KiwiSaver: next generation

I was born during the Rogernomics revolution. My whole life, politics has been shaped by people the same generation as my parents. Ah, baby boomers, you’re still at it, and your blinkered perspective is getting more and more annoying.

Labour announced some new policies around KiwiSaver yesterday. It’ll be compulsory. Contribution rates will increase. And someone will be made to do a bit more work on a left-field idea to use variable minimum contribution rates as a macro-economic tool to increase household savings and reduce inflation.

Nowhere is the boomer bias more obvious than KiwiSaver policy. I don’t care about my retirement income. It’s not that my head is in the sand; it’s that a whole lot of other financial goals come first. Get through this incomeless next nine months without eroding savings too much. Pay off student loan. Buy a house. Pay off mortgage. Save for my children’s tertiary education. Help them buy houses of their own. All of these will (hopefully) occur long before I retire.

Having a little earmarked pot of retirement savings is irrelevant, what matters is the overall financial position someone is in when they stop working. The KiwiSaver settings partially acknowledge this: since inception, it has been possible to use KiwiSaver to accumulate a first  home deposit. That’s the reason I joined in 2007. But this feels like an add-on, not an integral part of the policy. It makes intuitive sense, but is not a conceptually principled component of the scheme. What is KiwiSaver? Is it primarily a mechanism to promote saving, or is it primarily a personal retirement fund?

There are sound policy reasons to encourage workers to save for a rainy day. It is less clear that we should all be siphoning off a large chunk of our wages for use forty or fifty years down the track. It’s very different if your retirement is close; mine isn’t. I’m struggling to avoid the conclusion that KiwiSaver policy has been developed without much thought to the financial needs of young people, or the impact of young workers on the economy.

My KiwiSaver balance is nearly double my outstanding student loan debt. After four years of fulltime paid work, this would be a common scenario among young people who joined KiwiSaver early. I’ve paid off $14,000 of student debt already, but based on revised projections given maternity leave and part-time work over the next few years, I won’t finish paying off the rest until 2022. Before I went on maternity leave, my marginal tax rate was 30%. Add on KiwiSaver of 3% and student loan repayments of 12%, it felt like paying 45% marginal tax. In this context, a higher KiwiSaver payment would have been nonsensical. If KiwiSaver become compulsory and the contribution rate was raised, sooner or later politicians would have to catch up with the strange implications for young people with student loans.

I prefer a gutsy approach. Reconceptualise KiwiSaver as a fund for specific life stages, not just retirement. Let us use KiwiSaver contributions to pay down student debt. This would be easy to administer, IRD is already responsible for dealing with both loan payments and KiwiSaver payments. An extra 6% since 2007 would have eliminated my student debt towards the end of 2012. This policy would be great for the government books – after all, student debt is effectively government debt that graduates pay down through additional tax.

And if we’re thinking about life stages where extra money would be useful, we might also want to consider allowing KiwiSaver to be withdrawn while on parental leave. Sound crazy? That’s only because the scheme was designed by people who were already past this stage of life and preoccupied with the next one. 

The one about the milk

When I was pregnant, I knew for sure that I was going to breastfeed. The heavy-handedness of the  public health messaging didn’t really bother me: of course I would breastfeed, why would anyone not? It did all seem a bit odd though, evangelical, perhaps slightly misdirected, or just a bit dated. We went to the breastfeeding classes at the hospital, and I was surprised that the whole first session was on the reasons to breastfed (yes, we know, that’s why we’re here – can we move on to the “how to” part?). The hospital is bedecked with soft-focus breastfeeding posters. Breastfeeding DVDs are distributed at the antenatal classes. Clearly, the idea is to make sure every pregnant woman knows that breastfeeding is the bee’s knees.

None of this even remotely prepared me for the reality of breastfeeding.

