If I have made any resolution this year, this is it. It is made partly in the spirit of resignation-there are certain things I have no choice about- but it is also recognition of the fact that the things I have to do bring a measure of enjoyment which isn’t marred by the sense of obligation. It doesn’t prevent me from facing some days with the feeling that I am trudging off to my own execution, as I wonder where I will find the energy and enthusiasm to make it to nightfall.
There are two things which I consider to be my work. One is taking care of the kids, and the other is teaching. I have to confess that I am more inclined to find the childcare draining and the teaching energising. Maybe it’s a matter of the sheer number of hours I spend at each task, or maybe I am an attention junkie who needs to perform for others, and I don’t treat Maja and Janek seriously as an audience. Maybe it’s just exhausting to perform repetitive tasks all day- in particular, I am not a fan of cleaning high chairs.
Anyway, the point is that, though I often wake up with an internal groan, I generally feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I don’t mean a I-am-clearly-raising–two-children-who-will-cure-cancer-and-teaching-all-the-Poles-perfect-English kind of way. More like an I’m- not- dead- and- haven’t– killed- anybody,- now let’s- sit- down- and -watch- Game- of- Thrones kind of way. It makes me realise that there is something to be said for compulsion- doing things which I don’t necessarily feel like doing makes me paradoxically content.
In the weekend magazine recently, there was an article about women in the workplace in Poland- about their pay, their treatment, and their chances of getting to a higher position. I read it with that sort of sick excitement you get at having your worst fears confirmed, thinking somewhere, subconsciously, that things look much better in Australia. And definitely in Australia people might think twice before asking a female architect to make them coffee because she’s a woman, or telling a recruiter that they want a man for the job because they don’t breed, or telling a female in the police force that she should be happy to have gotten this far as a woman, and why does she want a promotion; it will only make her family suffer. In Australia I might not prefer to pretend that I am sick rather than confessing to a childcare crisis (which I have definitely contemplated in Poland.)
Well, guess what, ladies and gentlemen? If you are only interested in the pay gap, it’s much smaller in Poland (9-10 %) than in Australia (15-17%). Looking to confirm my prejudices, however, led me here ; the report uses more data than the pay gap, (it analyses four categories- economic activity, health, educational attainment and political empowerment), and now Australia ranks 24, and Poland 54.
Anyway, one of the things which struck me in the article was that women said they had trouble negotiating; that they were too apologetic, not assertive enough. I realised that it was true, in my case anyway- I am too busy trying to be nice, and my first instinct is to say yes. I vowed to value myself higher, and didn’t have to wait long for a chance; I was offered some work in a preschool, and the first move was to try and beat my price down. As my own children screamed in the background (making it easier to do something which I knew would lose me the job), I named a price only nominally lower than the current one, and said that there was no way I could work for less. I would only call it a partial win; taken by surprise, my initial instinct was still to please. And I am in a very privileged position- I can only imagine what it’s like for people who can’t afford to say no to work.
I cruise the feminist blogs and the mummy blogs as a sort of tabula rasa, propelled by a strange new intuition that there is something about being a woman which just isn’t fair, and that now that I have children, this not-fair applies specifically to me, but utterly uncertain what to make of it all. I see that you can have the same discussions over and over again (about inequality in the workplace, about the division of labour in families, about the economics of reproducing, about mother-blaming for all social ills) and that they are always important but always a work in progress. But mainly I am amazed by the certainty of all these women about what they think. I don’t know if it’s because having babies has cognitively impaired me for life, but I have trouble being so certain, and difficulty deciding (and articulating) what I think. I am trying to build my ideas from nothing, and it requires gargantuan effort- like trying to decide who to vote for based on merit, rather than some vague inherited prejudices.
I am not sure if I’m up to it, intellectually. I don’t even know what’s true. Do I really do almost all the housework, or is this just a narrative to justify my constant resentment that there is just so fucking much of it to do? Am I really being constantly judged for my mothering, or am I just projecting my own insecurities about whether I’m doing it right? Have I ended up in the tenuous and not very lucrative field of teaching because I am a woman and so never thought I could be an astronaut, or do I like it? Am I trying to be fair when I ask myself these questions, or just being an apologist for the patriarchy?
