Wednesday, March 08, 2017

International Women's Day

I'm reminded by the Google Doodle that it's International Women's Day.  It's a day to be bombarded  by images of women doing amazing things, but it always makes me feel quite sad.  When I was at school in the 1970s we were definitely given the impression that being "just" a wife and mother was not a cromulant ambition for an intelligent woman, and I believed that.  I looked at my mother, who left her job when she was pregnant with me, and saw that women in her generation and those before her, had very little choice but to give up any career they'd begun for themselves, in order to stay at home.

I started work in the City as an industrial journalist, working on technical magazines, annual reports, and a staff magazine for Lloyd's Register of Shipping, more or less convinced that I would never want children.  I was the eldest of six, and knew all about the sleepless nights and mess and chaos which came with children, as I was almost old enough to be the parent of my youngest sister.

I married, and we were both agreed we wouldn't have children, but when my sister had her first baby I realized that being a mother wasn't just all the negative things I'd already experienced with my siblings - it was also unconditional love, and caring for the next generation.  An opportunity to bring up a child in love and nurture them.  Having brought myself to the point where I almost believed that I had no maternal instinct at all, seeing my sister with her baby awakened me.

It was another couple of years before I had my first baby, and I realized how much your own experience as a baby affected how well you are able to parent.  I began to have flashbacks of being a baby, and remembered trying to sleep with lights in my face and people talking loudly, feeling the backs of my legs cold when wrapped in a blanket... and those things informed my parenting.

I was definitely not an earth mother at first.  Even the night before my first baby was born, I was still thinking it might be practical to fetch my husband home to deal with dirty nappies.  Of course, all that was forgotten the moment he was born.  And I began to learn that what I had thought of as endless drudgery can be the most rewarding job you've ever done... it's all a matter of perspective.  I know that not all mothers fall in love with their babies, and not all mothers fall in love with all their babies, but I was lucky, and I did.  And I didn't find looking after them to be a brainless and unfulfilling occupation, but the best and most enjoyable work I ever did.

I can't help feeling that our society is discarding something valuable by trying to claim that men and women are equally capable of mothering children.  Millions of years of evolution, and the fact that our bodies are designed both for the having of the babies and the feeding of them once born, must offer some advantages mustn't it?  There are some women who are terrible at looking after children and some men that are brilliant at it, but on the whole, even in relationships where the tasks are shared evenly, the women have the edge.  When my mother worked in an old people's home for a while she told me that it was always their mothers that elderly people cried for, never their fathers.  If properly bonded in the first few hours of life, I believe that mothers have a bond with their babies that comes from nine months of being in the same body.

That's not to say that I think people can't love and nurture babies they haven't carried, I don't, I think the instinct to protect and nurture the young is there in everyone who had a loving upbringing.  It's harder to do though.  A woman who is allowed to bond properly with her baby in the first few hours of life doesn't have to make any effort or use logical argument to make her care for her baby, it's as natural as breathing.  Writing about this is making me uncomfortable, even though it is what I believe, because I fear to offend those who have adopted children or taken on stepchildren, which is more and more prevalent in our society, or for those who had post-natal depression and have struggled to bond with a baby.  I can't help feeling, though, that society would be a kinder and better place if we did recognize the damage that can be done to the mother-child relationship by interfering with the bonding process in childbirth and afterwards. 

I don't like the fact that feminists seem to disparage the work that women have traditionally done in the home and family as though it were worthless.  The view seems to be that only a moron or someone brainwashed by society or culture to think it is the only thing they can do, would ever want to be a full-time mother and housewife.  There has been a definite rise in the media of the attitude that women who want to be full time mothers are letting the side - and their children, especially their daughters - down.
But the original suffragettes weren't fighting for the right to be men and do those things which men had traditionally done.  They were fighting for recognition that the things traditionally done by women are worthwhile and of equal value.  Their campaigning for equality was not designed to make everyone work in a career, but to allow for the truth that our work, no matter where we do it and whether we are waged or unwaged, is of value to the family and to the country.

All that has been lost in the scramble for equal pay, and equal opportunity.  The net effect has been to devalue women's traditional work until it is seen as little better than being a road sweeper or loo attendant - the lowest of the low job. Women who want to do it are looked down on.  I was shocked when I realized that although I was the same person who worked in the city and organized two departments and six million pounds worth of printing, I too became someone who made people's eyes glaze over when I mentioned I was at home looking after a baby.  The implication is that you become a person of no interest to others the moment you stop work.  I even wrote to the Times to express that surprise, and received a lot of mail from women who felt the same.

I felt betrayed by the women and careers officers who guided me and gave me the impression that being a wife and mother isn't something worthwhile.  I fear that women today have no more choices than their grandmothers - where once they had to give up work, now they must work and have a career, whatever their own desire.  It seems to me that we have lost as much as we have gained, and that days like International Women's Day are designed to fire up girls to want to be astronauts or engineers, even if their dearest wish and natural talents mean that they want to stay at home and raise their own children.

I have a hope that the rise of transgender and multifaceted sexuality may one day mean that a person of any gender or none might be able to listen to their heart and follow their desire, whether that be for a wife/husband/civil partner and family or professional career, or dancing, or artistry, or hedge-trimming, or house building or genetics, and that society will begin to recognize that the nurturing of the next generation is not a cop-out for lazy people but a worthwhile job which brings rewards, not just for individuals, but for their families and society too.

There has been an immense amount of propaganda over the past century designed to manipulate the working population to provide what commerce and the war machine has required in terms of workforce.  Perhaps one day we will recognize the truth of what the suffragettes were fighting for and accord nurturing the children in a family the same status and reward as making armaments to kill them.