Monday, June 23, 2014

an empowered birth?

Sources of empowerment for women seem to be everywhere these days, not least when it comes to birthing babies. I think I heard the word ‘empowerment’ more often while pregnant than at any other time in my life.

You’d think that would be a good thing, right? More empowered women should mean more women in charge of their lives, taking it to the man, building a feminist utopia of equality at home and work.  Only, wait ... that doesn’t seem to be at all what’s happening.

So is the constant goal of empowerment actually empowering?  

A few years ago the satirical newspaper the Onion published an article entitled ‘Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does’. Here’s a sample:

“From midnight cheesecake noshers to moms who don't fool around with pain, feminist achievement covers a broad spectrum," said Bradley in her acceptance speech. "It is great to be a female athlete, senator, or physician. But we must not overlook the homemaker who uses a mop equipped with convenient, throwaway towelettes, the college co-ed who chooses to abstain from sex, and the college co-ed who chooses to have a lot of sex. Only by lauding every single thing a woman does, no matter how ordinary, can you truly go, girls."
At times, the article treads a pretty fine line between satire and (ironic) sexism, but it also has a point. These days ‘empowerment’ for women seems to be a confused and ambiguous term, used from everything from a conventional political understanding of ‘empowerment’ - meaning to challenge the norms and values of patriarchal culture (as, say the ‘female athlete, senator or physician’) - to what I would say is a capitalist deployment of the language of revolution to sell shampoo and stuff - think Pantene’s new Shine Strong campaign which draws attention to women’s over-apologising, Dove’s ‘campaign for real beauty’  or the perennial L’Oreal ‘because I’m / you’re /we’re worth it’ strategy. 
The language of ‘empowerment’ seems to particularly saturate everything when you get pregnant. It sounds great: taking control of your own birth experience, banishing the drugs as unnatural and - if you don’t choose to stay at home - going home from the hospital within hours of giving birth. For an empowered mother, having a baby need not even interrupt your week.
Only that’s not always what happens. And not everyone feels empowered by their birth experience.
Nurse-academic Ruth deSouza, for example, has critiqued the monocultural understanding of empowerment through birthing that dominates New Zealand’s midwife-led maternity services. In her 2014 analysis of the experience of new Korean mothers in New Zealand, she illustrates how the Korean mothers she interviewed felt profoundly dis-empowered by the care that they received. Where they wanted more tests and ultrasounds to ease their concerns about their babies’ development - what they would’ve expected as routine in Korea - they were told ‘not to worry’ and ‘everything was fine’, increasing rather than lessening their anxiety. Where they wanted hands-on assistance and more nurturing in their early days as mothers, they were instead expected to become independent immediately post-partum.  De Souza concluded that both their medical and cultural requirements were not met. This, in turn, left the women feeling incredibly anxious and vulnerable.
I found de Souza’s study interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, because I think it strongly highlights that a uniform and universal maternity philosophy practice does not suit everyone. Second, that, while maternity services may be empowering for the maternity providers and for mothers who thrive under it, it is not empowering for all women. Finally, I think de Souza’s work gestures towards the question of whether ‘empowerment’ is really the best or most helpful way to conceptualise birth. If we mean by ‘empowered’ feeling supported and cared for, and having your body and decisions respected, then it is helpful. But so-called ‘empowerment’ often means leaving women to fend for themselves, with minimal intervention or guidance, when they don’t really know what they’re letting themselves in for. I think this says more about over-stretched maternity services with fewer and fewer resources than it does about appropriate maternity care.
