Saturday, November 24, 2012

another brick in the wall?

This week we went to an early Christmas party, with  lots of other children and parents. A good time was had by all, and Santa even put in a pre-Christmas visit (question from a child to Santa: ‘why are you giving us presents now - aren’t you meant to come on Christmas Eve?’). But, after the party food had been devoured and the wine-glasses drained, a couple of (admittedly minor) instances stuck in my mind. The first involved the distribution of coloured bottles of soapy bubble mixture, and the second involved taking turns in the vegetable garden. 

In the first instance, the hostess of the party had thoughtfully laid in a store of bottles of bubble mixture with which the children - ranging in ages from 15 months to seven years - could amuse themselves. The mixture in each bottle was the same, the only difference was the colour of the plastic bottle that contained it, which were green, blue, red, purple and pink. Most of the parents had given their children the first bottle that came to hand out of the bag, although one had made a conscious effort to find a pink bottle for her ‘pink-obsessed’ daughter. We had given our girl a pink bottle because it was the nearest to hand, but shortly rescued it off her when it became apparent her still-developing fine motor skills meant that she couldn’t easily blow a bubble while simultaneously holding it. As she was content to chase the bubbles blown by others, we put the bottle back on the table for an older, more co-ordinated, child to enjoy. 

Shortly afterwards, such a child - a boy - appeared at the table looking for some bubble mixture of his very own. Unaware that there was a bag containing other bottles, we pointed out the pink bottle on the table and said he could have that one. Just as he reached out for it, one of the mothers (not his) actively prevented him from taking it, loudly asking where the bag was so that she could give the boy another bottle that wasn’t pink. At which point, a few other people, who had been milling around but until then hadn’t taken a blind bit of notice of the colour of the bottles, chimed in with jokey remarks such as ‘what were you thinking?’ (aimed at the boy) and ‘we can’t be having that’. They then took it upon themselves to help the woman find the boy a suitably masculine blue bottle of bubbles. It all happened in a low-key and light-hearted way, but nonetheless this minor incident can be considered an example of the shaming and policing of gender. 

The boy was three.

Afterwards, this incident got me thinking about other (also minor) instances that I’ve witnessed in the past weeks and months that also amount to gender policing. A boy who pushed my girl out of the way and was not reprimanded by his parent, who had clearly seen what happened. A girl being told to stand back from the slide at the playground, when a boy pushed in, to keep her ‘out of harm’s way.’ A boy being told not to cry, when he fell over and started wailing, clearly in some distress. A girl being praised for being cute. A boy being congratulated for ‘taking charge’. A girl admonished for being ‘bossy’. 

All of these instances are small. But small instances multiply. They may not amount to much in themselves, but constant repetition of such minor instances solidifies how children understand acceptable and unacceptable gender behaviour in a given place and time. That goes for both the children that such opprobrium or approval is directed at, and those who are merely bystanders. Pink-bubblegate wasn’t directed at my girl, for example, but being in the room when it occurred, she surely registered that something unusual was going on.

As my baby gets older, I am increasingly sensitised to the small moments that amount to bricks in the wall of stereotypically gendered behaviour. I acknowledge that we can’t escape gendered cultural scripts, and I am conscious that I don’t want to denigrate conventionally feminine things - hence giving her a pink bottle of bubbles in the first place, because pink is a colour just like any other with no intrinsic gender value (or so I keep telling myself through gritted teeth). This becomes even more important if we accept the findings of neuroscientists that nurture - i.e. what we learn - effectively becomes nature - i.e. what we are.  Neuroscientist Lise Eliot comments:

Think about language. Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it's possible to learn another language, but it's far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly: the ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. That contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired. (Eliot quoted in the Guardian)

