This post was inspired by posts here and here and here although I went off in a different direction.
Whenever I read about the Mommy Wars, I feel confused. Because I never know which side I am supposed to be on.
I've been a mother who was home full-time. With an infant. I've been a mother who didn’t have a paying job but spent many hours doing volunteer and activist work. With an infant. I've been a mother who worked a part-time job. With an infant. I've been a mother who worked a full-time job. With an infant.
I've got four kids, and the only way I could believe that one style of parenting was the right way, the perfect choice, would be if one of my kids had somehow turned out better than the rest. So far that has not happened. In fact, two of my kids – Boy in Black and With-a-Why, who are six years apart and raised in different situations, are so alike in personality that they often mistaken as clones. My oldest two kids, two years apart and raised in different situations, have gotten almost identical grades all through high school, have performed the same on standardized tests, and have been awarded the exact same college scholarship. If one type of parenting is superior to the others, it would be hard to tell from my kids.
Of course, I could judge these situations by figuring which was best for me, which situation made me feel most empowered as a woman. But really, that doesn't work so well either. I'd like to point to the time in my life when I was all self-actualized and empowered and confident, but I am not sure that has ever happened. Whether I was home full-time or working full-time or something in between, my personality was the same: stubborn, impatient, easily distracted, warm and loving one minute and losing my temper the next.
I suppose the strangest part about the Mommy Wars, to whatever extent they exist, is that women end up fighting each other. Or is that so strange? The rules and values of patriarchy say that women should be competing with each other. The dominant culture says that women are valued not for what we do or say, not for our intelligence or strength of character, but for what we look like or how we best perform our gendered roles as wives and mothers.
I was in college when I first grasped the concept that women in our culture are supposed to compete with each other. I think I first noticed this in conversations we would have about beauty rituals. Many of the women I knew used to spend hours getting ready to go to parties, putting on make-up, curling their hair, etc. (Big hair was in style.) I was never one to do any of that stuff. I don’t wear high heels because it makes no sense to me to wear shoes that will cause physical damage to my feet. I don’t wear make-up either. It never seemed logical to smear gunk on my face, since I have lots of colour in my skin and long black eyelashes. I don't use a hair dryer or a curling iron or do anything else weird to my hair because that always seemed a waste of time. I like the natural wave in my hair and blowing hot air at it just damages it anyhow. And I like the silky feel of my hair so I don’t put gunk in it.
I never criticized my friends for putting on cosmetics or spending money on expensive haircuts or whatever. I actually sort of enjoyed watching them go through their rituals as we hung out in the dorm, listening to music and talking about what parties we were going to. I could understand the importance of ritual, of taking some kind of time to emotionally prepare for the transition from classes and books to weekend parties. I could see that my friends who were introverts especially needed this time. (In a case it's not obvious to anyone reading my blog – I am an extrovert.) I liked watching them brush their hair and try on clothes, giggling and crowding around the mirror. These rituals were beautiful and sensual. I could totally understand how some of my friends would enjoy the aesthetics of clothing choices – trying out textures and colors, holding silk blouses up to their skin, admiring the lines of a dress.
But the strange part was how often women would get upset at my refusal to put gunk on my face or wear shoes that hurt my lower back, like somehow I was betraying all women by refusing to do this stuff. That I was cheating somehow.
"It’s not fair," women would say to me back in these days of dating and parties. "You do nothing to improve your appearance. And yet men always find you attractive."
It took me a long time to get what these women were saying. Then I understood the rules, the mode of thinking. A woman who sacrifices time, money, and health for her appearance deserves male attention. Because male attention is the thing we are supposed to fight over. Something we are supposed to work hard to earn.
And even the Mommy Wars can be that sort of competition. If I am valued as a mother and a wife, shouldn't I get credit for sacrifices I make? If I stay home with my children, I should get points for sacrificing my career for my children. If I work full-time while raising children, I should get points for doing all that extra work in juggling both. No matter what I do, I need to compete with other women for some kind of external approval for the choices I make. That seems to be what the dominant culture is saying.
Even the compliments I get make me cringe sometimes. Women will say to me, "Oh, that's great that you take belly dancing classes and snowboard and stay in such great shape for your husband." For your husband. Because yeah, that is the only reason I should dance and snowboard and feel good about my body. The assumption is that I do these things not for me, but for my husband. Ugh.
I hope things are different for the next generation.
I want my daughter to realize that she is smart and beautiful and wonderful. I want her to know that, to internalize it, to appreciate herself on a gut level so that she does not ever need external male approval. Whether she chooses to wear tattered jeans or fancy dresses, whether she chooses to have children or not, whether she chooses to be in a relationship or stay single, whether she cuts her hair herself or spends money at some fancy place, whether she pursues a higher degree or some other vocation – no matter what choices she makes for herself, I hope she understands that she does not need anyone’s approval. Even mine.