And, while I agree that pregnancy and birth are natural processes, I don’t think that means we must be expected to act as if everything will return to ‘normal’ straightaway. I think this expectation is unrealistic and profoundly disempowering for many women, not least the Korean migrant women in de Souza’s study. I have heard many women express shock and surprise at just how physically weak and vulnerable that pregnancy and birth made them, about how long it took them to recover, about the agonies of establishing breastfeeding and so on. Pregnancy and birth may be natural processes, but they are also profound physiological, psychological and emotional experiences. For much of human history, my guess is the concept that would’ve best described birth and early motherhood is ‘survival’ not ‘empowerment’.
The law changes in New Zealand - driven by both midwives and what the health system describes as ‘consumers’ (hmm, spider senses tingling there - what about ‘patients’ or, dare I say it, ‘prospective mothers’?) - were a legacy of second-wave feminism. Women wanted to wrest back control of their bodies from predominantly male physicians  who routinely cut and drugged healthy women who may not have needed such interventions. That history is certainly empowering. I am in no way arguing for a return to women having zero say in birth and being treated as little more than objects.
But with the decentralisation of healthcare, the continuing cuts to maternity services - as well as increased workloads - what may once have been empowering is now dressed up in the language of ‘choice’: choose your midwife or other Lead Maternity Carer, choose how and where you want to give birth, choose to have an epidural or not. Such choice, without the support and care to make informed decisions, is not empowering for everyone - for many, it is overwhelming and alienating.
Speaking personally, I did not feel empowered by my first birth experience. I felt shocked, violated and incredibly weak. I also felt like I never wanted to go through that experience again. And even before that, I felt a lot of uncertainty about the process, and was dismayed at how difficult the system was to navigate. 
For most of my second pregnancy, it’s fair to say I was in almost total denial about the forthcoming birth. It wasn’t until the last few weeks, and a conversation with one of the consultants at the hospital, that I actually started facing what I was about to go through. 
During that conversation, the doctor said:
‘A positive birth experience this time round could be incredibly empowering’. 
That word again. 
‘But,’ he added, ‘Another difficult one won’t be.’ 
I was then asked what I wanted from the birth. Um, I guess that meant apart from a healthy baby? 
Without thinking, I blurted out, what I thought was half seriously, to the other four people in the room, ‘I want to survive it.’ 
Nobody laughed.
I guess not everyone prepares to give birth by mentally composing their wills. But my thoughts about the birth had nothing to do with empowerment, or challenging the system, or making a political statement of any kind.
After a bit more discussion, we agreed that it was up to me to make a choice and they would support me in whatever I wanted.  As I have blogged about previously, I decided to do what was - for me - the least worst option. Ironically, this time, as well as feeling physically weak and groggy and all the lovely things that new mothers experience in the first few days after birth, I did feel somewhat empowered: by the  fact that I had faced my fears and made some practical decisions that enabled me to take some control back.
Genuine maternal empowerment is not about conforming to someone else’s notion of what your birth should be like, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. It is about being supported to make the best decisions that you are able to in the particular circumstances in which you find yourself in order to receive the care you feel is necessary. For the Korean women in de Souza’s study, that meant more tests and ultrasounds and more nurturing in the postpartum period. For me, my ‘empowerment’ was incidental to, not the goal, of my second birth experience; it was a by-product of first feeling profound dis-empowerment and a subsequent quest for survival. 
Maybe we’d be better off trying not to find empowerment in everything from birth to beauty bars and feeling like failures when it doesn’t materialise. Perhaps a better concept to guide maternity care is neither ‘empowerment’ nor ‘survival’ - both of which focus almost exclusively on the individual - but on ‘support’. Different women will need different kinds and levels of support both before, during and after birth. Focussing on providing ‘support’ rather than ‘empowerment’ also ensures mothers remain at the centre of birthing experiences, but not in isolation.  
For my birth experiences, I would much rather have been able to say ‘I was supported’ than ‘I was empowered’. Though being able to say ‘I survived’ is pretty good too.

