Me and my boys

I always imagined I would have a daughter. She would have curly hair like me, and she would be a little bit bookish and a little bit wild. I would read to her, all my old favourites, and we would go on long walks together at the beach. We would do crafty activities and bake and climb to the top of hills to take in the view. I imagined more or less a new iteration of my childhood relationship with my mother.  

I wanted a boy too though. My husband and I always thought we’d have three kids, and hoped for two boys and a girl. 

We’ve got the two boys, but I don’t think we’ll have any more kids. The thought of never being pregnant again is so wonderful, so appealing. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I don’t think so. 

When I was pregnant with my first baby I had a strong and surprising sense it was going to be a boy. When I was pregnant with my second, just a few weeks along, I dreamt it was another boy – he even had a name, and it was the Hebrew word for son. It’s nice for a boy to have a brother, I thought. 

I grew up around boys. Family camping holidays were my five male cousins, my brother, and me. We mostly liked the same games, mud fights in the estuary, jumping off the wharf and floating down in the tide, collecting shells to turn into wind chimes. Endless card games. Tramping with our dads, making damper filled to oozing with jam, marching along with competitive camaraderie.

One year we found a baby sparrow and all other activities stopped. We took shifts guarding the ice cream tub we made into a nest, feeding it by hand. It died and we dug a grave, had a little burial ceremony, laid down some pebbles. Its name was Chirpy. 

Insulated by the equal footing with my cousins and by the sisterliness of my all-girls school, it wasn’t until university that I realised sexism was still an issue among men of my generation. But the young guy I met in the first week of lectures was pretty cool. It’s strange thinking of him as he was then, almost still a boy himself, the tender goofy lad who didn’t know yet how to respond to a world that saw him as a man, with all those assumptions about emotional detachment and so on. For all the many privileges of being a man, there is this enormous price.

Now, since becoming a father, though he’s worn with exhaustion, it also seems like he’s more and more comfortable in his own skin, with these two little cuddle buddles to pour love into. And despite the inevitable relationship strains of the early years, I have complete faith in him as a role model for gentle care for our sons. 

Ah, my boys, I feel so protective of their big hearts in a world where strangers sometimes say “boys will be boys” when the older one is rough; or “you don’t need to cry, you’re a big boy” when he falls down. It’s still seems like some people think men should be half-formed humans, all rough edges, with nothing mellow or smooth to round them out. 

But the boys themselves! When you see how much a two year old boy loves and needs cuddles, it’s immediately heartbreaking that most adult men aren’t big on displays of affection with their dude friends. I’m really conscious with the little dude of making time to pause and give him a hug when he wants one, even when I’m trying to do other things, that physical connection is so important to him. 

Of course, I’d hug my daughter a lot too – of course! But there’s no worry about shielding a girl from a message that hugs are not for her.

With any child, there would be that duality  of sameness  and difference – this child is of me, but other. The balance might skew differently depending on the child, and gender  is only  one of myriad factors  in that mix. I see much of myself in the little dude, with his will of iron and cheeky wit, a renegade adventurer sometimes, thoughtful and focused other times. The more I see his personality unfold, the more I feel like this is the child I was always meant to be entrusted with. This is the child I can help flourish.

At nine months, bub is still in that lovely genderless space. We all start like that, blissfully unaware of anything limiting who we might be. At almost three, the little dude is really alert to gender. In the car, we were listening to one of his CDs, and there’s a song with a male and female singer taking different parts – the man doing the animals with the low sounds and the woman doing the animals with the high sounds. The little dude was singing along and then he said “it’s the daddy’s turn when it’s the bear noise and the mummy’s turn when it’s the birdie noise”. Huh. Yeah, suppose so.

A few weeks ago I told him that it’s my job to decide when we have treats; then to placate him when this didn’t go down well I said it’s his job to decide when we have crackers. The following day he told me that girls decide when it’s treats and boys decide when it’s crackers. Hilarious! The adult/child distinction didn’t seem more obvious to you kid? No?

It gives me pause for thought. If I had a little girl, I would be confident that she’d absorb my example, that I’d be her model for adulthood. But a little boy… is it slightly different? It must be, because if good role-modelling from female caregivers was enough by itself to create emotionally mature men, the world would surely look fairly different.