My nipples were blistered at the second feed. The hospital lactation consultant reiterated the points from the DVD, gave me a sample pack of lanolin nipple cream, and sent me on my merry way. Ten days later, we hit breastfeeding rock bottom. I’d watched the latching demo dozens of times, I was trying to do it exactly as told, but this frantic little beast just wouldn’t bloody well open his mouth wide enough. Every feed took at least an hour. He fussed, he slipped off, he thrashed about. And then one day he gummed down on my already savaged nipple and I howled with pain. I couldn’t put him back on, I just couldn’t. I shoved him at his dad, and cried as I stood in another room using the breast pump. Once bub was finally asleep, having received my precious expressed milk from Mr Daddy, I wrote a detailed and desperate email to a private lactation consultant (subject line: Earliest available appointment).

If you start off intending to breastfeed, and within two weeks are suffering from blistered nipples, blocked ducts, excruciating let down reflex, bruised areolas, and nipple thrush, you’re going to be feeling totally desperate. If you’re committed to breastfeeding, you might really hate the idea of transitioning to formula – but without good support, what else can you do?  The baby has to eat. And this is where the “most women can breastfeed successfully” part of the public health message will feel like a kick in the teeth.

Fortunately, I got excellent support, and I got it early. The lactation consultant diagnosed tongue and lip tie before my milk supply was too badly affected; the following week bubs had laser surgery, and by the week after that he was feeding like a champ and gaining weight prodigiously. But that horrible morning, I could absolutely see how some might think “this isn’t working, I must be one of those women who can’t breastfeed” and go buy some formula. Fair enough.

At this point, nine weeks in, breastfeeding is second nature and a cure-all parenting technique. I feel awful for women whose available support wasn’t as good as mine, and who introduced formula despite wanting to breastfeed. Those whose midwives didn’t tell them about good secondary services. Those who can’t afford lactation consultants, or whose partners are less accommodating of breastfeeding “challenges” (read: horrendous ordeals). Those whose own mothers aren’t on hand to provide reassurance and frank advice based on breastfeeding experience.

The breastfeeding promotion is everywhere, unavoidable. The post-birth support is not too bad if you know where to find it, but it would be quite possible to completely absorb the promotion during pregnancy, without receiving any support in the haze of immediate new motherhood.

This is where the messaging is a bit off. You might mistakenly get the impression that  breastfeeding comes naturally. While I was pregnant, my mother warned me that breastfeeding was a learned skill, that it might be a bumpy road at first, that there might be pain, but that the tough bit wouldn’t last long and it was worth it, for sure. This extremely useful advice was not included on the slideshow at the hospital classes. Instead, we were told that it’s not meant to hurt, if it hurts you’re doing something wrong. Frankly, that’s like telling a learner driver that cars aren’t meant to stall. We were told that breastfeeding is instinctual, our babies will know what to do. Yeah, uh, no. We were told that breastfeeding is a pleasant experience for both mothers and babies. What part of pain and mutual frustration is meant to be pleasant? We were told that breastfeeding can be a little bit challenging at first. Challenging is the understatement of the century. Oxfam Trailwalker was challenging. Writing a dissertation while working fulltime was challenging. This was soul destroying.

The upbeat messaging does a major disservice to two groups of mothers – those who want to breastfeed, but struggle; and those who aren’t that keen on breastfeeding to start off with. There is huge pressure to breastfeed. Because I knew I wanted to breastfeed, this was neither here nor there to me. For women who don’t want to breastfeed, or who are a bit ambivalent, this pressure must feel like a vote of no confidence in their ability to be good mothers. Now that I’m a fully-fledged breastfeeding mum, I really can’t imagine the annoyance of faffing about with bottles. That said, some people don’t want to breastfeed, and this should be acknowledged. You might feel daunted by the thought of being your child’s sole form of sustenance. You might feel uncomfortable feeding in public. Breastfeeding might trigger dysmorphia or exacerbate existing body image issues. You might want to share the night feeds with the other parent. You might want to be able to leave your baby in the care of others for more than a couple of hours without pumping beforehand. You might just really want to stop sharing your body with your baby, after nine months of pregnancy. You might come from a family or social circle where breastfeeding is uncommon, and see it as a bit strange.