Friday, June 6, 2014

postcards from the edge


Time for sleep we say.

A safe warm bed invites her.

Little arms resist.


It's now past bedtime.

Still she is awake, alert.

Insistent, she wails.


Is it this or that?

She just wants reassurance.

Carry her round, he thinks.


Is it that or this?

She might still want sustenance.

Give her food, she thinks.


Day and night, she wakes.

Panic rises. Knowledge fails.

No-one is sleeping.


Her sister acts up.

Competing for attention.

Baby cries, she cries.


We search for advice.

Friends, family, internet,

Books. Someone must know.


Cry it out. No-cry.

Controlled cries. Pick up, put down.

No-one really knows.


Feelings of failure.

Sleep deprivation tortures.

We start to shut down.


Under-eye circles.

I - we - can’t go on like this.

Unhappiness creeps.


I give up. What now?

Defeated by a baby.

This is rock bottom.


Mary Poppins, help!

Supernanny. Anyone?

Someone other than me.


Silent pleas don’t work.

Pick up the phone. Call for help.

Support, a plan. Hope.


First, it takes two hours.

Pick up, put down, constantly.

Listening, always. 


A brief late night cry.

But she subsides by herself.

Straight on till morning.


Two naps of two hours.

At night, half an hour’s help.

Could it be this easy?


For the first week, yes.

Like us, she needs to catch up 

On sleep, on brain growth.


But soon the naps slide.

Is she going to regress?

Our nerves are shredded.


Unmade and anxious.

Our new-found peace is fragile.

It is early days.


Daytime sleeps are still

A game of chance between us.

We win some, lose some.


But the nights, the nights!

Two weeks now of sleeping through.

We want to believe.


More sleep is healing.

A cautious optimism

Grows. It revives us.


The talking cure helps.

Restores equilibrium.

I can now exhale.


I have to admit

It’s getting so much better, 

Better all the time. 


We faced the challenge.

But know there are more to come.

This is parenthood.


An online silence.

When writing has helped so much.

How do I write this?


A childhood technique.

Then, the rugby world cup. Now, this.

Basho would be proud.


These haiku ensue.

I must have one rhyme in my

Postcards from the edge.

Friday, May 9, 2014

a mothers' day pillow book

in a departure from my previous mothers’ day posts - which were about the feminist origins behind a day steeped in sentimentality  and thinking about which mothers are celebrated on Mothers’ day and which aren’t - I’ve decided to model my thoughts about motherhood after the the Pillow Book by Japanese courtier Sei Shonagon. In a pleasing symmetry, Mothers’ Day also falls a week after the Japanese holiday Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day) that takes place on May 5. 

The Pillow Book seemed to be everywhere in the 1990s. Well, okay in two places: the elegantly beautiful but really quite pointless Peter Greenaway movie The Pillow Book (1996) and as a framing device in Booker-nominee Ruth L Ozeki’s My Year of Meats (1998). Oh and I lived in Japan for a year towards the end of the decade.

Being hopelessly behind the times, I’ve only just managed to finish the actual Pillow Book - a collection of random and often whimsical thoughts by a court lady who lived over a thousand years ago (around 965) during the Heian period. While some of the book feels like a totally alien world - her worship of her mistress the Empress, for example - a lot of it feels very modern - for example, the sexual shenanigans of the courtiers. What was most startlingly modern, however, was its form: the constant use of poetry to communicate, particularly to amuse or seduce, compares with the quirky tweet or facebook status update, and the episodic and random nature of ‘the’ Pillow Book reads like a blog. Sei Shonagon’s writing style was so prescient she pre-empted the internet by more than a millenium! 

Shonagon was married at 16, and possibly at the time of her service to the Empress, divorced. She had a son, Norinaga, from her first marriage and is believed to have married a second time after her service ended. She had another child, a daughter: Koma no Myobu.  Shonagon did not write much about her son or motherhood particularly in the Pillow Book, but she did make some observations about babies and children:

Small children and babies ought to be plump. So ought provincial governors and others who have gone ahead in the world (p 78)

Adorable things: the face of a child drawn on a melon ... One picks up a pretty baby and holds him for a while in one's arm; ... he clings to one's neck and falls asleep (pp 168-69)

Presumptuous things: a child who has nothing particular to recommend him yet is used to being spoiled by people (p 170)

Hateful things: one is just about to be told an interesting piece of news and a baby starts crying (p 45)

She is perhaps best known for her meditations on ‘things’, the headings of some of which I am now going to shamelessly borrow to talk about motherhood-type things:

  • Things that cannot be compared

Baby number one and baby number two, so similar in some ways but as different as night and day in others. Good days and bad days: if you try to figure out what worked in the former and not in the latter it will drive you crazy. 
Your pre-maternal and post-maternal life. 
And body.

  • Unsuitable things

A baby and a plastic bag. My big girl’s choice of kindy clothes during a biting southerly wind.

  • Things that make one’s heart beat faster

Wondering if your baby will stay asleep once you shift her from you to the cot. Watching your big girl climb further and higher saying ‘watch me’: it’s important she learns but you can’t shake the image of her falling off the table out of your head. The anaesthetic drugs for my caesarean with baby number two.

