No more apologies
No More Apologies
A few days ago the Guardian ran an article which ventured “Do Stay at Home Mothers Upset You? You May Be a Motherist“.
It described a torrent of prejudice against women who choose to stay home and look after the children, and it covered a few of the typical areas where stay-at-home-mums (SAHM) face groundless and often superficial negative attitudes from the wider world.
It’s a subject that has often weighed on my mind since becoming a SAHM in 2010. But it isn’t just the negative cultural connotations of being a housewife that I find generally interminable, rather it’s the infinite flaming chasm that exists in leui of positive representations of stay-at-home-parenthood.
Instead of being able to identify with any positive model of what I’m currently doing with my life, I frequently feel obliged to delineate all of the things I am NOT. Granted, in small stages, and in comparison to the enormous inequalities of the world, these niggles are a drop in the ocean. I move on with my colossal buggy to face the tuts of another innocent childless pedestrian. It is only when I stop and consider the bigger picture, or talk to other parents, that I find that it is the experience itself which is mind-numbingly pedestrian. To be a SAHM mum is to be a disparaged vacuum.
I find perspective in unexpected places; conversations with older women for example who have highlighted that in their day it was the working mums who faced approbrium (thanks Norma), or from men who want to be more involved but feel childcare is still left in a box reserved for women.
And then there are the places I expect to feel support, but don’t. Feminist spaces were one of the first I looked to. There’s ample thought from many directions that critique the position of motherhood. Socialist feminists will say it’s a symptom of capitalism – let’s continue to ignore mothers until we smash the system! Tories see it as traditional, appropriate family structure to simply place no value on mothers just for mothering. Feminist thought for the most part seems to place its energy on the theoretical, not lived experience of mothering. (And please do point me in the right direction for any gems I might enjoy).
Likewise I have lost count of the number of pieces I’ve read over the years from women who don’t have children (both through choice and not) arguing for the world to stop harassing them about it and placing so much emphasis on breeding, often with thinly veiled reference to perceived wrongs committed by mothers or a throwaway disparaging remark. It’s irresistibly easy. One such piece recently declared that “Having children or not having children should not ultimately define you as a person. It changes you, but it is not finally you”, which while no doubt gratifying for the author to write, also neatly disposes and belittles the identity of the many women whose lives are indeed, even happily, defined by having children. It reiterates the very false and limited stereotyped options that women are presented with, and utilises the very same tool with which we are both dismissed: removing the power to define ourselves.
Feminists are fairly agreed in their critique of the 1950’s housewife model (despite that many women couldn’t afford not to work anyway), yet it seems to have swept over the fact that despite six decades of development, much of the actual work of the SAHM remains unchanged. I cook, bake, organise activities, tend to children, shop and clean (for visitors, sometimes). I do many housewifey things. But when I look to feminism for positive reinforcement of that, I often feel there’s just a dark swirl of snarky remarks, lack of understanding, and an image of Audrey Hepburn in a flowery frock, shrugging vacantly.
Somewhere between the void of being pro-women while conflicted about motherhood hangs a fog of irony. If 1970’s feminism made ‘the personal political’ we face a challenge in accepting that this has come hand-in-hand with a potent social backlash against the very people that movement sought to support, who do the same work they always did. The SAHM has become the under-achiever in a discourse dominated by the aims of women who want to succeed beyond the home.
The debates rage about slummy or yummy mummies (I exhausted my pen on the latter already, during a particularly low point in my maternity leave), endless streams of instragrammed calls for validation, hyper-critiqued definitions of mums who do speak out, over-educated, under-educated, too-privileged, in poverty, choice, circumstance, chitter chatter and snit with an overwhelming subtext of critical interrogation. You are a stay-at-home-mum? Explain yourself, you will be judged.
And I did routinely explain myself, until recently. Faced with the groundhog-esque experience of conversational tumbleweed when telling new people I was a SAHM, I felt compelled to justify why I was one. More often than not I was asked ‘what did you do before?’ (because of course being a SAHM = of zero interest), and failure to elaborate, I have learned, means failure to engage. I oblige. I get the rules. I explain my story. But in doing so, it’s changing my story. Whereas before, I was unintentionally almost apologetic about what I do, now I’m feeling more vigilante about it, and more passionate than ever that women need to be able to take their spaces and define them, positively. Both mothers and non-mothers.
I’m a feminist AND a stay home mum and I’m ok with both of those things. I’m comfortable with the idea that my contribution to society is three happy cheeky daughters who wake up to food and go to sleep exhausted from a day’s fun. I enjoy my extra-curricular activities (like the blogging, campaigning, studying etc) but I’ll be damned if the most important thing I’m doing right now isn’t building my kids’ lives. There will be more to come. I will go back to work and contribute to the GDP and other socially acceptable forms of involvement, but right now, doing what I’m doing is the single most important thing to me. Not in a cutesy Clinton cards way, but because for all else I may or may not ‘achieve’, my girls will always matter most to me. And if the surrounding ‘boring’ childcare aspects of that are only worthy of belittlement and sarcasm from others, then they can jog on. I can value what I do and also look forward to one day doing other things again with no contradiction.
I’m consciously not apologising anymore. I’ve made peace with the fact that being a SAHM can be a rewarding (and equally frustrating!) job to do, with or without anyone else’s approval. I do wish that more feminists could respect that.