Friday, September 16, 2011

How to be... Caitlin Moran

Review: How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran, Ebury Press, £11.99.

Like much of Caitlin Moran's writing, “How to be a woman” had me laughing out loud almost as soon as I started it. Her ability to express herself and to share her experiences is unrivalled. Apart from her wit and writing, I've always had a soft spot for her because she was home educated, and I eventually chose to home educate my own children.

But for me, the laughter was soon tempered with horror at the unremittingly dire and awful circumstances she described in a home where she wasn't even given the small amount of information I would have thought most modern, intelligent and caring parents would provide, about the beginning of being a woman, periods, pregnancy and childbirth. When she later describes a woman fantasising about a colleague, it is almost as though she believes the whole of womankind is similarly distracted behind a sham working facade. Maybe I'm the odd one, but I don't have rich internal imaginings about the men around me and I never did. Actually, I used to work at work... hard.

For a writer to be a good writer, an entertaining and accessible writer, they need to express some universal truth in a recognisible way, either from the inside of society or from the outside of it. It is clear that some of Caitlin's clarity about the idiocies of modern life and growing up a woman are from the outside, granted by her unusual childhood in a very unusual family.

There were some yawning gaps in the book, which is constructed in order to follow her progress from extremely lonely and isolated home-educated child to mother with children. She jumped from isolated teenager in Wolverhampton to columnist at the Melody Maker without explanation, and into television, and the world beyond, again without any real explanation. I think we are just supposed to recognise her talent, and presume it was that which took her from life before to fame and fortune in the city. It is clear that her unusual upbringing produced an unusual person, and I longed to know more about the rest of her family...are they similarly successful, or is she supporting the rest of them in their diet of cheese lollipops and furniture made from cardboard boxes?

I wanted the book to be full of the insights which usually make her writing so readable, but I became more and more depressed as I realised that she was just another feminist who claims that a woman is really the same as a man and a man is the same as a woman, give or take the odd high-heeled shoe, which no one should attempt to wear *anyway* according to Ms Moran, and the compulsion for daytime fantasy.

I don't agree with Caitlin's take on feminism... that for any woman to be a feminist in Caitlin's world, she simply has to be a woman. The trouble is, that in this post-1970s feminist society, the word feminist doesn't simply mean woman, it carries with it a whole lot of baggage. Generations before Caitlin, when I was a teenager in the 1970s, teachers would reserve special scathing for any girl who simply wanted to be a wife and mother. Not that any of my contemporaries would have dared express such a wish... we all knew that we were expected to want a career of our own, and to reject any idea of wasting our talent and education on home making.

In those days, I believed the lie that men and women were exactly the same, and that society and conditioning were all that stood between women and the boardroom. It was a lie then, and it is a lie now. What stands between women and the boardroom is that we are naturally nurturers and carers and the model of the boardroom which is currently in place doesn't value those things, it values the opposite – the sort of cut-throat, uncaring capitalism that puts profits first and people second.

That isn't to say that I don't think a woman is capable of making a success of business, or of making as good a job of being a man as any man might make – it is clear looking at those women who have risen to the top in many areas of life, that it is perfectly possible. But my feeling about the whole mistaken drive of the 1970s feminists and since, is that we haven't embraced the unique things about womanhood and applied them to our lives and to society. Instead we have spent our time denying that they are there at all, and claiming that we are essentially men, with different hormones.

I think women are different from men in many wonderful ways, and the main problem with what feminism means to my generation is that with defending a woman's ability to be equal with any man comes a requirement to reject anything specifically feminine, as though all the differences between men and women were a product of their conditioning, and nothing to do with biology, physiology and being a woman rather than a man.

The original suffragettes protested the vote, but they were also asking for the things which were traditionally women's work to be recognised as equally valuable to society. Think of that! The idea that child rearing, looking after the home, looking after the elderly, for example should be recognised as having a similar value to society as trudging up and down the metropolitan line in search of professional fulfillment. This wasn't to pin women into those jobs and prevent them from being anything else, but to recognise that those jobs, those activities, provide real value for our society and that should be recognised as being equal to other activities.

Of course, that didn't happen. Having been a housewife and mother for 20 years, I can tell you that there is nothing that you can say to kill a person's interest in you as a person so effectively as that you are a full-time mother. It's the equivalent of saying that you enjoy train spotting, or have a definitive collection of banana labels at home, neatly categorised by country of origin. People's eyes glaze over as they make the assumption that you must be very boring indeed not to be shelf stacking in Sainsbury's at the very least. Motherhood is the job with the lowest possible status. And feminism put it there, in my not so humble opinion.

I look back at my mother's generation, who were expected to give up work and to look after the house and home when they married, and I see a lot of unhappy and frustrated women, who wanted to be at work, and weren't satisfied with their lot. Have things improved so much for women? I look at my generation, and see a lot of unhappy and frustrated women, who expected their husbands to pick up half the housework and half the childcare, who learned pretty quickly that wasn't going to happen. Yes there are odd families where there is an equal division of labour, but for every one of those you can show me, I can show you twenty five – fifty! - where the woman is still the one doing all the cooking and cleaning as well as a full-time job.