  • Things that arouse a fond memory of the past

Taking out the clothes you packed away from baby number one for baby number two. Watching video footage of herself as a baby and toddler on my camera with my big girl.Having lunch in town where people wear clothes that don’t have food stains on them and have brushed their hair. 

  • Hateful things

1950s-style financial dependence. People suddenly seeming much less interested in what you have to say now you are no longer in paid employment. Powerlessness. Sentimentalising motherhood, especially on Mothers’ Day. Books about parenting. Being compared to a car. Being compared to a cow. Internet memes that aim to guilt-trip mothers even more (that means you ‘Iphone Mom’). Anything that aims to guilt-trip mothers. 

  • Depressing things

A baby who won’t sleep. A baby screaming inconsolably. Feeling like you will never sleep again. Feeling like you just don’t know what to do and have run out of ideas about how to stop your baby screaming inconsolably. Isolation. Being stuck in the house all day. The monochrome nature of things for little girls.

  • Splendid things

An unexpected but much-longed-for night of semi-decent sleep. Making deeper connections with your community. First birthday parties. Having the odd hour to myself to blog or read or eat or use the computer or stare blankly into space drooling wondering where all my energy has gone. Mining the rich vein of feminist writing about motherhood.

  • Annoying things

People who take down a parent's choice of baby carrier. Or choice of anything for that matter. Advertisements that don’t have a ‘skip ad’ option before the Peppa Pig cartoons on YouTube. When your baby prefers the packet food to the food you have taken the trouble to lovingly prepare yourself. When people tell you your baby’s hungry or tired like you don’t already know yourself and are trying your best to deal with her. Plunket.

  • Things without merit

Media constructions of mothers that depict the perfect mother as a dead one.

  • Shameful things

The time I gave my baby a small shake because I was nearly out of my head with frustration and then, realising what I had done, thinking that she would end up in CYFS care and I was the worst mother in the world. On really bad days, feeling like ‘I hate my life’ when I have many many things for which to be thankful.

  • Surprising and distressing things

A sudden feeling of invisibility once you are a stay-at-home-mother with no income of your own. Watching your baby have her first set of vaccinations and knowing that you consciously chose to inflict pain on her. Dropping your big girl off at kindy and knowing that she will have to ‘sink or swim’ by herself much more than she ever has before.

  • Awkward things

Trying to breastfeed in the back of a shearing shed. Trying to breastfeed in public anywhere your baby won’t co-operate. Okay, pretty much breastfeeding in public full-stop.

  • Things that give a hot feeling

Over-heated rooms. Engorged breasts.

  • Pleasing things

Finding two socks that match. Taking maternity clothes to an op shop. The baby actually liking the food that I have lovingly made for her. The big girl actually doing what you ask her the first time you ask. 

  • Things that fall from the sky

Donuts, hamburgers and broccoli in Cloudy with A Chance of Meatballs. My big girl liked the book so much we let her watch the film as her first movie. The fast-paced story and editing didn’t really seem to capture her and she kept asking ‘where’s the flying food?’
Rain, rain and more rain nearly every day at the moment.

  • Adorable things

My big girl discovering the word ‘odd’ and continually using it to describe things by emphasising the ‘d’ sound at the end. The baby laughing at her big sister standing on the table and loudly singing ‘commotion in the ocean, ooh ahh’ while she is having her lunch. My big girl making jokes and laughing at her own hilariousness. My on-the-move baby looking so pleased with herself that she can now roll and shuffle to get to the toys, plastic bags and dropped bits of food on the floor that she wants. And about a bazillion other things too.

  • Outstandingly splendid things

A baby who regularly sleeps through the night. Having two mostly happy, healthy girls and surviving to tell the tale thanks to the benefits and privileges of a ‘first world’ life and healthcare system. Dads who are very involved in raising their young children (where that’s wanted or possible, of course): getting the baby in the middle of the night, staying home from work when the children are sick, alternating parental leave arrangements, or being the primary care-giver for their children. When your baby starts to talk and, in time, says ‘I love you mummy’.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

review: Wonder Women

Given how much time I have for reading at the moment, let alone writing about what I’m reading, I think book reviews may be few and far between in my posts this year. Seeing, however, as I did manage to read the not very long and articulately written Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection (2013) by Debora L. Spar, I thought I may as well review it. 

But not because it has anything very groundbreaking to offer, I’m sorry to say.

