Thursday, October 29, 2015

What Did We Fight For?

About a month ago, on a lazy Saturday, my husband and I went to a flat viewing in a part of London that we were unfamiliar with. It was a new build along the canal, with gorgeous views, but the area around the tube station seemed a bit sketch. Even though it was well on its way to full "gentrification," what with all the bankers - like my husband -  moving in to the "Five Star Luxury" buildings popping up like rabbits, we weren't quite sure what to make of the neighbourhood as a whole.

We wandered around the high street, eventually coming to a  cafe with almond milk lattes and super seed salads - a sure sign of growing gentrification. So we stopped for - what else? - an almond milk latte and a super seed salad (me), and a "sweet treat" (him).

Him, as our order came: "I can't eat that green shit. What are you, a rabbit? That's not human food."

Taking a seat on the outside terrace, I proposed that the best way to get the feel of an area is to talk to the people who actually live there. I zeroed in on two women, yammering away at warp speed as women typically do over a Saturday brunch.

I ended up deep in conversation with one of the women, from New York, in London to visit her friend. She is a writer, a typical seventies feminist, thoughtful. At one point she looked at me with what looked like desperation in her eyes. "Is this what we fought for? Did we fight for women to have it all, and then to feel immensely guilty when they can't do it all, and burn out in the process? Women are exhausted and depleted. So guilt ridden. If they are working, they want to be with their children. If they are with their children, they are worrying about their work emails. When they are at business dinners, they wish they could be on a date with their husbands. There is not enough time for all of it. What did we do?"

I often wonder the same thing.

In the process of ensuring that women can have the same opportunities as men do, something major seems to have happened. Those roles traditionally inhabited by women have become utterly devalued, an addendum to the "real" work of the world.

I don't really think anyone would disagree that if a woman wants to be a professor, or an engineer, or a doctor, or whatever else her interests and gifts lead her to, she should be able to go after it. But the fact that the option is there, that the freedom of choice is available to her, seems to have warped into a "must."

One of my dear friends, contemplating the birth of her first baby looked at me with embarrassment one day. "I just want to stay home with her. When she is born, I want to quit my job. I want to be there when she takes her first step and starts talking. I don't want anyone else to change her diapers."

But the problem?

"That's not enough. I would be betraying everything our feminist foremothers fought for, if I did that. I can't just stay home. How will people look at me?"

Another friend, having just had her second child and preparing to go back to work,  told me that it almost didn't make sense to go back to work. "I want the best care for my children. And the best care is expensive. Once we pay for that, and for the cleaning lady whom we need because no one is ever at home to clean, and the meals we order in because no one has the time and energy to cook, my salary is almost completely eaten up."

The problem?

"If I stayed home, people would think I was making a dumb choice. They would think I was wasting my education and my abilities."

A friend stared at me over Skype one day. Her two toddlers were wreaking chaos in the background. Laundry was spilling off her table. She hadn't had time to shower yet, and her husband was on his way home from work. "I'm not doing enough. I should probably start applying for jobs."

Why?

"Because what do I tell people? That I take care of my kids and make meals and try to keep the house clean?"

Dark circles ringed her eyes. "I need to be doing more." But then, "What do I do with the kids? They are so little. I don't want to put them in day-care and miss their growing up years."

What is this "more"? Why "must" you? 

Just because a woman can do everything a man can do - or nearly - doesn't mean she must in order to retain her dignity and worth. If she wants to inhabit that more "traditional" role in her family, then why is she made to feel guilty for wanting that? When did career success become the only measure of one's worth? 

When did it become ok for women to feel guilty for wanting to be with their own children? 

The fight for a woman's ability to chart her own course, have her own money, enter any career of her choosing, leave abusive men without being vilified - this was a worthy and great fight. But it seems to have gone off course somehow, and ended up breeding the assumption that child-rearing, home-making, care-taking are somehow less worthy, less important than going to an office everyday.

I don't think this was meant to happen, and it is a tragic disservice to women that it has.

7 comments:

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