And so on. There is something to be said for the comfort of platitudes and easy opinions, held because I belong to a group of people who also hold them. I know it’s lazy but it’s so convenient.
Here is a story I am telling myself lately to make drudgery more bearable and help me to tolerate that horrible Sisyphean sense of cleaning constantly and still living in squalor. It’s this: there is some sort of beauty and dignity in keeping your floor visible and your dishes clean. So there.
Last Wednesday, I gave my first English lesson in almost a year. It was pouring with rain and union protests had gridlocked the city, but so keen was I that I still managed to be on time. I was going to a former student of mine, so we already knew each other and I didn’t have to worry about the development of rapport, and I already had some idea what she might want and need from me. I actually felt sheer excitement as I put on my serious outfit and climbed onto the bus with my umbrella, pretending to be a real grownup professional woman with deep wisdom to impart.
This performance (that’s what it felt like) continued through our lesson- I scribbled notes, nodded gravely, thought about how I was going to plan our time together and completely forgot about my babies. When we were finished, she walked me to the door and shook my hand and thanked me. I sat in the bus with all the other wet-dog commuters and smiled to myself all the way home. I was sure that I had acted my part so successfully that nobody could see the dishevelled and half-mad mother of two small children inside my power pantaloons.
I wondered afterwards why it was so much more satisfying than my daily childcare triumphs . Is it because I am so conditioned that I also discount the effort it takes to get through the day with two babies? Or because I had the sense of joining in the great theatre of importance that constitutes life Outside the Home? Or because somebody thanked me?
Partly I think that I enjoyed making a mental effort which was not connected solely with logistics, and the idea that this effort might change something fairly quickly- my student might know something she didn’t know before. I liked her responsiveness to my suggestions. I also liked the idea of getting paid. But mainly, I think the satisfaction came from feeling like a working woman again. It seems to be crucial to my self esteem.
As I browse the blogs of my feminist mummy bloggers, I suddenly become aware that they have a tag which I don’t – ‘parenting’. Instead, I have ‘motherhood’.
When I started wondering why this was the case, it became obvious to me that the thing which I have had to come to terms with (rather than just getting used to), is the motherhood aspect. Accustoming yourself to parenting seems to be a matter of adjusting to an external situation: the presence of others in your space and the obligation to meet their demands. But for me, the whole idea of motherhood has involved a more complex set of calculations and adjustments.
Because it turns out that I am not (as I have thought for years) just some sort of man who happpens to need a bra. I have had to come to terms with being female, and with the role that I find myself in, which I don’t always like, of organiser, worrier, clairvoyant, digester of a thousand parenting books. I don’t know how much is biological (I am also the gestator and lactator) and how much is social, but I have the uncomfortable sensation of becoming something despite myself. It’s humbling and confusing and inspires a new respect in me for those mothers (and not parents) who have travelled this path before me.
I’m adding the ‘parenting’ tag, by the way. But it’s not the thing which is currently exercising my mind.
Opening the Polish equivalent to the Good Weekend, I found an interview with the British writer Rachel Cusk, talking about the book (Aftermath) that she wrote after her divorce. It was bleak and sobering and presumably utterly honest – she was saying what nobody wants to hear, that there is no new life after divorce (or any other traumatic event). She flatly refused to pander to the increasingly desperate pleas of the interviewer, who wanted to hear a tale of rebirth after trauma, of rising shriven from the flames.
Interviewer: You constantly talk about the experience in terms of loss. Haven’t you gained anything?
Int: A better understanding of yourself?
RC: No. If anything, I understand myself less [……….]
Int: And you? Don’t you feel better?
RC: I don’t really feel anything.
She must have been a nightmare to interview, but it made me desperately want to read her earlier book about motherhood (A Life’s Work) which she apparently approached with similar cheerless truthfulness. Everything she said in the interview contradicted the evident need of the interviewer (and the reader) for some sort of narrative justice: she would not say that she had learned anything important, or that the divorce had improved her life in any way, or that she was freer or happier or materially or emotionally better off. She simply refused to tie up all the loose ends and hand over a glib little package of hope. I would like to hear more of what she has to say.