What is it about books that reference the fabulous Wonder Woman in the title that leave me cold? The last one I reviewed - by Australian journalist Virginia Haussegger - was also disappointing and often for similar reasons as Spar’s. 

Like a number of high-profile American women writers - I’m thinking particularly of Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg here - Spar is concerned with the idea of ‘having it all.’ I don’t know why I get suckered into reading these books - maybe because I live in the hope that there might be a high-profile, best-selling book informed by feminism that offers a bit more to their wide readership than stories about the author and her friends.

Spar is the president of all-female Barnard College in the US, having moved there from a professorship at the male-dominated Harvard Business School - and some of the most interesting parts of the book are her comparisons between the two elite institutions and their different gendered styles and discourses (comparisons prefaced to the point of parody with ‘not better, not worse, just different.’) I was particularly interested in her accounts of decision-making styles, and mentoring students, as well as the ‘controversy’ over President Obama giving the commencement address at Barnard (‘why would he waste his time talking to a bunch of girls?!”) These could’ve have opened the way for a more specific and nuanced analysis of the way gender operates in higher education in the United States.

Sadly, these anecdotes were almost buried in her much more generalised main focus on beauty, love, sex, motherhood, housework and aging. Not that these topics aren’t important - and the section on aging was particularly interesting - but, given her background in government, business and economics, she could’ve also drawn on feminist research in these areas to look at the broader picture for women.

Like Haussegger - and also Sandberg and, to a degree, Slaughter - the main problem with Spar’s book is its assumptions. It starts from the individual but fails to ‘connect the dots’ and see how individuals are constituted as subjects within the culture in which they live. She does go one better than Haussegger, however, and uses the word ‘patriarchy’ all of once in the book. No other similar term for systemic gender and sexual inequality - institutional sexism, indirect discrimination, structural discrimination, or even rape culture - is used in the book. In fact, while the book looks at internalised violence - such as eating disorders (Spar is an anorexia survivor and writes poignantly about what drove her to this: the quest for perfection of the book’s subtitle) - it barely touches on violence against women, rape culture, sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of sex.

Spar’s thesis then is that her generation of women have sacrificed themselves on the altar of perfection thanks to three main sources: their mothers (of course! for having expectations that their daughters will have careers as well as families), the media (about which there is actually very little critique), and ‘the feminists’ (not feminists, or feminism, or even named women with a feminist agenda, but ‘the feminists’ - there’s a distancing phrase if I ever I saw one!) (pp16-20). 

Despite the mention of ‘power’ in the book’s subtitle there is very little analysis of the way power is created and disseminated. For Spar, power simply seems to mean ‘being in power’, and her answer appears to be for career-focussed women to join the echelons of power and transform it from within. But if you only understand power as a construction of consciously rational individuals then the only way you can make sense of inequality is by resorting to the level of crude conspiracy theory: a bunch of rich white guys get together and plot to keep everyone else in the entire world under their thumb. Sure, this might be the effect of patriarchy and/or capitalism and/or white supremicist culture but it’s not really how it works nor why it persists.

The other thing that irked me was her attitude towards feminism.  She is at pains to point out at the beginning of the book that, even as she became highly educated and took on high-powered jobs, she actively distanced herself from ‘hairy-legged feminism’ (aargh - self-hating cliche alert!). Now that she’s older and wiser, and has tried to balance the main competing demands of being female (i.e. having a career and having kids), she’s begun to see that feminism might in fact have lots of interesting things to say about her experiences.

Mmm hmmm.

Her book then quotes from feminist research, gives a potted history of key moments in white Western feminism, and provides pithy epigrams from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as well as Tina Fey’s Bossypants. She writes that her book espouses a ‘revised and somewhat reluctant feminism,’ a ‘softer and gentler form’ that isn’t so invested in proving women’s equality and quits blaming men. And despite her book’s avowed interest in power, she actively says she’s not interested in ‘examining the power hierarchies that undeniably still separate men from women’ but rather in ‘practical issues’ (pp 10-11).


Is it just me or does she not really get what ‘the feminists’ have been not shaving their legs to tackle? What is the ‘softer, gentler’ feminism meant not to threaten? And as for not blaming men (yawn) see my previous comments about patriarchal structures. The quest for equality is not so much about proving that women can do what men can do, but dismantling the structures and systems that disempower women: substantive equality. I don’t know what’s ‘impractical’ about that.

