Equal Opportunity | The Tender Trap
SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF FEMINISM
. This means that unpaid work in the home must be shared equally between men and women, to enable women to involve themselves in work and activities outside the home if they wish.
. Men must renounce their domination of public life so that women can participate equally.
. Positive discrimination should be used to ensure that members of disadvantaged groups are proportionally represented in all spheres of life.
. Women should be freed from the sexual harrassment that has previously limited their freedom to choose certain occupations or activities.
The tender trap
These sickly words come from a Mother’s Day greetings card. Embedded in the treacles is a clear message: mothers are gentle, homebound creatures whose lives are devoted to the care of their husbands and children.
Her role is to give herself, her vagina, her womb, her breasts, her body, her mind, her hands and her life in the service of others. Often the sacrifices can amount to a total personality change - as complete as a frontal lobotomy.
Abstract thought is impossible with small children around. Only a very few privileged women with home-helps or nannies have the luxury of thinking. Thought-deprivation, like sleep-deprivation, is a kind of torture that leaves a woman numb and mechanical. Who cares if there’s an election tomorrow? Even the threat of the bomb seems a long way off when you’ve not slept for days and baby’s crying severs your brain in two.
Daughters and sons watch this person, the central figure in their early lives. She is everything to them: food, warmth, comfort and survival.
Within the conventional nuclear family all the responsibility for the physical and emotional work of child-rearing falls on women, limiting their horizons and exonerating men from real practical fatherhood.
But why have so many women acquiesced in this? One reason is that women, in common with other oppressed groups, have low self-esteem (‘girls can’t do maths’), and so when they take on a hard and difficult work like motherhood, they tend to blame themselves for their failures as they did at school. So they’ do not see that it is impossible to meet the enormous challenge of being nurse, teacher, cook, counsellor, referee, cleaner all rolled into one, and thereby ‘succeed’ in their new job.
Author and poet Adrienne Rich believes that guilt is one of the most powerful ways that society controls women. Feeling guilty is a more or less permanent state of mind for many women, especially mothers. If we can’t cope with sleepless nights, incessant infantile demands and dull repetitive housework, as well as look pretty, bake a cake and be ready with a smile over supper at the end of the day, then surely it’s our fault - not men’s, not society’s.
We think we have failed as housewives, wives and mothers. Very often this self-hatred turns into depression after the baby is born. Research in the British Journal of Psychiatry, for instance, found that one in nine of new mothers were still suffering from depression six to eight months after the birth. Such figures indicate that a probable total of over 60.000 women suffer from post-natal depression in the UK each year. But investigations are only just beginning.
Sometimes the guilt a mother feels turns into resentment and rage. In one study mothers with pre-school children who felt a duty to stay at home, but wanted to work, were found to be four times as likely to have been given sedatives and tranquillisers as women who felt no such conflict. Society’s response is to give them mood-altering drugs to tailor them to their existing situation rather than helping them to change their circumstances by providing child-care and jobs.
But guilt is not the only reason why mothers fail to understand or expose the motherhood myth: many women are just plain scared of the consequences of standing up for themselves. They’re scared of male violence if they do not perform as expected; scared of society’s censure if they admit failure; scared of being thought ‘unfeminine’ or lesbian if they choose not to get married or have children in the first place: scared of poverty if they walk out. And they are scared of alternatives - work perhaps on an assembly line or in a sweatshop. From that perspective even the low status of the housewife-mother may not seem so bad.
But being a mother does have its pleasures. especially for middle-class women who may have help at home, a car and enough money’ to give them a kind of independence. Children bring great delight. Many women’s flagging spirits have been boosted with a sticky kiss and a ‘don’t worry’ Mum, we love you’ from her children.
The experience of motherhood can be enriching and joyous. But in its current form, proscribed by patriarchy, it is also isolating and soul-destroying. In the West we expect one woman to cope, tight with tiredness, low in self-esteem, with no chance of ‘success’. Men close the door on the chaos, heave a sigh of relief and head for the paid workplace, their friends, their sense of worth and value.
Some men are now beginning to question their role and genuinely trying to change themselves and the world around them. Such men have been able to give a few women some support and certain types of nurturance. But these are still minor changes, comforts not yet extended to the majority of women. And even though some men identify with women’s struggle, the majority are careful to ensure that their solidarity does not conflict with their own freedom. They continue to hang on to their advantages - such as higher pay and the ability to work long hours - in order to build up careers, secure in the knowledge that someone is looking after their children for them, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of a kind of token fatherhood which gives them rights and privileges over children toward whom they take minimal responsibility - cooking the odd meal now and then, but ducking out when the noise gets too much.
But women’s responsibility for nurturance doesn’t stop with children. Women also mother men in numberless subtle and unacknowledged way’s: the unasked-for cup of tea, careful questions about his worries, welcoming arms despite a splitting headache. So, if men are to lessen the burden they place on women they must recognise their own emotional needs and put them into words. At the moment these needs are met by women in the intimacy of the home without men having to confront their dependence on women for emotional support - men don’t want to be seen as ‘weak’ or ‘womanly’.
‘But who mothers mothers?’ a friend once asked me. Although ill with ‘flu, she still had to look after her small children. And the answer is other women. Women need each other for the emotional sustenance they hoped they would get from men, for airing their anger and frustration. Women also need other women for sharing the joy’s and sorrows of motherhood. But, most of all, they need women friends with whom they can explore the depths of their self-hatred and guilt. In such sharing, women with children realise that they are not alone in their apparent failure to be ‘good’ mothers. And they gain strength.
Through their mothers examples girls will grow up to understand the importance of women to other women. They will learn that independence and personal space are things to be chosen and worked for, not signs of rejection and failure.
We have to develop a different pattern of motherhood. ‘The most important thing one woman can do for another’ says Adrienne Rich ‘is to illuminate and expand her sense of acutal possibilities.’ We can reach out.
The quality of a mother’s life is paramount because a woman, who continues to struggles to create a liveable space around her is demonstrating – far more powerfully than any words can – that these possibilities exist.
Troth Wells is a New Internationalist Co-Editor and a mother of two children.