Friday, June 25, 2010

Mentally Sexy Dads on Life Matters

If you didn't catch it this morning, you can now listen online to today's ABC Radio Life Matters talkback program, all about the Most Mentally Sexy Dad comp, of which I am lucky enough to be a judge.

My fellow guests, philosopher Damon Young and writer/competition organiser Clint Greagan are two very impressive blokes, as were the callers.

As producer Amanda Armstrong said: "It reminds me once again that there’s a quiet and positive revolution in gender roles happening out there."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Badinter and the tyranny of motherhood

When I first spotted this article about French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, I thought perhaps finally someone had put words to a largely unarticulated feeling I’ve had for a while: that in the push to reassert the value of mothering, a very self-sacrificial model of motherhood has re-emerged.

(The time it has taken me to get round to writing this ridiculously long post could be proof of Badinter’s point!…)

But in reading the article, although some of her arguments are sound, I think she has the wrong targets in her sight. And more than that, I couldn’t help feeling that her ideas are a denial of all that’s lovely about parenting.

For those who haven’t read the article (Badinter’s new book isn’t available in English yet), the central gist of her argument is that the rise of a new version of the “good mother” is creating unforseen levels of guilt and self-sacrifice among women.

A “subterranean ideological war” is how Badinter describes the push for so-called “natural” mothering, which she associates with breastfeeding, co-sleeping, the use of cloth nappies and other “masochistic” practices.

Ecologists, breastfeeding advocates and paediatricians are responsible for this return to “naturalism”, depriving couples of their sex life and even driving down birthrates, she says.

There is no doubt that when it comes to modes of mothering, there have been strong trends over the years — ranging from foolish advice to sinister attempts to control women’s behaviour.

But blaming breastfeeding “zealots”, the environmental movement and even babies themselves (mothers' "Great Oppressor" is how Badinter describes them) seems misguided to me. Sometimes it’s a case of weighing up a baby’s wellbeing against a mother’s sanity, certainly, but I would say there is now a pretty solid consensus on the benefits of breastfeeding that isn’t just a disguise for pushing women back into the home.

Badinter is speaking to women, like herself, who can afford wet nurses and nannies. Breastfeeding troubles aside, bottle-feeding can only liberate a mother in the way she describes if there’s someone to hand the bottle over to.

As for ecologists, I get very tired of the idea that environmentalists have some vested interest beyond the survival of humanity and the planet. It's hardly fun to be peddling the notion of our impending self-annihilation. (Just a little communist plot to drive us all backwards…) For Badinter’s generation, baby formula and disposable nappies might have been among the keys to liberating mothers. Now many of us are recognising them as part of a deeper crisis.

(And we know that milk powder has hardly proved liberating for third-world women, where far more horrific motives were at work in its introduction, with tragic results.)

For Badinter, feminism has always meant aiming for equality with men in terms of sharing in their privileges. But since the 70s, women (and some men) have begun to question many of the values attached to those apparent privileges. It has perhaps been one of the greatest surprises for older generations of feminists that, given the choice, many educated mothers are actively choosing to stay at home or work part time.

Rather than blind allegiance to fashion, could it not be women’s own instincts that are driving the take-up of natural birth, co-sleeping, staying at home during the early years and other forms of “attachment” parenting, at least in part?

The difference now — and this seems to be what Badinter fails to recognise — is that for most middle-class women, these are often active, informed choices rather than the result of a lack of options or a response to society’s expectations.

And many women are embracing motherhood as a significant part of their identity — for good reasons, as it is one of the few truly transformative experiences in life, and offers a unique opportunity for self-knowledge.

That said — yes, we’ve all seen examples of attachment parenting gone too far, where parents have failed to set the kind of boundaries that children and, arguably, parents need. But are these really the majority?

Surely the fact that twice as many women are childless now as were 30 years ago has more to do with a mix of choice, birth control and circumstances than an increase in fear about what mothering will entail.

So what does this mentality shift (which I agree with Badinter exists) represent? Is this move to more intensive modes of mothering about informed women making choices that match their instincts? Or is it driven by guilt? Part of a backlash against feminism’s “false” promise that we could have it all?

Worse, in trying to have it all, have women decided it’s just all too hard? That the lack of real choices is causing them to fall back on the path of least resistance?

Another question: is the pressure educated families now feel to run a sustainable household (food gardens, shopping locally…, i.e. time-consuming) falling at the feet of women? (For another post, perhaps…)

The pendulum is definitely still swinging...

Badinter may have children (three, in fact) but the tone of her argument has the same whiff of repulsion as her mentor's, Simone de Beauvior, who couldn’t even stand the sight of a pregnant woman.

While I wouldn’t have minded outsourcing the hours I’ve spent combing nits out of my children’s hair or the endless loads of washing that form like a monster in the corner — and though I am frequently frustrated by the lack of time for my own interests — I wouldn’t actually choose a more distant relationship with my children, a la the French model, even if I could afford one (in the form of a nanny).

Therein lies the bind for so many mothers.

In a sense, Badinter is suggesting that if you want to be truly liberated, you have no choice but to be a “mediocre” mother”. But most women don’t want to have to choose between being an involved parent, being engaged in meaningful work and being an active participant in public life — let alone having strong relationships and creative lives.