On the Ministry of Health website, these possibilities are ignored. Prospective parents are told “formula is there for when you can’t or shouldn’t feed baby your own breast milk”. By way of contrast, “it is your choice whether or not to immunise your child”.  If there was any health issue that justified firmly directive messaging, surely it’s childhood immunisations. But no, immunisation is my choice. Formula is not my choice, it’s only there if I am unable to breastfeed. Because, in bold for emphasis “babies should be exclusively breastfed until they’re around six months old.”

I have no problem with the Ministry of Health promoting breastfeeding: they promote all sorts of lifestyle choices that cumulatively lead to a healthier population. Breastfeeding is part of this picture. But you can’t normalise something by idealising it or by pretending that other options do not exist. To normalise breastfeeding, the very real difficulties should not be sugar-coated. For starters, the routine check at the hospital should include identifying of tongue and lip tie! Breastfeeding support, such as the volunteer-run clinic in Newtown which saved us in our hour of need, should be available throughout the country and publicly funded. It should also be widely acknowledged that while breastfeeding is being established, new mothers cannot be expected to focus on anything else. This is yet another reason why paid parental leave is important.

And finally, if breastfeeding were normalised, we wouldn’t be debating the extent of the ” benefits”. Breastfeeding ain’t got nothing to prove. It’s not out to demonstrate how much better it is than a highly processed substitute. Improvements in the composition of formula can only be a good thing, and shouldn’t threaten breastfeeding any more than improvements in IVF threaten natural conception. Breastfeeding can be seen as the normal, default way to nourish a baby without stigmatising mothers who use formula.

According to Plunket, over 40% of babies receive formula in their first six weeks. This suggests that the support for newly breastfeeding mums is insufficient. We need a frank discussion about how widespread breastfeeding problems are, and how they can be overcome. At the same time, let’s stop assuming that all women want to breastfeed. If the goal is to improve breastfeeding rates, we need to accurately identify the reasons why some people don’t breastfeed. If the goal is to promote secure attachment and protect maternal mental health, mothers need to feel supported, not patronised.

A working week

Thursday 17 April, 12.05am

I wish I had one of those tiny cameras on the bridge of my glasses to take a picture of my view right now. Bubs is asleep, his cheek is resting on my breast while one hand props up his forehead and the other one clutches my singlet. It’s past midnight, so I should put him in his crib and flop down into bed next to the snoring Mr Daddy. Can’t bear to disturb this peaceful scene just yet though.

We’re a month into the stay at home mum / breadwinner dad dynamic. It’s a bit lonely, for both of us. My husband misses us, and I miss him too but more to the point, I miss adult daytime company. I wonder whether mothers and babies have ever been more socially isolated than we are now. Last week, three friends came round after work and goodness gracious, how amazing that was. I have all this time alone with my baby boy, and it’s difficult to get much else done beyond meeting his basic needs – but one thing you can easily do while caring for a wee bubba is chat with people. If they were around. But they are all at their offices.

I could go into town, meet up with friends in the thin slice of a corporate lunch break, but so far we’re still at the stage where any plan that involves leaving the house requires a margin of error that isn’t really compatible with the office job schedule. Yesterday was our regular catch up with the other mums and bubs from the antenatal group, a sanity preserver if ever there was one, so there are new social connections to be made –  it’s just not the same, though, as interacting on a daily basis with colleagues and friends you know well.

10am

It is miserable outside. I’ve got the pellet burner going in the kitchen, and I’m walking around and around the table with bubs in the baby wrap to get him to sleep. He is just starting to doze off. On a sunny day, I’d walk to the shops. Alas.

10.15am

(He’s asleep now, and in his crib)

There’s a very simple solution to the social isolation of young children and their caregivers: a shorter working week, with flexible office hours. Nothing else can answer the problem. We need to integrate caregiving into the wider world, and that requires children and the childless to cross paths, to be in the same spaces at the same time. Which means working less.