Genuinely empowering women to be leaders in their communities is undoubtedly transformational, as numerous commentators including Marilyn Waring, Amartya Sen and even Sheryl Sandberg have pointed out. The crucial point, however, is in what leadership means. Spar et al seems to understand leadership as a means for top-down transformation within existing power structures, while for others it means grassroots action, self-determination or changing the nature of power itself.

In short, I’m kind of bored with these ‘can we have it all?’ books. Nobody has it all. Creating the desire to ‘have it all’ is part of the ideology of capitalism not feminism. I’d like to hear more from women who are less concerned about buying into this mythology - even if it to critique it. Today, for example, I read about research on the experiences of young Maaori and migrant women in New Zealand maternity services and the biases, barriers and stigmatisation they faced in accessing those services. 

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist myself, could it be that commercial publishers have much more of a vested interest in selling books that trade in desire and fantasy rather than changing the world?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lest we forget?

Today, Friday 25 April, is Anzac Day.

The date marks marks the anniversary of the landing of New Zealand and Australian soldiers – the Anzacs – on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The aim was to capture the Dardanelles, the gateway to the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. At the end of the campaign, thousands of young men - and double the number of Turkish men than those from France and the British Empire - had died and Gallipoli was still held by its Turkish defenders. For the would-be invaders, it was a military defeat.

For the European powers, the Gallopli campaign was a sideshow in the main theatre of the First World War: the battles of Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele on the Western Front pushed the number of casualties into the millions. But for Australians and New Zealanders, the campaign played a role in further developing a nascent sense of national identity apart from the British Empire. Today, Anzac Day commemorates all those who have died in battle and honours returned servicemen and women.

But as these servicemen and women die off, something intriguing is happening. Anzac Day is growing in popularity, rather than lessening. During the 1960s and 1970s, Anzac Day was a focus of anti-war protests. From the 1980s, however, it underwent a renaissance, and the number of younger people attending dawn services and commemorative parades has been steadily increasing:

Now, people remark on the number of young New Zealanders in the crowds. Some wear the medals their grandparents and great-grandparents won during war. There are now no veterans left from Gallipoli or the First World War. Bright Williams, who passed away in 2003, was the last, and the number of Second World War veterans becomes fewer each year. (' Modern Anzac Day', NZHistoryNet)

Furthermore, for New Zealanders on their OE, attending the Anzac Day dawn service on the Gallipoli peninsula has been elevated to the same kind of pantheon as running with the bulls in Pamplona or getting hammered at the Munich Oktoberfest: it is a rite of passage. On Anzac Day, the quiet peninsula is swamped by young Australians and New Zealanders, some of whose behaviour has been censured as disrespectful and reflecting poorly on their Anzac forebears. A 2012 Australian study found that Anzac Day was primarily seen as 'a party for drunk yobbos'. The dawn service at Anzac Cove is now so popular that attendance is decided by a ballot, and politicians and Prime Ministers also attend.

I have been part of this renaissance: as a young girl in the 1980s, I marched in the Anzac Day parade through the main straight of town, my Brownie pack trailing behind the returned servicemen and women, the cubs and the scouts, and just about everyone else; and as a expatriate living in the UK in 2000, I visited the Gallipoli peninsula (which is now a historical national park) - not on Anzac Day - while travelling in Turkey.  

The latter visit was an interesting experience: on arrival at Istanbul, the customs officer took one look at my passport and said 'Ah Anzac' with a big smile. The Turkish guide on the peninsula itself was very positive about the relationship between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, telling us that since our countries' sons were buried there, they had become part of Turkey. And we learned that, no less than for Australia and New Zealand, Turkish involvement in the First World War had played a crucial role in national politics and national identity. The old Ottoman Empire was more or less overthrown by the end of the war, and the modern Republic of Turkey was established in 1922.  

The group that I travelled to the peninsula with were emotionally primed for the visit, not by a documentary, nor old soldiers telling their stories, nor footage from the First World War, but by the mostly-accurate-but-fictional  Mel Gibson film Gallipoli (1981). The people sitting behind me were transfixed, occasionally breaking off to murmur 'such a waste', and 'so awful', and 'bloody Poms'.  Of such fictions are national myths made.