To return to the scene of the family Christmas party and the second instance I mentioned. This one was also low-key and involved the children taking turns to run up and down a narrow piece of sacking in the middle of the vege garden (the strangest things seem to float their boats, huh?) After being told not to step in the actual vege patch, which contained newly-planted lettuces that would not benefit from the nurture of enthusiastic toddlers, the children - a boy and our girl - ran up to the opposite ends of the sacking and then started running towards each other, like cliched lovers in a romantic comedy ... or jumbo jets on a collision course. At some point, both children would meet in the middle with no room to pass. Would one of them yield or would mediation be required? 
I have to confess that my first impulse was to pull our girl out of the way and let the boy pass. A split-second later, my feminist consciousness kicked in and I checked myself. After all, I reasoned, why should it automatically be the girl who gives way? Wouldn’t that just be a brick in the wall of the idea that girls (and women) should defer to boys (and men)? Not to mention that it might also communicate to the boy that his will takes precedence over a girl’s. Instead, I chose not to intervene to see what the children did when they met in the middle. 
What I saw provided a salutary lesson.
Toe to toe, the children looked at each other, looked down at their feet, looked around at the sacking and the garden. Who, if anyone, would prevail? After thoughtful consideration, and without any discernible words, they then turned on their sides and passed each other back to back. They both remained on the sacking with only perhaps a couple of toes venturing into the garden, and the little lettuces remained intact. I felt proud of both of them for their equitable - and apparently telepathic - approach to problem-solving. It meant neither of them lost face, both got want they wanted, and neither was ‘forced’ to learn a lesson about gendered behaviour from an interfering adult (i.e. me!)

It also made me realise that unless I am conscious about the meaning of my actions then, all in all, I have the potential to be just another brick in the wall.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

motherhood, two years on

 It’s all over for another year. The wrapping paper has been torn apart, the birthday cake made, iced and eaten, the ‘happy birthdays’ sung.  Two, the milestone we have been looking forward to since our baby was about eighteen months old, has come and gone.

Last year, she watched us bemused as we undid her presents and held up strange objects to her with wide eyes and big smiles. This year, she unceremoniously ripped them open herself, eager to find what was inside. Last year, she cautiously picked up her new toys, waved them round a bit, and then went and found something much more interesting to do, like playing with the pegs. This year, she got the toys out of the box, with a little help, and spent most of the morning playing with them.

So much has changed in a year.

Last year, she was on her feet, but still holding on to the furniture for balance as she inched her way round the room. This year, she jumped round the room in excitement, hands waving in the air like she just didn’t care. Last year, she was communicating with points and expressive grunts. This year, she tells us the very hungry caterpillar ate four strawberries, the teletubbies have dirty knees, and ‘mummy and daddy come on!’. Last year, she was yet to wean and still nursed three times a day. This year, she gobbles down pasta and swigs cows’ milk with all the gusto of a thirsty pirate.

So much has changed in a year.

Last year, I was was still on parental leave, alternating between wonder and boredom, feeling the days yawn before me with little I absolutely had to do. This year, I am back at work three days a week and am increasingly feeling like I don’t have enough time in the day, week and month to do all the things I need to do. Last year, I filled up some of those long hours with creative pursuits, like learning the guitar, writing stories, blogging, making elaborate birthday and Christmas decorations. This year, my most creative output is arranging tomatoes on top of the mac ‘n’ cheese, and I fit in the other things when I can. Last year, I began to feel weighed down by societal expectations of motherhood. This year, I have read, thought and written enough to realise how invisible the work of mothering can be, and how little value is placed on it.

So much has changed in a year.

These are just some of the changes the year from one to two in my baby’s life has brought us. I have to confess that I have enjoyed this year more than the first. While I cherished the first year I spent looking after my baby, it was too marked by physical pain and weakness, the total dependence of a helpless baby, the boredom and isolation of long days, the social invisibility made bearable by fragile alliances with other new mothers, and the financial dependence to be simply enjoyed. This year, as I said to a work colleague before I could stop myself on the second day back, ‘I feel like I’ve got my life back.’ 

Since I returned to work, I’ve been struck by the number of women who’ve confided a similar feeling to me, often prefaced by the confession ‘I wasn’t a natural mother.’  It’s as if we think we should feel permanently guilty for not only wanting the best for our children, but the best for ourselves too. By comparison, workplace performance appraisals seem a walk in the park.

In all honesty, I think both my baby and I have benefitted from having some time apart: she loves and trusts another adult to care for her and has made fast friends with the other children with whom she spends the day. She thrives in their company, has learnt all manner of new skills, and has few outward signs of distress at being separated from me (hmmm, maybe I should be worried about that?!) I appreciate the days I have her to myself more, and have picked up numerous ideas for activities and bits of advice from her carer. For me, I think returning to work has made me a better mother, and I hope, when she looks back, my baby thinks so too. I know she already enjoys looking through her daybook at the photos, paintings and collages she has done and telling me all about them.