I see women who felt that they were the same as men, who felt that they deserved careers and a life outside the home, who have come to realise that they are expected to work full time AND do the lion's share of the housework and childcare. I see a lot of unhappy and frustrated women trying to get men to cough up their half of the deal, and failing.

Even if they do get them to take half of the childcare, I have to tell you that in my experience a man doesn't do the job well. It's a generalisation, and I agree it is a continuum, with good men overtaking the bad women on the childcare spectrum. However, most men don't possess the sixth sense that women who are tuned into their children have... thus one of my friends who did succeed in sharing everything 50/50 with her husband still knew within two minutes of coming through the door that her baby was ill, when the man who had been with her all day, did not.

Don't get me wrong – I don't think that women should be forced back to the kitchen sink, any more than I think they should be forced into the boardroom. I think women should get a choice, though. Some women choose motherhood over a career. I did myself. I was lucky that I was willing to give up my salary, holidays, new clothes, ever being able to afford any extras, any prospect that anyone outside the family would want to talk to me, in return for the time I spent at home. I worked part time, I made sacrifices and I did what I wanted to do more than anything: I spent time with my children. I'd like all women to have that choice, with that work recognised as being of value to society. Maybe it is going to take more social disruption for society to start to recognise that a stable family life may have a greater value than making mothers work.

I wrote a letter to the Times when my children were small, expressing my frustration that people assumed that one was brainless and unambitious if one chose to stay at home with children. I received a lot of letters from other women telling me how much they longed to spend time with their babies, and how their families and especially husbands, pressured them to go back to work. Over a century after the suffragettes, I think that's terribly sad. We should have done better.

I'd like a book on how to be a woman to actually recognise that there are some positive things which do distinguish women from men, and that they should be celebrated. I don't want to oppress anyone into gender roles... I'm happy for anyone, including men, to be good at nurturing, and glad if there are women who want to be army generals or professional footballers. But I do want the caring, soft, kind, pretty side of life to be celebrated and valued, not just the success-at-all-costs, hard-nosed, taking-no-prisoners side of life.

I wanted a celebration of being a woman... and actually, a recognition that being a woman is something to value, to cherish, and not just an accident of biology. My sense of disappointment was extreme when it came to the chapter in the book labelled simply “abortion”. I don't presume to tell other women what they should do, and so I have always been pro-choice, despite knowing, incontrovertably, that I could never ever have had an abortion myself. I don't expect or want other people to be the same as me, but I suppose I do expect an abortion to be a big deal. And I don't understand it, not at all. Caitlin Moran had a stable family, enough money, two children already. It is clear that one of the facts of life her family omitted from her upbringing was the fact that while two children is definitely about four times as many children as one child, three children is only half a child more than two.

For those of you similarly handicapped by ignorance of the mathematics of child rearing, when you have one child, even if you were a successful businesswoman handling a budget of millions of pounds, you are completely how much work one child can be. As Caitlin expresses it well, you can't believe how much time you have squandered in the past. Just catering for the needs and whims of a newborn baby is enough to keep two adults fully occupied 24 hours a day. And the house will still look as though a laundry bomb has hit it.

In the first few weeks of having a baby you look in admiration at anyone with more than one child. How do they manage to get dressed? How can they function? Eventually, when you succumb to a second child, all your worst fears are realised: the second child is just as time consuming as the first, but now you have the first child's needs and wishes to take into account. Instead of being able to fall asleep when the baby sleeps, you suddenly have to entertain baby one and try to stop her killing number two.

It seems like an impossible amount of work, and suddenly you are juggling two infants who want time and attention, food and changing, washing and combing, plying with stories and love. It seems that the amount of work and effort has grown exponentially, although the number of bodies only doubled.

The magic is that a third child can be added without seemingly adding much work at all. It seems shocking that a mother with two small children already would have an abortion with a third. Maybe it happens all the time and people just don't talk about it. It just seemed overwhelmingly selfish to me. Maye selflessness is one of the traits which she associates with the oppression of women and their real natures. But the defining characteristic of a good carer is selflessness, caring for others more than oneself. I found it hard to like her after that... she said it was an easy decision to take and one which she didn't regret afterwards... and I am afraid that made me dislike her more.

Women should have choices. I believe that all women deserve choices about how to use their time and their bodies. But in an age of easy contraception, I'd expect intelligent women not to fall pregnant if they know that they do not want to have another baby. I dislike the promotion of abortion as an easy decision and an easy answer.

Being a woman IS a thing... it isn't just society and convention that propels women into a nurturing and caring role in the family and in society. Motherhood is a thing too, and it isn't exchangeable for fatherhood – that's a different thing altogether.

At the end of the book, I had been entertained and horrified, but I don't know that I had learned anything insightful or useful about being a woman. I had learned a bit about being Caitlin Moran, however.