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.
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.
Janek has been fatter than Maja since the beginning of their lives. At birth it was a matter of 200 grams, but it quickly became about a kilogram over the first month or two. I have lost count of the number of times that people have told me that of course he is the boy, with his great big head and barrel chest, despite his pink ensembles and his caprices. He is the master of the enraged howl, she reigns with the power of the trembling lip. She is now stronger than him in many ways, and the weight gap is closing, but it’s too late- he’s strong and she’s pretty.
I’m not sure quite what to do with gender stuff, apart from dress Janek in pink, and at the same time I am aware that it’s deadly serious. I feel exhausted when I think about the myriad of ways that I am probably teaching my daughter that she needs to be rescued- waiting for Marcin to come home to sharpen the knife (when I realise this I am appalled and run straight to the kitchen and pull out the file to do it myself), throw out the rubbish, assure me that I am not going to blow the roof off with my maiden pressure cooker meal. I let him put the baby seats on the bikes (I might forget to put in that screw!), organise the photos on the computer, take charge of the manly, once-a-month cleaning while I do the daily drudgery. He is the king of the stereo, the anti-virus software, the toolbox, while I founder in menu plans and-let’s admit it- planning in general.
I would like my daughter to change her own tyres and my son to plan his own menus. I would like them not to be trapped by assumptions about how they should look or act. I want them to enjoy food and the functioning of their bodies without loathing themselves for not looking the way they think they should.
I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding pompous or earnest. I don’t know how to react when I read an interview with a woman on what it means to be a feminist mother, who says that she thinks it’s important to constantly tell her daughter she is pretty, so that she has some beauty ballast to help her resist when the world starts to imply that maybe she’s not attractive enough, that she will teach her daughter about shaving her legs and wearing makeup because it will show her how to play the game and give her an advantage in a world that values a good manicure (on a female). I object to this logic, to the obsession with female beauty and grooming, but don’t know how it should translate into my treatment of my children.
I probably should have spent my pregnancy thinking about questions like these, rather than lurking about on the cervix forums or googling ‘celebrity baby body.’ I have a strong feeling that it’s important not to be intellectually lazy about gender, but find that a terrifying brief. I’ll most likely be thinking about this for years to come.