Making Too Much Meaning

Christmas looms close and this means my anxiety is already spiking. Not all of this is about Christmas (some of it is heat, some is all of the research work I have to do in the next few weeks, some of it is my first international bit of travel coming up in November) but a huge part of it is about the holiday.

I’m a little like this about my birthday too.

It’s taken a while to work out why, exactly, holidays like this upset me in such a visceral way. I think I’ve worked it out.

I imbue them with too much meaning but realise that it is hopeless and so refuse all of it rather than have my hopes dashed.

I am surrounded by people for whom gift giving is at least pleasant if not a hugely vital part of their being; I loathe getting and giving gifts and find myself in anxious knots every time trying to perform gratitude while wishing they’d donated the money. It doesn’t apply to handmade gifts given at random moments oddly enough, but it makes Christmas particularly difficult, and my birthday something of a nightmare. Gifts are a language I do not speak.

I have a constant refrain at Christmas, that this is not for me to judge, but I struggle. I struggle with the useless consumerism masquerading as feeling and the way my child’s natural beautiful sense of fairness and gratitude is drowned beneath a stack of gifts bigger than she is. I struggle with disdain for the adults clamouring and complaining. I struggle with everpresent aura of expectations from others; how many dollars spent, how big, how many, the constant comparisons being made. I struggle as not a single person mentions Christ but all are happy to deride and dismiss my desire and decisions as a parent around not lying to my child about Santa. I struggle with the in-law cage matches about who spends what time where, when it may as well be any other day of the year because any sense of the actual holiday has been lost under the gifts and resentment.

At my birthday I begin to hunker down a week before, or a month, and draw away. I don’t want gifts or a party. I don’t want the attention. I accept that this is a time for my loved ones to celebrate my existence but I feel like I should honour my mother for that more than me. And that if they want to honour me, surely that should involve my wishes not theirs?

Which gives rise to the question I have been pondering – what would these celebrations look like if I gave myself permission to want? To add my meaning instead of trying to fit in the edges of what the world has decided, what other people have enforced with the strength of that behind them?

What does Christmas actually mean to me? Or my birthday? What would a true celebration look like to me?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Advertisements

raising a cautious child

My child does not climb trees. She watches others, peers at the tree, looks around. She may try a little – if you tell her she can’t she will believe you and she will walk away – and she will climb back down the first moment her feet leave the earth.

We will do it all again the next day.

Part way up she will stop, suddenly aware of her feet touching bark, not earth, and cling to the branch. She will ask for help to get back down (“it’s okay sweetie, just put your foot down and slide back to where you started”). Her face will tense and her arms will lock.

And she is barely knee-height off the ground.

Child's foot in school shoes with grey socks, perched in a tree close to the ground

Yet, when she has scoped a situation and believes herself competent? She will make her own lunch, smearing sour cream and sprinkling cheese atop a wrap. She will peel a carrot and chop up mushrooms and tomatoes and celery for dinner. She will steadily, face serious and focussed, bring the match to the kindling and light the winter fire with her grandmother. She will pelt up the stairs with her eyes closed, or balancing on one foot on each step, poised to fly.

Sometimes she falls. When she decided she could swim and tried to follow me to the deep end and paddled madly, sinking, until the adults in the pool turned and saved her. When she burnt her arm, trying to flip pancakes while we cooked breakfast. When she sprained her ankle badly, leaping about on slippery tiles. Then we are back at the foot of a tree, making tiny gains.

Child's hand touching a tree

It’s hard, sometimes, watching three year olds climb past her as she labours up a slide. I remember she used to do that all the time, but fell once, so now is filled with doubt.

It’s harder, watching her replicate this in social situations. I used to say she held a grudge – I stopped, because that isn’t fair, isn’t the whole truth. She was two, or three, or four, is five now, and she had learnt a lesson. Maybe too well, but she had learnt and that’s what she is meant to do as she moves through the world. She had learnt that her cousin will happily hit her in the face if they didn’t like the way the game was played, and ignore her as she cried. She had learnt that while her classmate never hurt her, she would instead hit her friend. She had learnt that her cousins’ first allegiance was to each other. So it is harder, then, to say “sweetie, it’s okay, just try again”.

I am happy to expose her to risk, climbing the tree the school keeps making noises about being out of bounds but has never made a ruling. To climb up the slide. To handle a cleaver and a frypan, scissors and matches, sewing needles and driving down the long rural driveway to grandma’s house. To throw herself into the water and trust it to buoy her upwards, to trust in still, small movements. I am happy to stand with my arms outstretched so she will feel safe enough to try, to show her over and over how to hold the knife and the scissors and the needle, to say “one more try, then we’ll find something else to do”.