I also acknowledge that what I feel is working for us at the moment, may not necessarily be the right things for another family in different circumstances. If I have learnt nothing else in the last two years, it is that it’s best to feel my way by trusting my instincts. These instincts are not so much innate, as things learnt so well in interactions between me and my baby that they become second nature. 

And my baby?

She’s funny and bright, easygoing yet increasingly independent. She likes Thomas and Laa-laa, books, bikes and balls, macaroni and mess. She runs, jumps and climbs, sings, drums, and paints. Her hair is finally starting to grow in, in a mess of fine unruly curls. She has nearly collected a full set of teeth. She is as flexible as an experienced yogi, casually squatting and stretching with an ease we have long since lost. She likes to tip flour and dance, but not at the same time, mostly. She plays pretend birthday parties and offers us cake. She soaks up new experiences like a sponge, neurons firing, synapses connecting, her brain function increasing, it seems, by the day. She's excited each day about all the things there are for her to learn and do, yet she still needs a sleep in the middle of it all to make it through.

So much has changed this year.

I wonder what the next year will bring?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

review: The Price of Motherhood

Much like buses, in this blog you could be waiting around for book reviews with none looming on the horizon (as in September) and then several come along all at one (as in October - November). Perhaps this says something about the time I have to devote to reading relatively lengthy books on feminism and motherhood, perhaps on how alert my brain is after a day’s paid and unpaid work. As my current reading material - Sarah Hrdy’s Mother Nature - is literally verging on encyclopaedic this might be the last review for a wee while. 

Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued (2001) is one of the few books I have read - on any subject - that pretty much lives up to the hype on the cover: ‘a landmark book,’ ‘powerful and important’, and ‘a scathing indictment of policies that cheat mothers’. Naomi Wolf could do worse than have a squizz at this to get some tips on powerful ways to combine the personal and political (although, to be fair, I guess she probably has).  Unlike Kunin’s book, which I reviewed last week, Crittenden's book has a resonance beyond the borders of the United States. In the US, the institutional biases towards mothers may be writ large (in paid employment, in divorce, in single parenting, in tax rules), but they are present to some degree in other so-called developed countries as well. Not least in the ways at which the devaluing  - or, more accurately, the non-valuing - of a mother’s unpaid work institutionalises gender inequity and socio-economic disadvantage.

Crittenden’s book, reissued last year, is based on five years of research in economics, history, child development, family law, public policy, demography, anthropology, evolutionary psychology and on field interviews with a range of parents. It is also based on her own experiences of the acute disempowerment she felt on having children. She writes:

This is also a work of the heart, growing out of my own experiences as a professional woman and a mother. As a beneficiary of the women’s movement, for years I lived the unencumbered life of a journalist; one of the boys in a gender-neutral environment that represented enormous progress for women ... [A] surprise came when I realised [after having a baby] how little my former world seemed to understand, or care, about the complex reality I was discovering. The dominant culture  of which I had been a part considered child-rearing unskilled labor, if it considered child-rearing at all. And no-one was stating the obvious: if human abilities are the ultimate fount of economic progress, as many economists now agree, and if those abilities are nurtured (or stunted) in the early years, then mothers and other care-givers of the young are the most important producers in the economy. They do, literally, have the most important job in the world. (pp 10-11)

While I wonder just how ‘gender-neutral’ her previous work environment really was - it’s not like women without children don’t face any barriers in their careers - Crittenden’s outrage struck a chord. I read on, intrigued. 

First of all, Crittenden traces the disappearance of women’s ‘work’ during the nineteenth century, as workplaces began to be increasingly located outside the home. So far, so obvious. What Crittenden also traces is attitudinal shifts and the specific locatable moments at which these seismic changes occurred. Around the middle of the nineteenth-century, for example, the developing national census began to classify the occupations of individuals within households rather than treating households as a single economic unit. As part of this shift, household labour (‘housekeeping’) was re-classified as ‘unproductive’ and separate from ‘productive labour’. Mothers ‘keeping house’ for their own families (unproductive) were distinguished from women keeping house for wages (productive).  This shift in the way a mother’s work was conceptualised meant that by the turn of the twentieth century, women and children were both considered as dependents or, more specifically, as economic liabilities rather than assets. Despite some differences, this trend manifested across the United States, in Britain and in Australia (and, I would guess, a number of other countries too). 