In the 1990s I had a disagreement with my flatmate about the significance of Anzac Day. She was disgusted by the militarist and patriarchal values in which it seemed to glory. With two younger brothers, both in their late teens at the time, I found the idea of thousands of young men being slaughtered deeply upsetting, and thought the injunction 'lest we forget' was a profound statement against war transmitted from those who had directly experienced its horrors. Now, I think we were both partially right, but that there are still other elements in play.

In New Zealand, for example, I think it says something quite significant about cultural unease with New Zealand's actual national origins and originary warfare in the nineteenth century - a story of promises made, agreements broken, invasion and resistance, dispossession and alienation - that means modern New Zealanders seek, whether consciously or not, to make Anzac Day into a national day. Every year, it seems, the call to make Anzac Day our official national day, rather than Waitangi Day (which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi) is repeated (see, for example, this opinion piece published just hours ago). The same rhetoric is repeated: Anzac Day is unifying, Waitangi day divisive.  

The call to unity is a call to subscribe to a totalising national narrative. The 2012 Australian study noted above sounded a note of caution: such unifying calls are also potentially divisive, particularly as the multicultural composition of the nation increases. What of those 'new' New Zealanders and Australians who don't share this history? What is their place in this national narrative or does this dominant national narrative say that there is no place here for them?

Blood sacrifice on distant battlefields that resulted in heroic defeat is a much more romantic national narrative than that offered by Waitangi Day or by increased multiculturalism. And, as my flatmate pointed out, it is overwhelmingly male. I don't wish to sound trite, or to disrespect the young men who lost their lives during this campaign, but what of the women on the home-front - those who raised children or worked for the war effort? What of the working-class men in essential services (during the second world war both of my grandfathers fell into this category - my maternal grandfather, who was a wireless operator, went to Japan as part of the J-Force after the war as part of the occupying force engaged in re-construction rather than destruction)? What of the conscientious objectors who suffered for their pacifist beliefs on the Western Front? In We Will Not Cease, pacifist Archibald Baxter describes how he was subject to 'crucifixion' in No-Man's land for his beliefs. Essentially, that is, left to die by his 'own side'. A new drama Field Punishment No 1 (2014) - released this year also tells the story of Baxter and 13 other 'conchies'.

Which brings me to why I am writing about Anzac Day on a blog about feminism and motherhood. In Of Women Born, poet Adrienne Rich wrote about the historical role of mothers to 'raise sons for the army' ... and  to raise daughters to continue to produce sons for the army. Women were expected to bring forth life, to continue the species, in order to offer it up for sacrifice at the appropriate moment. To do so, until relatively recently, they risked their health and potentially even their own deaths. In modern terms, 'raising sons for the army' means raising patriarchs, boys who will become men who reproduce - no pun intended - the norms and values of patriarchal culture. Patriarchal culture valorises and commemorates the sacrifice of young men in wars waged by men, and only intermittently recognises the price paid by women or those men who do not conform to patriarchal values.

In every town and city in New Zealand, there are phallic memorials in the centre of town to the young men who died during the First World War. These cenotaphs are the focus of Anzac Day commemorations and the maintenance of the nationalist narratives of blood sacrifice. 

But where, I wonder, are the memorials to the women who 'raised sons for the army'? The women who died in childbirth, of puerperal fever or birth complications? The women who died from botched back-street abortions?  

And, in this moment, when childbirth is much less risky and abortion is, for now, legal and safe, what about the women who suffer and die at the hands of men - usually men they know - every year?  Imagine what might happen if we also said 'lest we forget', heard the melancholy strains of the Last Post, and listened to the words of 'For the Fallen" for them: 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Next year, it will be 100 years since 1915. 100 years is an arbitrary marker but, no doubt, the centennial commemorations will dwarf even those that have taken place in the past few decades. Will we, I wonder, find room in that spectacle of national commemoration to remember what else patriarchal and nationalist violence entails?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

confessions of a dairy cow

Last week I was buttonholed in a cafe by a guy with time on his hands who wanted a chat. I was trying to breastfeed the baby at the time, and, frankly, just wanted to be left alone. The baby is easily distracted at the moment, so - while I am committed to trying to feed her in public - it is not always easy and unwanted attention at the wrong time doesn't help. 