I can’t bring myself to expose her to the kind of risk that says “take the hits, they’re you’re friends and your family and they love you and they don’t mean it, just turn the other cheek and go back in there”. To say “we don’t hurt people we love in our family, except for the people that do, and you cannot hit them back or hurt them”. To say “we value kindness” and walk her back into the lion’s den with that wrapped around her like armour made of glass. Beautiful, fragile, and liable to hurt her as much as them.

I am never sure what the solution truly is, but I know I am unwilling to sacrifice her caution, her kindness, for it.

re-do

I did this four and a half years ago, still mired in the new baby period. Now Lapin is five, and things are different, I think.

1. How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

The pursuit of equal choices. That’s about it. Obviously the sticky parts of the situation are: what does equal look like? who decides what the choices are? what kind of pursuit to engage in? but nonetheless, that encapsulates it. I’ve been a feminist from childhood, from when I first realised that I couldn’t have the same things the boys had, couldn’t be treated the same way, and that any attempt to do so would involve some sort of negative reaction. So far far far before I became a mother.

2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?

Just how much it changes, yet how little. We expect it to be a practical upheaval, and emotional, and intellectual, and it is all of those things…but also not. Practically I am not all that different to where I was six years ago – hell, we even moved back into our old house that we bought before we got married – and it doesn’t feel that different now, I think because I’ve internalised all the bits and pieces of living with a child, being responsible.

So I don’t ever really think about how much easier it would be to leave the house if I weren’t packing a lunch and hollering up the stairs to get dressed and dawdling up the hill to school. Mostly because I have no idea where I’d be if I hadn’t had her. I have never been able to track out my life in such neat paths.

Emotionally I am okay, for want of a better word. I am less enclosed, less inclined to shoulder the blame for things beyond my control. I can connect, so to speak. I am more inclined to cry, to give only a certain amount of myself before stopping, to make myself vulnerable by saying no. So it’s a change, but again, one that exists without the judgement of before/after.

Intellectually there was obviously that hormonal fog. But I don’t feel any different now, and my performance doesn’t seem to have changed (except that it occupies a highly reduced space while producing the same work).

Physically the surprise is that I’m still not recovered. My joints are shot, loose and slipping. My gall bladder is gone, replaced by the inability to digest food properly sometimes (which is better than the gallbladder-ful days of agony). I do six monthly tests on my liver, my kidneys, my blood sugar, my thyroid, my vitamin levels, just to try and pick the inevitable declines up prior to symptoms. That, still, surprises me, each time my shoulder thunks through a movement, or my toe goes numb from pinched nerves, or my pelvis hurts again. That, the physical, I always thought would get better because, hey, my vagina recovered and that’s where birth/pregnancy stories situate themselves in the body.

Everyone forgets the rest.

3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

Alternate readings of the texts and discourses, to rely heavily on my current field of research. Motherhood has accelerated it, changed my focus, but that’s how my feminism has diverted itself. I’m less likely to accept an initial reading, or a proclamation of feminist intent, without also considering the intersections, the marketing, the end product, of that proclamation. 

4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

It’s stolen from the doula code in a way, but I’m making a space for my daughter. I am not trying to teach her how to fit into the world, I’m trying to let her find her shape first and then we can work on tactics to shape the world around her. 

I can afford to do that, which I think is key.

I am not paying the price in CPS visits and Centrelink judgement, if my daughter does not conform and perform as required.

I am not causing marital disharmony if I refuse to allow gendered expectations of labour to dictate our home life.

I am not diminishing myself, or my life, to make that space.

I have the kind of child who will jam a baby doll inside her dress, then go out hunting bad ponies with her bows and arrows. Who wears tiaras and fixes her own chair and makes up songs and stories and draws glasses on her face and wears shorts over leggings and bursts into tears if another child is hurt. I need to make a space for all of that, because the rest of the world wants to squash her into a box and cut away the excess. If I don’t make that space, how will she ever know what she can do? I think that’s probably the biggest difference as an active and self-acknowledged feminist, when I observe other parents – I don’t think she needs to wait until she’s an adult before she finds out that she likes to fix things, or hunt, or not be pretty.

5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

When I judge her clothes, and it doesn’t matter why, be it for the frills or for the eighties tomboy look, when I do that I’m trying to enforce my will on hers over something as insulting as her own taste vs my aesthetics. 

Her name. My name. 