And, in the 1920s, the gendered definitions of productivity became enshrined in international economic instruments, specifically in the measure that became known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Significantly, GDP only measured goods and services that were sold; by excluding ‘non-productive’ work from the national wealth ‘almost all the activities of married women were omitted from the scorecard of capitalism.’ (p 65). Crittenden does acknowledge that this has more recently begun to change, not least in terms of contemporary environmental problems (e.g. how do you calculate the value of clean water?), the insights of feminist economics, and a deeper understanding of what is called - a little chillingly, I think - human capital.   

Crittenden cites with approval Marilyn Waring’s call to unpaid caregivers to tell census-takers that they are unpaid workers rather than ‘unemployed’; she traces how a campaign to do just that in Canada in the 1990s led to changes in the way unpaid labour in the home was counted in the census. During this campaign, Carol Lees, its principal organiser, encountered resistance from women’s groups who apparently did not agree with her child-care policy (which, according to her, is ‘to value it wherever it occurs, in or out of the home’ p 83). By the late 1990s, a number of countries had begun to collect data on unpaid labour. These shifts started to reveal the ‘free ride’ most societies were getting on the back of this unpaid work: ‘the entire society benefits from well-reared children, without sharing more than a fraction of the costs of producing them. And that free ride on female labor is enforced by every major institution, starting with the workplace’ (p 86). In neo-liberal economies particularly, children are thus seen as an individual ‘choice’ rather than a social good (much less a community responsibility). This rationale drives such practices as expensive child care of variable quality, limited financial benefits for families, a demonise-the-parents approach to all manner of anti-social behaviours, and humiliating reckonings of what a wife is worth in divorce settlements (including child support payments). Cue a thousand comedy routines concerning blood-sucking former spouses...

She closes her analysis by setting out a programme for business, government, and the community, the ‘free riders’ on mothers’ unpaid labour who reap the benefits from well-nurtured children while contributing little to the cost.

Throughout the book, Crittenden doesn’t shy away from the fact that some early feminists bought into the productive / unproductive distinction and played a role in the perpetuation of inequity: she documents a 1909 debate between Charlotte Perkins Gilman (who described the vast majority of women as ‘unproductive parasites’) and Anna Howard Shaw (who argued that a mother’s role in the home should be compensated), as marking a crucial turning point in the US feminist agenda. Gilman, she argues, saw the shift in women’s status as requiring the overthrow of the patriarchal family as an economic unit to emancipate women, revealing some degree of contempt for the way in which a number of her contemporaries actually spent their time. 

Crittenden concludes: 

As that evening in New York illustrated, at the turn of the twentieth century, the women’s movement contained two contradictory strands: one that denigrated women’s role within the family, and one that demanded recognition and remuneration for it .... For the rest of the twentieth century, the women’s movement followed the first path, and it led to innumerable great victories. But in choosing that  path, many women’s advocates accepted the continued devaluation of motherhood, thereby guaranteeing that feminism would not resonate with millions of wives and mothers. (p 63)

I’m usually a little suspicious of sweeping statements, but it’s nonetheless hard to escape Crittenden’s conclusion. It bristles behind every cry of outrage from previously career-minded new mothers (‘why didn’t anyone tell me?’), some of which are either overtly or covertly contained in the recent outpourings of ‘mummy-literature’: from the sardonic critiques of coffee-groups, to the more personal memoir, to the political polemic, to the historical analysis of motherhood as institution, to the exposition of ‘natural’ motherhood, to the mummy blog. It’s hard not to read it into the statistic of approximately 30 per cent of well-educated middle class women in ‘developed’ countries who are apparently choosing the ‘nuclear option’ of not having children. It’s hard not to read it into the so-called mummy wars between ‘stay-at-home’ and working mothers. It’s hard not to read it in the failure of most governments to provide adequate support for families particularly in early childhood, and in businesses who bemoan family-friendly policies.  It’s hard not to read it in the overwhelming evidence - which Crittenden assembles in subsequent chapters - that those who look after children are not only poorly paid but lack status, have limited political clout, and pay plenty for their ‘labours of love’. 

Isn’t it time that governments, businesses, and communities started sharing more of the costs of raising a child, instead of just reaping the benefits?