When second wave feminists fought to enable women to enter the paid workforce, I don’t think many expected that the combined parental paid workload could easily exceed 90 hours a week, or that a lower combined load would usually mean one fulltime and one part-time worker, rather than a more equal split. A 30 hour working week is a moderately progressive add-on to modern capitalism, it’s not revolutionary – but it could have a radical effect on the lives of caregivers and children. If 30 hours were the standard working week, several adults could share the caring job. Sounds ideal. Sounds like the sort of arrangement that would currently require several extremely accommodating employers.

A 40+ hour week, set office hours, these things are arbitrary. We all know that it reflects a Mad Men era social structure in which paid work and childcare operated in completely separate spheres. They still do, yet the widespread entry of women into the workforce has left the childcare sphere not only separate, but hollowed out. In my great-grandmother’s day, women were mostly at home, not just for the first year, but generally. You had a continuous community. Pre-baby social interactions were not completely divorced from post-baby interactions. Things would have been much harder in so many ways, but less lonesome.

12.45pm

He’s back in the wrap. Yawning and grizzling, fussy, unhappy. Nappy is clean, and he’s refusing more food. Must be tired. I have music on and I’m walking around in circles again. Cursing the rain. Thankful for: Spotify, tablet computers. Listing to this.

6.45pm

He’s asleep, after a long period of wakeful fussing. I’m still home alone, it’s the evening before a long weekend so Mr Daddy is tidying up loose ends at work, but should be leaving about now.

I just watched this annoying video that kept popping up on my Facebook feed. Motherhood is hard, blah blah. You get to the end and the punchline is send your Mum a card?! Damn you, the patriarchy.

Mothers need appreciation. Mothers need support. No, stop. Back it up. People need communities. The whole “support” shtick entrenches the idea that it is fundamentally OK to place the entire burden of raising a baby on one set of shoulders, so long as someone else gives that person a shoulder massage once in a while. Wrong. Babies need love and tender care from more than one or two adults. Kids need whanau.

Imagine a society in which new mothers are sent into exile with their babies, and family and friends allowed to visit only for a few hours in the evening. Fathers are allowed to sleep over. When you put it like that, it sounds bizarre, inhumane. And it’s surely obvious that the social isolation of carers and kiddies is harmful. I wince at our child abuse statistics, ten children killed every year by a family member. One imagines this usually occurs when the killer is alone with the child, in moments of unthinking desperation, when the child becomes the enemy.

In moments alone with an unsettled baby, I feel like I’m being tested. I feel an adrenaline-fueled part of my brain trying to come up with some sort of everybody-stay-calm plan. The best the Plunket book has to offer is “put your baby in a safe space and walk away”, yep, but you come back to a crying baby, so… Every interaction with a healthcare worker includes some friendly inquiry aimed at identifying post-natal depression. I’m fine, the world is wrong.

A shorter working week would not completely solve this problem, but it would be an excellent start. I don’t think we’ll be transitioning back to a communal lifestyle any time soon, but when it comes to children, we need to do something different. Solitary caregiving creates an antagonism between the mother’s needs and the baby’s needs. Do I finish my pasta and leave him crying, or do I skip lunch and go pick him up? My mothering instincts say go get him; my self-preservation instincts say mummy needs to eat, too!

Sunday 27 April

In the past week, we haven’t left bub to cry even for a minute, and looking after him has felt easy breezy. We’ve just got back from visiting family and friends in Auckland over the Easter-Anzac break – everyone is off work/school/uni and available for baby cuddles, and I’ve not been alone with a crying baby the whole time. Bliss. This is how raising kids is meant to be. My older sister rocking him to sleep; my teenage sister-in-law cuddling him while he has a nap; my grandmother helping give him a bath; my mother-in-law keeping an eye on sleeping bubs while my husband and I go for an afternoon walk.

