I did it again. I casually dropped into the conversation that I am – gasp, wait for it – a feminist. The room stilled, time seemed to slow as my small audience took in a collective breath. And held it until the space-time continuum reasserted itself when somebody mentioned their child’s bowel habits.
Naturally, I’m used to such pronouncements wreaking havoc in a business environment (the feminist one, rather than the bowel habits, though I suspect that one would stop you getting invited to lunch pretty quickly). Announce you’re a feminist in an office and the space-time continuum will wobble like a weeble. But, I don’t know, call me naïve (and you will), I had thought that things would be different when you’re surrounded by women who have been – and are still – at the sharp end of a central feminist dilemma – i.e how to have kids and at least have a passing involvement with raising them without completely fucking up your career or, indeed, your head. If anything, the reaction is worse.
I can only explain it by citing the fear factor. When you’re happily trogging along, in your job and kids are but a distant possibility that you don’t bother to think about much, feminism is only scary in the abstract. There you are, earning your money and not thinking too long or hard about the pay gap between you and your male colleagues because these things tend to be well-hidden and a real fuss has to made if you want to do something about it. And, well, who wants to jeopardise their whole career for a few grand a year? And chances are, unless you are an active, committed feminist, the so-inherent-as-to-be-invisible-to-all-but-the-select-few patriarchal crap that surrounds you will go virtually unnoticed, save for a few twinges of unease perhaps when you notice the sheer numbers of naked breasts in a newsagent. So feminism is scary, but remote (or so you think) to your every day life. A bit like flesh-eating spiders – terrifying to meet, but what are the chances in these parts?
Then you actually have a baby which is, generally, a wonderful and, yes, life-changing event. But three months in, six months in, when your face hurts from smiling (because a depressive visog harms the little pumpkin, doncha know?), and you’ve expressed just about as much verbal glee as humanly possible at a successful clap or deftly executed roll-over, the reality of your life now becomes apparent. Because no matter how exhausted your smiling muscles, you will, as a mother, unless you’re incredibly lucky, experience a degree of panic at the thought of going back to work and leaving the most precious child the world has ever seen™ in the care of, well, of anybody else. And it is at this moment that if you’re lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) enough not to have an utterly compelling reason – say starvation, or eviction or income-supported poverty – to return to work, you start to think, ‘Weelll…’ and phrases like ‘career break’ suddenly start popping into your head. They did in mine anyway. And then, almost inevitable it seems, you suddenly find yourself with a second child, having completely forgotten to go back to work after the first one. And then you’re into a whole problem of wanting to treat your children the same by staying at home for the same extended period for your second child. Before you know it, your career break has become a whole Kit-Kat and the rest of your erstwhile colleagues have moved on to dinner and drinks and throwing shapes at the local discotheque. Honestly, what woman wouldn’t be a feminist when faced with the unattractive options having kids presents you with?
And what options they are. You could work full-time, living life as a constant juggling act not only between work and kids but between your own expectations and thoughts and those of the mother-hating world around you. Or work part-time around school hours for a wage roughly amounting to minimum in a job for which, often, you’re over-qualified. Or be a SAHM and find your brain slowly leaking out through your ears. Which is not to say that SAHM have no brain to leak out, far from it. That’s simply to say that those women who do stay at home and relish it have different desires and motivations to those that don’t (or those that do but aren’t particularly happy about it). And to be clear – those desires and motivations are equally valid; whilst I’m absolutely clear that staying at home with my kids is not intellectually stimulating to me, it is in most other respects infinitely harder than working in an office. That this is a fact has actually confused me for a long time, given that my kids aren’t particularly difficult or demanding (and are even, often, extremely entertaining, not something that I remember happening very often at work, very few colleagues being partial to attempting to breakdance with knickers on their head) so I’ve had to give it some thought, and I’ve come up with two main things: (i) the unrelenting sameyness of the bulk of each day and (ii) the complete lack of control over your own time-outs. At work, your job changes from day to day and if you need five minutes alone to just contemplate your navel you can generally chose the time to do so. These factors combine to keep things fresh and you sane. If you can cope with the downsides of being at home and still remain motivated and enthusiastic about it, then more power to you. You’re obviously better at playing the long game than I am. I need more immediate gratification than waiting 20-odd years to see all my hard work come to fruition in two well-adjusted, wonderful adults. I also have a sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t help me that I can’t cook, don’t cook, hate cooking; so being responsible for two meals a day probably leaches a piece of my soul on a daily basis (hey, if ‘m hungry I want to eat, not make love to a Delia cook book for an hour).
But I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes. If you want a ‘career’ after you’ve had kids, your options are for shit in this patriarchal, built-for-men-with-a-wife-at-home world. And whether or not we understand the machinations of the patriarchy and whether or not we blanche at the word ‘feminist’, all us SAHMs know it. And it scares us to think that our options are so limited when we grew up thinking that we would, as adults, have limitless options. Or at least a couple of decent ones. And I understand that fear because, to be honest, it’s way scarier to be a committed radical feminist who understands intimately the workings of the patriarchy and to discover that even with the knowledge of these concepts sign-posting your way, you still can’t find your way out of the motherhood maze.