The last few weeks of pregnancy were in some ways the toughest: I became impatient, frustrated at the lack of control and over analysing every tiny cramp and movement in the hope of labour starting. By the end I had been off work for ten weeks without a newborn and was bored.
One of the lovely unintended consequences of this blog has been that people have consistently asked how I am, and specifically how my mental health has been, since B’s birth.
There was a joke we told at university: ‘Why does a woman have legs? So she can walk from the bedroom to the kitchen sink’. Funny because it was shocking, shocking because by the end of the 20th century, the sexism was out of sync with our culture.
Although pretty conservatively evangelical in lots of ways, my inner feminist is strong enough to affect my life and my marriage. We like to think we have a pretty egalitarian marriage – both myself and my husband work roughly 22 hours a week in paid employment, and spend the other half the week doing child care and home educating our girls. We are going to share parental leave following this pregnancy so we can both spend time at home with the family. We both serve in our local church. We both study, when we have the opportunity: I’ve done Post Grad courses through work and he’s completed his PhD. We have hobbies and friends, together and apart – I run, he buys and sells books, we garden. Housework is divided according to abilities and preference – I do most of the cooking, day to day finances and have used a vacuum cleaner fewer than 5 times since we got married 7 years ago. He is far more diligent at general cleaning and tidying, does more laundry, is better at planning educational activities and hasn’t touched an iron yet. Neither of us is much good at DIY but we are learning, together.
And we want to bring up our children this way too – in the midst of the inevitable pink and Disney princesses that having two girls under 5 seems to bring, we hope we are bringing them up to be strong women, confident in their own worth and that of other people, aware of issues of consent and power.
And then I fall pregnant. I don’t do pregnancy well in general, and this one in particular. So for the last few months, Mummy hasn’t been going to work in her paid job. And Mummy hasn’t been doing any gardening with Daddy. Or taking her girls to play ball in the park. Mummy hasn’t been serving at toddler group, nor doing much housework. Mummy doesn’t run any more. In fact, Mummy doesn’t leave the house except in a car, and then only to sit down when she gets to where she is going at the other end. It’s been a struggle to even manage the washing up, but I’ve worked it out now, by pacing myself and using a stool and taking it slowly.
feminism …is all well and good if I’m fit and healthy but you put an embryo in my womb and it all goes to pot
So I stand at the kitchen sink, washing up, whilst my husband and father-in-law are doing the hard landscaping in the garden, and think back to that old joke. Is this the end of feminism then? It’s all well and good if I’m fit and healthy but you put an embryo in my womb and it all goes to pot?
Was this how the androcentric culture we live in started? Because women, through constant childbearing, breastfeeding and child rearing, physically couldn’t do what the men could? And are my feminist ideals really based in the Bible as I like to believe, that God created men and women equal in his image before the fall, that Jesus restored women to their place of equal worth both by his treatment of them and by his death which as Paul wrote means “there is now…. no male nor female“? Or is it merely because I live in a society that is used to contraception, and in particular contraception which provides women with reproductive liberty and therefore for the vast majority of my life I can live like a man, without being crippled* by this thing called pregnancy?
And there is the fallacy in my thinking – because for all my feminist principles, some part of me thinks to be equal to a man, I need to be like a man.
It seems I’m not the only one to succumb to this fallacy. In Australia, it has just become permissible for MPs to breastfeed in Parliament. However here in the UK, people seem to agree with the Betty Boothroyd test – that “You wouldn’t start feeding your child if you worked on a supermarket check-out or if you were a solicitor having a meeting with a client.” and therefore we don’t allow our MPs to feed in the chamber.
But that’s the same lie – our whole British idea of work culture is male dominated. When a father of a 3 month old child works on a supermarket checkout, or meets with his client as a solicitor he doesn’t need to consider the feeding demands of his baby. As an employed mother of a 6 week old baby I have to choose – do I take less money (and therefore accept a lower status) to be at home with my child or do I return to work, without my child? Even with recent changes in law, employed fathers don’t even have that same freedom of choice – we’ve found the loss in income in a man taking shared parental leave means that amongst all our friends, family and colleagues we’ve only heard of one other couple who have done it.
In our society ‘work’ and ‘paid employment’ is still something one does without having to be responsible for growing or feeding a child during those hours – or for that matter without taking into account the care needs of your grown up child with disabilities, or your elderly parents. So if you do have to consider those demands, as many women do, then you cannot work as a man does – which equates to fewer hours, less money and therefore less status and worth.
So is my concept of feminism embedded within this androcentric culture? Have I swallowed Betty Boothroyd’s opinion and believe that to do a man’s job (and thereby have a man’s worth), I need to act like a man?
This pregnancy and all its associated problems has taken away my ability to do so many things I place status and value in (like working, running, and, in this case, constructing pergolas). Furthermore, unlike a broken leg, or fibromyalgia, this removal of status has come about purely because of my sex. Were I a man, I wouldn’t have cause to ask these questions.
Do I really believe the Bible when it says that my worth and value as a person – as a woman – is not connected in any way to the money I am paid, the work I do, or the status or hierarchical place I hold?
I’ll be honest, part of my grumbling is down to simple jealousy – both myself and my husband enjoy being out in the garden and because of my need to manage the pain, he gets to do the job we enjoy and I’m stuck inside making the coffee. But part of it is that I have accepted the lies of my culture – deep inside me lies the belief that out door physical labour (‘man’s work’) is of more value that looking after the home (‘woman’s work’), and unless I can do the man’s work, then I am not equal in worth to a man.
So until I can stand here at the kitchen sink with bump so big I can barely reach over to turn on the taps and know that what I am doing — both in growing a child, and in serving my family by washing up last night’s dishes – is of equal worth and status as my husband’s construction of the garden pergola, then the answer is not that feminism is dead and therefore has nothing to say to me at this stage of life. It’s that I’m not feminist enough.