This guy's son was playing with my elder daughter in the cafe's play area, which provided him with a licence to chat. During the course of this mostly one-sided conversation - my responses were mostly 'mms' and 'that must've been difficult' and 'reallys' (which, I was told, meant that I was 'shy'. Too 'shy' to tell him to just bugger off and leave me alone, I guess). Apparently, Mr Cafe was not an acute reader of high-context communication. During the course of his monologue, he told me about his son's mother - they are separated - and her struggles with breastfeeding. She had had a difficult time with it - for which she had my sympathies ... and not only for her breastfeeding woes. He then described her as a 'cystic cow'. 

I misheard him and thought he'd said a 'stink cow'. 'A what?' I said. 

'A cystic cow,' he repeated. 'Do you know what this is?'  Without waiting for my answer he told me that a cystic cow was one who can't be milked. 


Whatever may've happened between them, he referred to his ex-partner, who had clearly struggled with breastfeeding - and quite possibly because of mastitis given his choice of imagery - as a sick animal.

I was offended on her behalf and didn't even bother producing my half-hearted rejoinders after that. A passive response, to be sure, but then I was still sitting on the couch pinned in place by a nursing baby, while he was standing. Once again, having a baby made me acutely conscious of my physical vulnerability  ... and hers. 

He eventually got the message that I was no longer interested in listening to him, however, and left.

This encounter got me thinking about cows more generally.  

'Cow'' can be used a comparatively mild insult for a woman (as compared with, say, 'bitch', another animal insult). It has a variety of uses: it can refer to size, especially if someone is blocking your way, intelligence ('stupid cow') or unkindness ('mean or nasty cow'). It can even be used as a means of expressing pity for someone ('poor cow').

And, apparently, if you breastfeed it can just be straightforward term of description. 

I've never been referred to as a 'cystic cow', but I have been jokily likened to a dairy cow because I was breastfeeding more than once. 

Images of human female breasts and dairy cows are frequently conflated: just try to Google 'milkmaid' like I did to find an image for this post and see what you come up with. Believe me, my choice is at the very modest end of the spectrum. Images of buxom women with their breasts on display while milking cows were prevalent.

Or recall the character Nursie from Blackadder Two. Still present at Court as a blatant figure of ridicule (she is big and stupid, a stereotypically bovine woman), Queen Elizabeth 1's wet nurse is described as having an 'udder fixation' and every year dresses as a cow  'with lots of lovely udders' for the fancy dress ball. Whenever she tries to contribute to affairs of state, she is silenced - 'mouth is open Nursie, should be closed' - not least because she can remind the monarch of when she was young, vulnerable and dependent on an unlettered poor woman for sustenance. All of a sudden, she doesn't seem quite so funny.

But on examining my feeling of insult at being likened to a cow, I realised that I was also buying into the notion that cows are inferior.  Because actual cows, as opposed to women described as cows, are not stupid or unkind. They may be big, but that is the way their bodies are made. They do not raise or exploit another species of animal for the production of food and drink and they do not insult each other by calling each other 'humans.'

Animalising a human being is a way of seeing them as less than human, for sure, but it is also a way of reinscribing the supposed fact that humans are superior to other animals, of suppressing the fact that we are animals ourselves.

I began to feel empathy for actual dairy cows, whose calves are weaned early and who are kept artificially lactating so people can consume a vast array of dairy products. For a breastfeeding feminist, veganism seems a logical ethical choice, as these bloggers articulate (here and here). 

While I can intellectually relate to this call to abandon dairy products in solidarity with actual dairy cows, I have to confess that my dependency on cheese and yoghurt has meant that I have not yet put my money where my mouth is. It is salutary to reflect, however, that many people consume a dairy-laden diet, but there is a general squeamishness about products made with human breastmilk

I'm not suggesting that we all need to abandon ice-cream for breastmilk yoghurt, but thinking about the links between humans as animals - breastfeeding being an obvious link between humans and other mammals - and dairy cows shows up the contradictions and hypocrisies that drive industrial farming. And that's before we even get to artificial hormones, dodgy feed and other illegal practices. 

Regardless of my new appreciation of veganism as a feminist practice and my growing understanding of animal rights, I still don't like being described as a dairy cow because I'm breastfeeding.

Maybe I'm just a stubborn cow that way.