men doing scratchy gusset torture? They used to, before they realised that it’s pretty hard to rule the world if you are itchy, yeasty or have a raging forest fire in your bladder. These days, the only men in tights are the dancers it would seem, and those playing Hamlet.  And so I leave you with this question, are tights a feminist issue? or do I just need to wear jeans until the bunnies get frisky?

Take Me As I Am: Do you write ‘mother’ on your CV?

Tightrope Walker

More lady tightrope walkers required

You know that horrible twist of self-loathing you feel when you’re doing something you don’t really believe in? That sickening sense of the brick in the belly, the invisible snake that tightens around your throat and stops you from swallowing? Well I had it yesterday. Why?

Because I was writing my CV. My curriculum vitae should be my ticket to paid employment, my calling card. This mysterious document is meant to be a summary of my ‘relevant’ experience and skills; a list of the things that make me employable. Forty-four years whittled down to two sides of A4. And I’m livid.

Curriculum vitae is a Latin phrase which roughly translates as ‘the course of [my] life’ but what I just wrote on that ridiculous document is a load of piddling pish. It has nothing to do with who I really am or indeed, the course of my life. My CV does not mention the thing that really moulded me, the thing that gave me inner steel, forced me to perform immeasurable feats on little-to-no sleep, to be impulsively creative, a multi-limbed juggler of good and bad like Kali. I cannot say on my CV, ‘I am as real and persistent as a wasp in your pants’, but I am. It doesn’t say that I am a mother.

The thing that set the throat snake unravelling this morning was the moment I found myself trying to justify long periods of ‘absence’ in my working life. Gaps that mess up the linear trajectory of work experience that the majority of employers expect. I found myself writing apologetically that I had taken ‘career breaks’ around the births of my two daughters. I did not write in big, bold letters ‘Mother’ the same way I wrote ‘PR Manager’ or ‘Copywriter’. And the more I didn’t write ‘Mother’ in big, bold letters to explain the years 1996-1998 and 2005-2009, the more furious I felt.

There are no gaps in the ‘course of my life’, but there have been long periods of time when I have chosen something else over economic independence, my children.  Oh, how naive I have been to think this is allowed! Those gaps on my CV loom like huge, gaping mouths; monstrous voids where it is assumed I was brain-dead and milk-sodden, capable of nothing but talking goo goo la la and doing laundry. Women who have had children know that motherhood IS work. Motherhood is difficult work, it is valuable work. Some of us are shit at it, and if we could, we’d fire ourselves. When I’m working I feel like I’m letting my children down, and when I’m not ’employed’, I hear Emily Davison whispering in my ear about horses. Why does it feel like motherhood is a dirty secret we have to hide when we need to rejoin the sodding linear, patriarchal world of paid employment?

During those ‘gap’ years, those ‘lost’ years, those ‘breaks’, mothers learn a fuck of a lot of perfectly valid skills. We learn the depths and the limits of what it is to be human, resilience, sacrifice, persistence and grace in the face of many small defeats against nits and greens. The physical pain of labour is an agony that catapults you out of your body and your old life into an unknown place you both fear and desire. Mothers know how it feels to face their own mortality and have someone wholly dependent on their every breath. We tightrope walk between the old and the new, shapeshifting, crawling between all the roles we must play.  We can make 50p packets of pasta interesting, magically turn leaves and sticks into games that last for hours and placate, console, smile, enthuse, teach, nurture and heal even when we feel like we’re dying inside.

I  have worked, yes WORKED damned hard every day of those ‘gaps’ at bringing two daughters into the world who will hopefully contribute to this planet, not just take from it when they become women. I learned to love, to love, to love beyond measure and then love some more even on those tough days when I couldn’t feel my own heart. And I did all this for absolutely no renumeration. Imagine what I’d do if you paid me! I say the world needs more jugglers, tightrope walkers and magicians; the last time I looked, the old model of a single-track career path of ever-increasing pay and hierarchy until retirement ain’t working out for too many of us.

How about this dear reader of my CV: How about you don’t ask me where I have been all this time and I won’t ask you why so little has really changed after all these years? How about you take me as I am, caesarean scars and all.