In particular, I wonder about the potential for unintended messages from female-dominated caregiving. Like how a lot of guys never seem to get the message that people who love you back still have personal space boundaries you need to uphold. Or men who think it’s ok to wheedle for things they want from women. Or men who expect someone to clean up after them. This list could really go on and on and on, eeesh. I wonder whether some of that starts with mothers and our little boys, who don’t see men taking on caring roles.

Kids are so eager to figure out social codes. We make it hard for them when we send mixed messages. How is a two year old meant to figure out whether there are different rules and expectations based on gender when the adults have no consensus? What are kids meant to think when they see their mothers do significantly more household labour, while also complaining about it, and their fathers sort of acknowledging it but not really changing?

I try and get the little dude involved with chores, figuring it’s harder now but will pay dividends later. It’s the opposite to those fridge magnets that say “let the chores wait, if they need you now give them that time”. Fuck those magnets. All mothers I know spend a lot of effort figuring out how to do the chores without detracting from parenting, and it’s a genuinely very difficult, and someone has to cook the bloody dinner, huh?!

Anyway, he loves being involved, having his own little tasks, when I can be bothered including him. He looks so proud at the supermarket when he trots off to get the bag of porridge oats and flings them in the trolley by himself. Surveys of mothers suggest that the assistant household manager dynamic is more common for daughters; but I think it’s more important that we do this for sons. If I had a girl and I didn’t teach her how to run a house, I’d be fairly confident that the combination of peer-pressure and general socialisation would fill the gap. I’m not sure that’s true for a son. I feel more responsible for ensuring he gets those skills.

I would probably have wanted to keep up a career regardless, but this too I think is more pronounced as a mother of boys. I don’t want to give myself over to them completely, because I don’t trust that they will respect me any more for it than if I maintain a life of my own. And I want to be able to earn money so my husband can cut back his hours and take more of a role with the kids – for his sake as well as theirs.

I’ve just finished rereading Little Women. I’ve been chatting to my husband about it, trying to convince him to read it, and feeling like it’s really bizarre how much men miss out on because it’s presumed they won’t enjoy it, or don’t need it. There is a whole canon of books that are beautifully crafted and full of life and wisdom, seldom offered to boys because the central characters are girls and the subject matter is daily domestic life. My third-form English teacher told us she used to teach Little Women at a co-ed school but stopped because too many boys complained and their parents backed them up. I can’t see that going down the same if girls complained about Huckleberry Finn.

The worst of it is, not only are boys missing out on getting to know the girls in these books, they’re missing out on the boys! Bad enough they never meet Jo, but to miss out on Laurie too?! Such a shame.

If I had a little girl as well, I would be a mother of sons, but not exclusively. There are things I might have done predominantly with my daughter, which now, having no daughter, I will want to do with my boys. They might not want to join in. Which is fine, because all we can do as parents is offer to introduce them to our favourite things and then leave them to it; and that would be equally true if I had girls. But a daughter who was markedly different to me might feel more challenging to parent. I expect more of that difference with a boy, so similarities are more delightful.

Our family is still in the transition years, the relationship my husband and I had as a couple is moving and resettling. Like a peaceful cat newly disturbed by someone rearranging the couch cushions, it will shift about and then sink back down, equally comfortable but in a new position. We are not shaped as parents until we have our children. And we don’t know how much of our need and capacity to nurture will be fulfilled by our own children until they’re here, and how much will find an outlet in different relationships – the children of our friends, a niece, perhaps one day a grandchild.

If I had a girl, I would foremost want to buttress her against a world that might tear her down. With a boy, the same is true (because the desire to protect is innate to parenting?) but the threat is different. Patriarchal society limits everyone’s capacity for self-realisation, boxing boys in with toxic masculinity just as girls are boxed in with suffocating femininity. Hegelians might even argue that boys come out worse, as their very souls are damaged but they can’t see it, can’t visualise the better world for fear of losing power – the consolation prize to the debasement of which they are part.

And I will try to insulate my boys, their dear hearts, their fullness of joy, from this. (We’re lucky that it will be relatively easy in our community, with plenty of great male role-models among our family and friends, and living in an area where progressive views are fairly mainstream).

Ultimately, especially in light of my recent reading material, I’m thinking feminist parenting is one and the same as parenting for the development of character. Helping them develop self-awareness so they can work on becoming who they want to be, and find their own way to make the world a better place.

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!).

———-

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.