At the moment, paid work and home life are diametrically opposed, setting up a situation where a week like that is a rare event and can only happen during holidays. For mothers who want to maintain a career, combining the best of both worlds is very difficult. The same is true for other figures in the lives of small children. My mother has just cut down to 30 hours a week, so that she can spend two afternoons with me and play with her grandson; this is awesome, but rare – how wonderful would it be for primary caregivers if it were the norm?

A shorter working week is also the best thing we can do to enable women to reach positions of power. There are six women in a Cabinet of twenty. That’s shameful. No, seriously, wtf?! Within the National Party, there are as many men in Cabinet as there are women in Parliament. The share of women in the High Court is similar: roughly a third. It’s not hard to find women who are more competent*  than the men in power, but it is hard to find mothers who have CVs with the same cache – because “2000 – 2005, worked really hard looking after three small children” is not given the same kudos as “2000 – 2005, worked really hard making lots of money”. Lots of feminists have argued that we need to value caregiving more highly, and it’s true, it really is – but it won’t happen just because we keep banging on about it. You can’t value something properly if you have no experience of it and it’s always been invisible in your adult life. If fewer hours were the working norm, it would be easier to combine childcare with a career, and more caregivers would be able to make it to the top of their chosen field, creating a virtuous cycle in which they value caring experience in employees, because they know what it signifies (multitasking, patience, focus, planning, flexibility, etc etc etc). Then we’d take over the world! Or whatever.

The real question is, how do we get there?

1) Institute mandatory overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 45 per week. This could be on the same basis as we currently have for working on public holidays – time and a half, plus time in lieu. Employers would have an incentive to hire more staff rather than work existing staff harder, which would be good for unemployment. I think this would be a fairly popular policy. New Zealand is one of a small handful of developed countries without mandatory overtime or a maximum working week. This is a weird gap in our employment law, a strange laissez-faire lacuna that is great for employers, but bad for employees. If long hours were addressed, fewer women would step back from alpha-track careers. Eventually, the upper limit can be lowered and 30 hours could become the norm.

2) Institute a maximum working week of 55 hours. No-one should be working more than this anyway, it’s a health and safety risk. As with the overtime trigger, this limit can be lowered once expectations change over time.

3) Introduce more annual leave. An additional week or two would enable parents and other caregivers to go on more school trips and be around more during school holidays. It would also help create a culture of shorter hours, and free up friends and family of caregivers a bit more.

4) Increase availability of reduced working hours for parents of small children. This could be done by updating the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 to provide that employers must offer an alteration of existing terms of employment to employees returning from parental leave, reducing weekly working hours to no more than 30 (unless the returnee requests longer hours).

5) Better parental leave. To start with, we need an additional six weeks of parental leave for both parents from the date of the child’s birth on a “use it or lose it” basis. This should be funded using the same model as ACC, including the employment prerequisites, income ratios, and income cap (the current cap for paid parental leave is insultingly low). It is important that this be taken by both parents concurrently, right at the start of parenthood. To bring power to caregivers, we need to take caregiving to the powerful. Getting men involved at the outset will better integrate parenthood and working life.

All of these policies are free to a good home this election year. Can be taken as a package or individually.

* Not just as competent – better. If the sexes are equally competent and there is a gender imbalance, some of the men in power are presumably less good than some of the women who are not in power.

And now for something completely different

Behold, a recipe for home made nappy balm

250g coconut oil
50g beeswax
65ml almond oil
20ml calendula oil
1 tsp B5
¼ tsp lavender oil
5 drops tea tree oil

Melt together the beeswax and the coconut oil over a double boiler. Remove from the heat when completely liquid and gently stir in remaing ingredients. Pour into a 400ml tub and leave to cool.

Done!

