Here's a conversation I had the other day...
"I feel sorry for you girls these days. We just got to stay home and be with our babies, where you all have to go to work."
"Ah, but it's not bad; I like my work. I love my babies, but I also enjoy the stimulation and keeping my brain engaged by teaching."
My friend and I were at a fundraiser for creative programs for asylum-seeking women. We were eating fragrant Sri Lankan curry, and the room was a tapestry of colour and pattern. It was one of those functions where you join a table of strangers and talk about life while raising money for vital causes. I'd come with my friend Tameka and we'd joined a table of welcoming elderly women.
Noise echoed around us, screens dotting the room clicked through statistics about the impact our country's refugee policies are having on many innocents.
Tameka and I were looking through the brochures about the programs and welcome homes this organisation ran, when the 70ish-year-old lady across from me -- let's call her Marian -- interjected:
"Excuse me, but we were just saying how we were never bored with our children. When we had them we left work and were able to spend all our time with them. They were never boring; we loved it!"
My friend and I sat in stunned silence. It felt like we'd been rugby tackled out of nowhere by a lavender-perfumed prop. Had I suggested we were bored with our kids? Did saying I like my job somehow imply I didn't like motherhood?
If we work, we're made to feel guilty that we have left our babes in the care of others. If we stay at home with our babes, we're made to feel that we're a drain on the economy.
What do you say to a thinly disguised accusation that feels like it's leaped the entirety of second-wave feminism to land a kick squarely in that sore spot of mum-guilt I try to pretend is not there?
"I don't think I said I was 'bored' with my kids? I love being a mum but I'm also thankful to be able to do a job I enjoy."
Marian cast her eyes to the ceiling and sighed, pityingly.
"I guess you all have to work these days, with the cost of everything. I met one young woman with a four-month-old baby and she commutes to Sydney every day. She drops that poor baby off at childcare at six in the morning and picks them up at six at night. Can you imagine?"
I could. I'm all too aware of the insane juggle so many of us young mums can't keep up with. We're mums, we're workers. We're shouldering the domestic and multi-tasking our brains out. We're trying so very hard but are still criticised for so many of our choices.
I mumbled something about how grateful I am for only having to do part-time hours and then felt like I'd thrown my full-time sisters under the bus. Why do we like to make ourselves feel like better mothers by proving we're doing more mothering -- and doing it more effectively -- than others?
The rest of the night was excellent and we were inspired by the creativity and resilience of women who had faced so many unspeakable challenges. We passed the evening with polite small talk -- Marian and kin told us of their travels and their grandchildren -- but I was incensed.
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Don't get me wrong, I don't hold any animosity to those women in particular, but their scandalised reaction to our assertion that motherhood didn't meet every single need we have feels symptomatic of an issue I keep butting up against -- the woman-on-woman sabotage we seem to be so good at.
I've long realised the myth of 'having it all' is just that -- a fairytale. I can realise my limitations and still proudly call myself a feminist. Yet it feels like the world out there is trying to hold me to an ideal that isn't just impossible, it's destructive.
We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. We're often forced into the workplace and judged when we work. We have no choice but to juggle job(s), childcare, schooling, home life, and relationships, and then made to feel bad that we're doing so much. And we really can't win -- if we work, we're made to feel guilty that we have left our babes in the care of others. If we stay at home with our babes, we're made to feel that we're a drain on the economy.
There's enough of this shame-mongering from the government and conservative media, but what astonishes me is the way so much of this guilt-slinging comes from other women -- in my case, women who were equally forced into a specific way of life due to their context.
Where I feel forced into this eternal juggle of so many responsibilities, Marian and friends had no other option but to settle into domesticity when they became mothers. We have come so far. I have a choice in what profession I want to do and how much I want to do it (I am aware of so many women who don't get that luxury), but can't we just realise that we're all doing our best rather than making others feel bad when they're doing it differently to us?
Feminism covers a broad scope of female experience, and in the complexity of modern life we need to be much more inclusive and supportive of the varied contexts of the women it envelops. Regardless of age, whether we work or not, whether we're mothers or not, we need to stop the barbed comments that undermine the realities of those we come across. Enough already. I'd love to sit down over Sri Lankan curry with women who have lived so much life and hear and learn from their experiences, not feel alienated by the great gulf of misunderstanding that divides the feminist table so often.
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