Sunday, 3 February 2013

Feminism now and that elusive work/life balance

As the daughter of feminists, I'm interested in how we, the next generation of mothers, are choosing to bring up our children. Was "having it all" everything it was cracked to be? Is pink so evil? Will we pursue the same ideals and lifestyle choices or are we doing things differently?

Of course, if you look at the fairytale of Kate Middleton and Wills, feminism appears never to have happened. Did we imagine it? Is the trajectory of 1.lose a stone to nail prince 2. give up work to plan wedding 3. swan about in pretty dresses till time to get knocked up... what we hoped girls would aspire for by now or is it 1953 and the last 60 years didn't happen? Even more confusingly of course, no one really seems very sure what feminism is any more. Unless you work in a Women's Studies Department or for the Fawcett Society of course. By "feminism" I guess I mean it loosely; no need to get bogged down in "gender constructs" or "socio-political landscapes" here. I'm too sleep deprived to go down that route! I mean equal rights and responsibilities, freedom of choice, freedom of expression, rejecting gender stereotypes, cooperation between the sexes rather the strict division of labour. It also means all those phrases I heard growing up in the 80s and 90s; "having it all", "breaking glass ceilings" and if you're into Destiny's Child, "Independent Woman". Surely most of it is about never again being chained to a kitchen stove with nippers tugging at our ankles.

For my mother's generation, or for the educated women in the right place at the right time, they really did seem to have it all. They married but kept their maiden names, had kids but forged ahead in their careers, worked full-time but knocked up a souffle and a pair of curtains on the weekend. Of course, this was all possible because they had supportive menfolk and to be honest, I think they were all bloody knackered most of the time. As a result, success as a woman doesn't just revolve around family and community life any more, it includes academic achievement, scaling the career ladder. Self esteem and a sense of identity and purpose are inextricably linked to the sphere of paid work and financial independence. As a child, I absorbed all of this from my parents and my school. As a child of a working mum, I remember asking my grandmother what she did, meaning what job did she have. She told me she had brought up four children. "Weren't you bored?" I asked. I'd like to think this was just the naivety of a 9 year old but I probably held that view until I had children myself. Now I am in awe of anyone who takes on 4 kids and manages to get out of the house in the morning! There's definitely transferable skills there, maybe in military manoeuvres?

The problem with this attitude I guess is that parenting is not valued in our society any longer. It has gone the way of all caring professions, be it nurses, carers, nursery workers or childminders, the work of caring for, stimulating, protecting and nurturing the vulnerable is seen as something inane, repetitive and mindless. As a first-time mum on maternity leave in London, I definitely felt lonely and isolated without the purpose and validation that work brings. Other mothers were either in the rat race, their children in nurseries or cared for by nannies or childminders, or they had given up work and ended up channelling the competitive instincts of the workplace into some extreme competitive parenting!

It is only having moved to a relatively liberal small town with a thriving community of young families that I have come to see that parenting is what you choose it to be. Here, parents try their best to flexi-work and explore options to fit paid work around their lives, not the other way around. Parenting also seems to be shared more. If one of you is working crazy hours and the other takes on the household and family responsibilities, it is tiring and stressful for both of you. It is surely better to have both parents around some of the time, stimulating young minds and sharing the challenges along the way. Bringing up kids isn't necessarily a break from the real world but a worthwhile endeavour in itself. Time with the children can be treasured.

Now of course, some people don't want to spend every waking minute with their kids and, financial imperatives aside, work is an important sphere for using your mind in different ways, building networks, using skills. The minutiae of weaning, potty training, learning to share etc etc are not for everyone. But as a child of working parents, I definitely feel that it is important to be there as much as you can, whether you work full-time, part-time, from home or whatever. And that means actually being present in every sense of the word - not tired, distracted, on your phone, on your ipad, always late. Of course, the problem with trying to balance work and family is that its very difficult to achieve the pinnacle of career success. Stay-at-home parents, while hopefully valued by their children, sacrifice that vital external validation and of course the opportunity to show your children that if you put the hours in, the sky is the limit. It is a bit depressing to think that if we want to spend time with our kids we probably won't do as well in our careers as our parents. This is not to say we won't be successful in some form of work at some stage but the years of graft and toil required to break glass ceilings is very difficult to achieve if you want to go part-time or take a few years to focus on the children.

A major benefit of mothers and fathers spending more time with their children is the opportunity to build and sustain a community. It is hard to get to know your neighbours if you're working all the time. My husband knows this all too well since we moved. As the parent at home, I am the social networker, responsible for the social lives of the whole family. While of course financial pressures, austerity cuts etc mean that families are having to work harder than ever to stay afloat, sharing work more effectively gives both parents time to participate in their children's lives and in the community at large. Bad things happen, social progress grinds to a halt when everyone is too bogged down in the drudgery of everyday life to notice.

So I guess for me feminism now is about everyone being able to participate and have a voice, the freedom to find a work/family arrangement that suits, maybe not having it all but working out the priorities without sacrificing too much. When we're busy in our own little worlds, working or parenting, its hard to see the bigger picture. Of course, while I was writing this, my son was eating the page of a Peppa pig magazine and my daughter had an accident in front of Mary Poppins. Something has gotta give..!

PS Mary Poppins I hear you cry! What kind of sexist trash is that to show a child? Well hang on there, isn't the mother a suffragette? A ditsy one maybe but it's the only Disney movie I know with a song about women's liberation. I think Mary Poppins may deserve further analysis...:)


  1. I'm most curious about the idea of Mary Poppins as an anti-feminist film, which I recognize that you were refuting, but which seems not to require that defense. As a disclaimer, I tend to see feminism as straddling the gender consciousness of De Beauvoir and Harriet Harman and the incorporation of the marginalized of Martha Nussbaum and Alice Walker; I recognize that this understanding may be confused and that more appropriate understandings might make the issue clearer.
    Poppins doesn't just state some explicitly feminist ideas, but more importantly for children, it models them. In "strong woman" terms, Poppins is deferred to by a series of men, throughout the film, and Mr. Banks' failure to do so is clearly a mistake. The Bechdel test is passed with flying colors. In marginalized figure terms, likewise, the chimney sweeps, nannies, children, wives and others are shown to have wisdom that is foolishly ignored.
    Mr. Banks' hymn to patriarchy ("The Life I Lead") is explicitly shown to be confused and is totally undermined as the film lauds Poppins subverting his family's power structure. By the end of the film, he no longer views his virtue as being so purely part of the faceless machine of capitalism, but embraces empathy and a more egalitarian social life. The "don't let work dominate your life excessively, but rather become aware of your surroundings and be genuinely present in your children's lives" message of the film seems to chime perfectly with your message in the blog post, assuming the post was intended to be gender neutral.
    Is it the race/ class issues? Even the final, corrected, power structure is still not terribly egalitarian and race is obviously implied (eg. Banks works a 1910 bank revisiting troubles brought about by rebellious colonials) but invisible, et al.?

  2. After some thought, I think the portrayal of the suffragette movement as idiotic and led by upper class women out of touch with their households is probably a negative in terms of the film's standing as in any way feminist. However, you have a good point that it is not misogynistic, as indeed Mary Poppins is the authoratative heroine of the piece. I wonder how it compares to the more recent Nanny McPhee who becomes less ugly as her charges behave better. As Mary Poppins starts the film powdering her nose in the clouds, vanity seems to be one of her chief characteristics.