(Ingredients can be sourced from www.purenature.co.nz)

10 feminist motherhood questions

I’ve been enjoying reading the back catalogue from blue milk, and thought it would be interesting to answer the 10 Feminist Motherhood questions now and then revisit periodically.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

Feminism to me means acknowledging that society is built around a male template for personhood, and insisting that this must change. I’ve always been a feminist – my main introduction to feminism was the centenary of women’s suffrage when I was 6 (I was obsessed with the suffragettes). My mother is a feminist and so were most of my female role models growing up.

What has surprised you most about motherhood?

It is possible to forget to eat. My grandmother says “don’t forget to eat”, whenever I’m busy – and it has seemed a completely bizarre statement until now. I can suddenly realise at noon that I haven’t eaten since the piece of toast my husband left next to me as he rushed out the door to work. Before having a baby, when I heard people speak about putting the baby’s needs first, I imagined this as a conscious act of love, not an act of blearry autopilot, of forgetting to remember your own needs.

How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

My feminism has become less theoretical and more personal as I’ve grown older. In the cosy bubble of a blue-stocking girls high school, feminism seemed to be a project for my mother’s generation, and just about completed. Girls can do anything, rada rada rada. At uni, this was less true but the world still seemed a pretty equal place. I didn’t realise how much progress still needed to be made until I was working, and thinking about having babies in the nearish future.

My husband and I looked around the corporate law firm where we both started our careers, and we thought “we can’t both do this work and also be the parents we want to be”. I left before I left, in search for a job that required fewer hours. But the public sector job I shifted to demonstrated the stalled progress of workplace feminism in a different way – those in charge are exclusively men, but the staff is overwhelmingly female. Women with kids are disproportionately represented: places with flexible hours are rare, we flock and stay, even if it’s at the cost of higher salaries and career progression. And so things will continue until working conditions everywhere are better suited to parenthood. The gender gap at the top will also continue, as will implicit sexism that follows from this and makes career advancement even harder. It’s a vicious cycle.

Becoming a mother has made me more strident about all my pre-motherhood feminist concerns. I have a new respect for all mothers. It is a massive problem that our ability to contribute to the world through paid work is strangulated by ideals of the committed employee that just aren’t compatible with children’s needs.

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I suspect most mothers are feminists, but at differing levels of self-identification. Mothers who defend their sweet little boys from calls to “man up”, mothers in the trenches of the equal chores battle with their (male) partners, mothers bargaining for additional unpaid school holiday leave in their employment contracts – these are all feminist actions. I’ve heard more anti-feminist sentiment from self-proclaimed feminists without children than from mothers who don’t identify as feminists (the perennial “why should parents get special treatment”, etc).

Being a purposefully feminist mother means trying to model a feminist household. It means striving for equal parenting. It means letting kids explore their world as free from gendered limitations as possible, including through encouraging them to question internalised stereotypes. And maybe it also means coming to peace with the fact that if you really want to make progress, you have to accept things being harder than they should be and soldier on anyway in order to get to the top and then use your influence to campaign for change.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Passing on this one for now.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

Passing on this one for now.

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

Life involves difficult trade-offs, and it requires us to sometimes put ourselves second and meet the needs of people we care about, and we all must to reconcile this with being autonomous individuals.  I’m not big on the concept of sacrifice, it is too loaded and presents an image of the maternal martyr. That’s not a helpful image for women. Better to think in terms of doing some things and not others because you can’t do all the things.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

I’m interested to see how this will pan out. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot at various stages of our relationship, mainly in relation to balancing two careers. We met at uni as two ambitious law student types, and he fully supports the idea that I should be able to go forth professionally and do interesting, meaningful things in paid work, as well as being an available and attentive parent. However, there is an inevitable tension in trying to carve out an equal relationship in a non-equal society. “Lean in” feminism emphasises the need for a supportive partner; but the limits of individual action in working around structural problems also apply to the concerted actions of a couple. He wants to support my career, but doesn’t want to sacrifice his. That’s fair enough. Why should either of us have to? Why can’t employment conditions accommodate family life for both partners? Yet, they don’t. So we intend to find some way of realigning the division of labour once we’re through the early years of parenthood (in which I want to be at home with my babies). Watch this space.