That I’m a stay at home parent again – Bzou was, for years, but I’m back at home now. Not because we want to, but because I made a bad career choice and took a job that I couldn’t handle, and now we’re all paying for that bad choice (Bzou works a job he hates, I love doing my PhD but I am not nearly as good as a primary carer, and she pays for both of those things). I’m not here by choice, but by a terrible quirk of fate that elected Campbell Newman to office and the resultant decimation of governmental workers just as I was leaving a job that I could not longer stand to do.

6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

The way it makes people comfortable with annoying you. Or challenging you. Because feminist = intellectual = ignorant-about-real-life. So I’m just trying to enforce feminist doctrine on my daughter when I buy her shorts. When I don’t want her having four baby dolls and no tool sets. When I haven’t bought her a Barbie. And if I ever do rethink those things (have any of y’all watched the Barbie movies – they’re shit, but my god it is a matriarchy up in that joint and given the paucity of little girls on TV I’m inclined to stomach some compulsory heterosexuality and body image weirdness) (particularly since it’s not like TMNT or Ben10 are any better on those fronts AND there’s the gender skew) it’s because they’re right and I’m wrong, not that I’ve changed my mind based on research. It’s that little girls need Barbies and I’m an idiot for ever saying no.

7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

To crib from Lois McMaster Bujold – “the only thing you cannot trade for your heart’s desire is your heart. As a parent, as a partner, my heart is entwined gracelessly and almost seamlessly with other people. If you want something, you need to sacrifice. Simple as that. The individualist ideal whereby happiness seems to be the arbiter of rightness, and emotional negativity a sign of failure is…juvenile. Simplistic. 

Personal is political doesn’t mean that the rest of the world should work in line with your therapy goals. Doesn’t mean that if something upsets you, or hurts you, it is politically at fault. That’s been the hallmark of some seriously terrible applications of feminist theory online (along with the idea that bullying is making someone feel bad). And it’s a really really convenient way to silence both debate, and dissemination of debate, while maintaining the verbal defences of othering, erasure, alienation and abjection should anyone object.

8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

I have a partner, Bzou. He’s on board, and supports me when he can. We have issues, sometimes, with his family and how they interact with and treat me and my decisions as a parent and he wears the brunt of that (“they’re your family, you deal with them”). He’s had the chance to be a stay at home dad, and once I’m gainfully employed (anyone need a researcher? librarian? office monkey?) he’ll probably stay at home, or work part-time. 

Part of the effect, now our daughter is older, is seeing how the entrenched sexism of early parenting becomes standard. He tends to work against it in a low-key way, but he’s always the first to point out that his friends/family of the male persuasion are not doing housework, not engaged with their kids, not appreciating the work that their partners are doing, are sleeping instead of parenting, and so on. Which is gratifying.

While he was at home, we would have arguments though – mostly because there is no model for male primary caring that does not over-value their contribution. So for a long time, as long as he was doing more than his brother, or other men, he thought he was doing fine. I eventually pointed out that they were working parents – his model, as a stay at home dad, should be his sister, or other women like her. Not other men who are not stay at home parents, and who quite cheerfully admit that their solution to household difficulties is ‘stop having your standard so high’ rather than ‘I’ll go put a load of washing on’ (as if the bulk of housework is aesthetic, not hygienic). 

Of course, by the time we got our routines in place, I quit my job in a hailstorm of tears and self-recrimination. Of course.

9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I’m still an attachment parent I think. As much as one can be with a five year old. One of us sits with her as she goes to sleep, we’ve never hurt her as punishment, or put her in time out. It’s challenging because it requires me to put her first in a lot of ways. And as much as ‘secure your own air mask first’ is a good maxim, there’s an awful lot of parenting that is just the daily grind and not at all an emergency. Teaching her that I have work as well, and that she can have her own achievements, that’s hard. In a culture of praise as currency, teaching her to centre on her own needs is difficult.

The tendency in attachment parenting to conform to both compulsory heterosexuality and essentialism is probably why I’ve given up on the community. And the sheer hypocrisy around commercialism and science. Centring my parenting on my ideals as a feminist put me in line with attachment parenting, not the other way around. 

10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

Sometimes. That neo-liberal focus on work and individual achievement is a fairly massive destruction of the ways mothering has worked historically. Similarly the rhetoric of choice, and aesthetics and ‘right speech’, has removed much of the embodied experiences of mothering particularly, and the way woman or mother can work as a class of people. 

That said, feminism also gives us the tools to work against those notions. It’s given us those theories of embodiment, and intersectionality, and the research that shows when women quit work to mother it’s not a free choice at all, and not one made easily. It’s given us options our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers never had – because although my working class grandmother and great-grandmother always worked, they didn’t have anything like maternity leave, or job protection, or OH&S, or the structural support feminism has created in the workplace.