Tuesday, August 21, 2012

'by putting them second, you're really putting them first'

This time yesterday I was in the air, flying up the country and back again for work. I really don’t like flying, but needs must, and there I was pinioned to my seat as the plane starting to taxi down the runway. ‘Is it too late to get off?’ I panicked to myself, as the safety briefing started to roll. 

For the third time in as many years, Air New Zealand has changed their safety briefing. I thought the one with the Gin Wigmore track and body-painted otherwise-nude flight attendants was quite clever, the one with the All Blacks less so (not least because of its homophobia) and this one - an animated two-hander voiced by Melanie Lynskey and Ed O’Neill (wtf? Al from Married with Children?) plain odd. Hearing it twice in one day did nothing to improve the so-called jokes either. Still, amongst all the ‘witticisms’, were the usual safety tips: the brace position, location of life-jackets and emergency exits, and instructions for what to do when the emergency masks fall. 

As in most other briefings, you’re reminded to put your own mask on first before helping others. But this time there was more. Accompanied by a staunch cartoon gorilla mum facing down a lion, Melanie Lynskey told us in a jolly voice that ‘in nature, it’s normal to put your children first’ but when the masks come down ‘by putting them second, you’re really putting them first.’

Air New Zealand in feminist motherhood parable shock! As feminist Andrea O’Reilly notes, the commonplace airline instruction to put on your own mask first before helping your children is ‘an appropriate metaphor for feminist mothering. Mothers, empowered, are able to better care for and protect their children.” 

But what does it mean in practice to put your children second, while really putting them first (aside from when putting on masks, that is)?  What does it mean to be a feminist mother and parent?

I recently stumbled across the fabulous blue milk blog on feminist parenting (subtitle: thinking + motherhood = feminism) and was struck by a project the writer had undertaken: canvassing her readers on what they thought made a feminist parent. She set her readers ten questions and received an overwhelming response - mostly from women, it’s true, but also from some enlightened men, and also from a range of different family types. You can read the results of her survey here

What I was particularly interested in was her question to parents about how they defined feminist parenting. It struck a chord because I suppose it’s the main thing that I have been trying to figure out for myself with this blog. The full list of responses to that particular question is available here. 

Even from this small selection, respondents to the survey defined feminist parenting in diverse ways. Some saw it in terms of gender neutrality, others saw it in terms of role modelling, or actively critiquing social conventions, others in connecting with other women and parents, others as behavioural, others as an awareness of social relations and the ways in which privilege operates. It got me thinking about the things on the list with which I identified, and how I would define feminist parenting. 

The (unfinished) list that follows is a result of my thinking so far: I was interested to see that some items on the list involved contradictions or balancing acts. Bear in mind too that these are my aspirations for feminist parenting, and on a given day - particularly one preceded by a poor night’s sleep - I usually fall well short:

  • role-modelling a ‘strong, capable female figure’ - especially when I don’t particularly feel like one - but also showing that it is OK to be tired, grouchy, and vulnerable sometimes 
  • demonstrating that domestic work is not solely women’s work, but is worked shared by everyone in the house (she’s already clocked the ‘daddy broom’, for example)
  • trying to have ‘some of it all’ rather than buying into the media constructions of ‘having it all’ or, worse, ‘doing it all’, by carving out time for myself to pursue my own interests
  • trying to role-model a feminist relationship, by, among other things, challenging conventional naming practices and thinking about different ways to show family identity for all the family
  • challenging gender conventions in regard to femininity while simultaneously trying not to send a message that being female is therefore bad 
  • role-modelling the importance of what people think and do rather than what they look like (that’s my excuse for bad hair days and I’m sticking to it!)
  • and, as she gets older, I will no doubt be increasingly concerned with the sexualisation of children and trying to counter the incredibly narrow and misogynistic messages that currently circulate in culture about female sexuality, without being repressive.
No pressure then. 

Starting to make this list made me realise that aspiring to feminist parenthood is not a recipe for smugness (as aiming for perfection might be). As one respondent to the blue milk survey wrote:

Feminism has not necessarily made me a better mother. It’s given me ... an alternative, perhaps kinder model for self-critique, instead of worrying about whether the house is clean enough, I’m thinking about whether or not I’ve met my own social or intellectual needs, in order to ensure I’m fulfilled and happy, which in turn makes me a better more resilient, more patient mother.

As the plane left the ground yesterday, and I guiltily left my baby in the care of her father for the day, I felt somewhat comforted by the message ‘by putting them second, you’re really putting them first.’ Because if I want to succeed at being a feminist parent, as opposed to a perfect parent, I need to let go of the idea that it is me and only me who should be responsible for looking after her all day everyday, before everything else always. 

For the duration of the flight, at least.