He took four weeks’ leave when bubs was born, which was really really fantastic. I’m now passionate about the feminist importance of paternity leave. There was a revelation in that month – he “gets” household management now. Five years of living together, I’ve done more than half the domestic load, but since bubs arrived that has changed. All it took was four weeks in which I completely abdicated responsibility for everything other than breastfeeding… He’s back at work now, and while our relationship may look very traditional at the moment, in many ways it’s more equal than ever (we’re both exhausted). I’m really grateful to be able to spend a full year at home with bubs. In an ideal world, we’d have better maternity leave provisions, so that women’s ability to do this doesn’t depend on the work status of the father. In the meantime, I’m pretty glad to have a breadwinner spouse just now.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

When I first started telling people I was pregnant, one friend asked what sort of parenting style I was going to adopt. Um, I thought, use my own upbringing as a starting point and mix it up as much as it suits us?

I’m loathe to say I’m following some parenting plan other than an amalgam of what feels right. But an outside observer could definitely say we’re on the spectrum of attachment parenting. Breastfeeding on demand, having bub sleep in our room, eschewing cry it out in favour of cuddle it out, me taking a year of maternity leave, carrying bub in a wrap if he wants closeness and we want hands (like now): we’re doing all these things and so far they’re working well.

Overall, my parenting philosophy insofar as I have one is based on the idea that babies and small children are people. People who are in a strange and confusing environment and can’t communicate all that well. People with genuine needs and wants. If a baby wants cuddles, fair enough. I’m grown up and I still like cuddles.

How does this approach align with feminism?

I think they’re entirely congruent. If we have a class of people whose needs are minimised and ignored and made to fit in with someone else’s agenda, we’re not going to have a society in which everyone can flourish. That’s true whether the class of people is mothers or children.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

The main thing that feminism has given mothers is the ability to have a fuller life beyond motherhood – this is really important, and that contribution should be lauded. But there is a risk that this has come at the cost of giving mothers a better supported life as mothers. I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but nor has it gone far enough in making society work well for mothers. In particular, a feminism that says to women “hey it’s all good, you can act like men now” is inadequate.

There have been moments since my husband’s return to work that have been mundanely desperate – alone with a screaming baby, body aching for sleep, conscious that it’s mid-afternoon and I haven’t cleaned my teeth yet, and suddenly struck with guilt that my soothing is getting pretty darn perfunctory. Then bub will be asleep on my chest (like now) and an hour will disappear while I stroke his lovely soft hair and just breathe him in. I feel like I’m in a weird time vortex, an afternoon can last forever, a day can go by in a blur. Then, my mother will visit and I’ll see my baby through her eyes, and she’ll burp him and change his nappy while I have a cup of tea, and everything will be much steadier. And I’ll realise the bad moments exist because it’s just not good that mother and baby should be alone. It is the most unnatural thing. Yet it has become the social norm, at a great disservice to both mothers and children. Feminism exists in part to challenge damaging social norms: this is one that needs to be expunged.

As I said above, at the moment both my husband and I are both exhausted. Me spending all day and night looking after bubs (last night I got two chunks of 3 hour sleep – WIN!), him spending the day at the office but also putting in the second shift when he gets home. I don’t think he has it easier than me, which tends to suggest that equality within relationships is nice enough, but the fundamental problem is a lack of social support for families. Feminism must not abandon that fight.

42 days of life

My baby is 6 weeks old today. There are many things I’m still not used to. The abrupt lurch into wakefulness some time between 2am and 3am. The cloggy tired feeling and cascading exhaustion at random moments of the day. The need to remind myself to eat and drink. The tradeoff between sleep, showering, doing dishes, and precious precious time to just be.