As Badinter says, the French have got it right with their state-funded crèche system. Whatever you think of her idea that the state makes up for men’s “deficiencies” (clearly French women gave up on men long ago, if Badinter is anything to go by), it is a system that respects women’s right to selfhood.

Surely there is an argument for progressive naturalism? In a form that doesn’t negate women’s independence and self-realisation.

As Christy outlines so eloquently here, in targeting children as the "tyrants" holding women back, Badinter lets the real culprits off the hook — that is a state and economy that still fails to properly support women's needs and rights.

I have whacked this out, and it's a bit of an immediate reaction to the tone of Badinter's argument. I also have a lot of sympathy for some of her warnings... But that will have to keep for a later post...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mother or masochist?

Many of you would have seen this story about French feminist Elisabeth Badinter in last weekend's Australian.

I had to nick the page from my local cafe because I had three kids vying for my lap as I was trying to read it. But finally got around to finishing it and have covered the paper in my fervent scribbles. Will try to weave them into a coherent response... Next post...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Reconciling the creative and maternal 'selves'

Thank you to those who responded to my “How do you do it?” post.

You’d think writing The Divided Heart would have quelled my curiosity about this — but I am just as fascinated as ever to hear about how people organise their lives, especially when it comes to parenthood and creativity.

I know that everyone’s lives are different — some of us work, some don’t, we have babies or grown-up kids, we have supportive partners or no partner at all…

But these are some of the possible strategies I took (and will hold on to) from what you wrote:

- When the kids are asleep that's your time. Don't do chores at night.
- Ask your parent/s to stay for a week and give you some time.
- Routine is the key; see it as work, sit down and work, work, work.
- Sequester a number of hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings when you refuse all other engagements and commitments.
- Continuity; two or three times a week, go off early in the morning to a local cafe for an hour, forsaking a shower for writing.
- Prioritise and work to a study-like timetable; like budgeting, but with time.
- Act as you would if self-employed: go to the computer and ignore the dishes/laundry etc, the same way you have to if you go out to an office with a boss.
- Catch public transport as consistent time for yourself.
- Set the kids up with their own craft cupboard so they can help themselves to what they need.
- Think about changing the medium you work in so it can be left safely about.
- Teach them to use the toaster and butter bread.
- Ignore the housework for as long as possible.
- “Gift” yourself a regular art class or course when overwhelmed by the day-to-day work and “should do's”; then you’ve paid for it and it is timetabled.

I loved the image of Emma standing inside her pined-for studio, inhaling the aroma of leather and saying, “Hello studio, I miss you”.

But as she says, her “lil girl deserves a whole lotta cuddles from her Mum while she's so small”.

Perhaps this is what Frances is getting at with her question to me: “What did your mother fight for, Rachel?”

And her statement: “I suspect that the answer lies in Alix Kates Shulman: what mothers won't tell their daughters is that they will fall in love with their children.”

Frances (and Shulman) is right — no-one can explain to you how much you will love your own children. That is exactly why I struggle so much to reconcile my creative and maternal selves (which of course are not totally separate but do have competing urges at times).

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I will not be giving my kids the kind of “ideal” childhood of my fantasies.

They deal with a lot of chaos, and maybe at times they pick up on my stress and frustrations. But I love them to death, and they know it.

If I had to pin down what my mum fought for, as a woman and activist of the 70s, it would be this: that I get the chance to make the most of my choices — including, but not only, the choice to be a mother.

I struggle with the limitations imposed by motherhood — that is true. That does not take away from how much I love my children.

What did my mother fight for? A situation in which women can love their children, and enjoy being mothers, without it having to mean a total negation of the self, as it too often required in the past.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Music, my love

I wonder if all artists are secretly (or not so secretly) envious of artists working in other art forms. For me, it’s music. As someone who writes and occasionally paints/draws, I am always conscious of music’s greater power; of its innate capacity to transport in a way that all other art forms aspire to but rarely attain.

Like so many people, I feel profoundly deprived in not having a good singing voice. I play the piano, and that’s lovely, but it’s not the same as being able to use your own body as your instrument of expression.

Recently I went to see Jen Cloher and Jordie Lane at my local, the Thornbury Theatre. Since then, Jen Cloher has been rocking my world. (Jordie already had a hand on the cradle.)

I’d heard Cloher on the radio a couple of times before this, but it wasn’t until I saw her live that I was properly switched on to her music. I’d forgotten how good seeing a someone perform live is for finally “getting it”, whatever it is a performer has to give.

In the case of Cloher, it was a revelation. How rare to see that combination of ferociousness and vulnerability.

I am now in that heady stage of infatuation with her latest album, where I just can’t get enough of it. I know that intensity will pass, but right now she’s singing the words that I need to hear.

When I listen to Cloher’s songs I get that absurd sense of disbelief that no one has written them before now; how is it that something so perfect would not have existed, would not have been made tangible if this person hadn’t been there to create it?

This thought always triggers a wild mix of gratitude and melancholy in me. The kind that has me pulling over to the side of the road and just taking in a big deep breath. Because I can. Because I've been given a life.

Ain’t that the wonderful thing about art: that strange sense of cathartic relief that comes with hearing/viewing/reading something that releases you; that reminds you why art is essential to the self.

How can you describe the effect great music has on us? I don't have the words. I just know what I feel: that music shatters you just as it makes you whole.

I killed the bird
With the bird
Killed the song
With the song

Killed myself

(Jen Cloher, "Birdsong")