Thursday, 8 May 2014

How being a mother to two daughters stirs the feminist in me

Last week, I had a profound and memorable nightmare that left me awake under the covers in a sweat of shame. 

The gist of the storyline goes that in meeting up with old friends and colleagues I haven’t seen for more than a decade, I absent mindedly turned up to an old London haunt wearing my apron. 

With a floury handprint on each thigh, the shame brought by the public realisation I was sporting my homely pinny, next to the professional attire of my friends, resulted in the contemplation of some home truths. 

While the symbolic apron clarified the niggling anxieties of balancing work with motherhood, the question remained: how should I address these worries? As a SAHM to two daughters, the concept of feminism is something I struggle with. Where is my inner feminist, I wonder, she who should show these girls that in the 21st century, women can have it all? I can’t help wondering if she’s been buried too deep beneath the piles of washing and home-cooked meals to surface.

While I do consider myself a feminist and wish my girls to grow up with career prospects as rewarding as those open to any boy, I am not currently burning the beacon of example. And the kids don’t miss a thing.
‘So basically daddy is really good at science and knows lots of things, and can build things and do sums,’ defined our elder daughter some weeks ago, ‘and you look after us, and make sure we have clean clothes and cook our supper?’ 

Although I wanted to shout ‘NO!’ I had to concede that she hit the nail of the status quo directly on the head. And the worry is, as our daughter makes sense of the world around her, what better place to start than home. I reminded her that I do work too – albeit sporadically, from the kitchen table – but her mind was already made up. 

‘I know mummy – you make sure people have spelt their words right.’ Next to her description of my husband’s status, I felt slightly cheated.

My husband and I are both ambitious for our daughters. Although we do not endorse stereotypical, sexist values in principle, in practice – I hate to say it – they are to some degree the example we set. In response to my concerns, my husband announces how he has already started teaching them how to use tools, to understand how a motor works – to equip them with the knowledge they will need to tackle everyday tasks without relying on a man. 

‘But that’s my point!’ I cry, ‘They should learn at least some of these things from me – I’m their most important female role model!’ The trouble is, I’m not exactly an expert in this field. I was in my mid 30s when I studied the Reader’s Digest Book of DIY and fitted a bathroom light. I was 40 when I finally asked my dad for a lesson on using a drill, in light of all the conical, mis-angled holes I’d made in walls over the years. I’m still the guilty culprit who stripped the head of that screw that needs to come out. But if I’d started young, grown up with the experience in the way I can’t remember ever not knowing how to bake a cake, it would be different. 

According to Office of National Statistics research published last year, in the UK today 74% of mothers who are half a couple, with children at primary school are working, while the figure is 65% of those with preschool children. Not bad, I think. We’re doing our bit. But what the study didn’t record was how many of those women still manage the bulk of household chores and childcare. 

Of course, in an ideal world, a child would see both parents doing some of everything: working, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and DIY too. For us as a family, two parents working full time is not the answer. And that’s partly because of the inherent sexism towards men in male-dominated industries where rungs go missing from career ladders when children need looking after. 

I know so many women who have compromised their careers since having children. And they’ve done it through choice, because quite simply, being a mother is a job that requires as much commitment as any other.
An acquaintance with two children and an ex-career in Law now helps out at a local school, including serving lunch. When she informed her father of her return to work, he responded, ‘So you have a law degree, and now you’re basically a dinner lady?’ You try it, I think – you try being all things to all people, see how easy it is.

Feminism is a complex concept, and the lot of a parent is a guilty one. While I hope my daughters will never feel cheated of success because of their sex, I also hope they will embrace the sisterhood and wear their pinnies with pride – over their work clothes. For feminism is not about being a man in a woman’s body, but about knowing that we have choices. Indeed the velvet chains of motherhood are an honour, and it is a privilege to have a foot in both worlds.

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