There are things that still feel like miracles every time. The softness of his skin. The deep peace of cuddling him close in those few seconds before he drifts into sleep. The sound of him swallowing my milk with utter content, after so much  difficulty getting established with breastfeeding. The way he changes slightly day to day, the feeling that we’re still discovering one another.

There are memories that I can feel fading, as my internal narrative updates itself, adjusts to the reality that he’s here now, I’m a mum.

Vomiting in the birthing pool, and not caring. Realising that I’d been in labour for 30 hours and it still wasn’t time to push. The eerie feeling of scissors cutting into numbed flesh, watching my husband try not to faint as the midwife performed an episiotomy. Being stitched up while my baby was whisked away to NICU to have oxygen pumped into his tiny fluid-filled lungs. That first night, alone, struggling to get out of the hospital bed without disturbing the catheter, so I could pick him up and feed him.

And further back, things I know to be true about the pregnancy but don’t still feel. Those early weeks when I could barely drag myself out of bed. The time I threw up in the dirty washing basket because I didn’t quite make it to the toilet. The emotional turmoil; the time I dropped a plate and burst into hysterical tears. The feeling of being  encumbered, limited, vulnerable. The pain in my hip and discomfort sleeping in the final two months. The frustration at the constant policing of pregnancy (step away from the cheese!).

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In the 8th week of pregnancy, roughly 42 days after an egg is fertilised, the placenta is established and the embryo becomes a foetus. The foetus will be the size of a blueberry – I remember that from the pregnancy update app. “How’s the blueberry?!” a friend excitedly emailed.

A third of all abortions in New Zealand occur by the end of the 8th week.

Last week I had to take my beautiful, healthy baby into the hospital for a scan (he’s fine). The “peaceful vigil” out front was muted. 40 days for life, a pro-life movement that seeks to end abortion. They smiled at me, and although of course everyone smiles at babies, I felt self-conscious. Yes, I have a baby. That means I’ve just completed the transformational process of pregnancy and childbirth. That doesn’t make me sympathetic to your cause.

I wanted this baby, he was loved before he was born, and for him I was willing to go through the process of pregnancy and labour. But forcing someone to continue with a pregnancy they don’t want is just brutal. The mental health grounds in our abortion law is not being used as a loophole: being made to stay pregnant against your will would be deeply traumatic even for the most robust person.

Oh and by the way, those terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice”, they’re not helping. Because the debate is about access – not whether abortion is morally fraught or not, not whether it ends life, not whether it is a difficult choice; but how it is controlled. If you want to further limit legal access to safe abortion you’re not pro anything, you’re anti-access. However, you could be pro-access and still think abortion is morally wrong. I know a lot of vegetarians who refrain from eating meat for ethical reasons, but somehow manage to respect the rights of others to hold different views. Living in a liberal democracy means that it’s not enough to think you’re right, you also have to convince other people to agree with you. And if you can’t, then tough – you don’t get to just make them do what you want anyway.

Human life is of course a wondrous thing, and even unplanned pregnancy can bring great joy. You betcha I said the shehecheyanu to myself when I saw those two pink lines. But growing a baby is also hard work. It’s not as though you just continue on with ordinary life and wait for the newborn bundle to appear. Many days during pregnancy will be a struggle, and childbirth is a fairly major undertaking. The “right to life” movement not only harms women who’ve had abortions or might wish to access abortion one day, it also feeds into a cultural minimisation of the physical and emotional work involved in creating new people. This minimisation is a significant barrier to real gender equality. When women don’t get enough credit for doing the very thing that ensures the survival of the species, it’s pretty clear who’s running the show. It becomes easy to measure us against a male yardstick and find we fall short. Women, passive givers of life; men, active shapers of the world. Women with children: soft, fragile. Women without: strong, unfeminine. Take up long distance running, people look at you like you’re tough. Get pregnant, people look at you like you’re delicate. Have a baby, people look at you like you’ve gone soft. “Do you sometimes feel like a cow, feeding him?” No. I’m a fucking lioness. Hear me roar.