July 2006


Further to this Mad Sheila Musings post, and to an invitiation by Alyx to write my own personal Becoming a Father section, behold:

YOUR PARTNER IS PREGNANT

- Resist the urge to say “Boo-yah! My Sperm Is King!” or otherwise pretend that only your fertility and manliness had anything to do with this.

- If the pregnancy is accidental and unwanted:-

(1) DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES pretend like this is her fault. Contraception was not her sole responsibility and if you didn’t want her to get pregnant you should have taken precautions yourself; and

(2) Whether or not she continues the pregnancy is HER decision. Your rights over her body are precisely ZERO and you get precisely NO say over whether she has the baby or not.

- Find out what “supportive” means and start practicing right now. When your partner asks you to support her or to be a bit more supportive, DO NOT look at her with a confused expression and ask her what the hell she is talking about.

- Remember that her whole centre of attention will be the stuff that is happening to and inside her body. DO NOT look squeamish and start banging on about football when she wants to tell you something amazing she read today about her placenta.

- Remember, your penis is nowhere near big enough to hit the baby’s head.

- If you expect your partner to give up alcohol / cigarettes / drugs, or if you expect her to start eating better and taking vitamins, great. But DO NOT preach to her about this if you yourself come home and eat pizza whilst drinking beer and smoking a joint.

- DO NOT say “You’re getting really fat now” AT ANY POINT in her pregnancy.

- Go to ante-natal classes with her. DO NOT try to weasel out of them by claiming that you don’t need to know any of that stuff. You do.

- If you are privileged enough to be invited to share the birth experience then remember that you are there as a helper and supporter. In particular:-

(1) You will not be there as a spectator. This means that you will need to know in advance what you are expected to do. Therefore, if your partner wants to involve you in making a birth plan, DO NOT say either “I’ve done this before, I don’t need to do any preparation” (especially if the time you did it before was not with your current partner) or “You just tell me what to do, it’s nothing to do with me” or “Eh?”

(2) DO NOT whine about how you had to get out of bed at 4am for this. She was up with contractions for 3 hours before she even woke you, is she complaining? Nobody gives a damn how tired you are. It isn’t about you.

YOU’RE A DAD!

- Your partner has just been though a long, exhausting experience, possibly involving medical procedures or even major abdominal surgery. You may think you’re tired and emotional, but she is more in need of rest than you could possibly be, so quit moaning and start being supportive. (If you forgot to find out what “supportive” meant during pregnancy, do it now. And start practising. Now.)

- Change nappies. It isn’t hard.

- DO NOT whinge at your breastfeeding partner about how you want to feed the baby. You can’t. You don’t have breasts. You can, however, do everything else – so do everything else. Your partner is more in need of rest than you, however tired you think you are.

- Change nappies. This bears repeating. IT ISN’T HARD.

- Let your partner know that you still find her sexy, but UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES is it OK to pressure her for sex. A thing the size of a watermelon with legs just pushed its way out of her vagina and, guess what?, it’s gonna be kind of sore down there. And bloody.

- Which reminds me: when your partner asks you to go to Asda and buy yet more sanitary pads, just do it.

- Discuss openly and honestly how the two of you are going to arrange childcare if and when your partner is ready to return to paid employment. Do not balance her prospective wages against the cost of childcare because, guess what?, it’s your baby too and you are 50% responsible for childcare. So balance her prospective wages against half the cost of childcare. The other half comes out of your pay packet. Which means that if your partner does not return to work, or works only part-time, in order to care for your child, you should pay to HER the cost of childcare that YOU are saving.

- Do NOT assume that your partner is the only one who needs to take a hit on her career. You too could return to work part time. You too could arrange to leave work promptly to pick up your child from the childminder. This is not your partner’s sole responsibility.

and

- If you do decide to up and leave PAY CHILD SUPPORT. Do not wait until the CSA is threatening to put you in prison. Pay it without argument. This is not about your ex sponging off you and grabbing your hard-earned dosh. This is money that YOU owe to YOUR child, for which YOU are responsible.

This is sort of in response to comments to this post.

In my post I talked about the hostility I had found in myself towards “pretty” women. The reason I used the word “pretty” rather than “beautiful” is because I wanted to distinguish between fake beauty (i.e. mere compliance with our cultural norms and standards, “prettiness”) and real beauty.

Prettiness means:

Slim. Tall (but not too tall). Young. Good skin, clear eyes, lustrous hair. Curves, but no visible fat or cellulite. Pert, round breasts: not too big, not too small. Ditto for the bottom: two apples in a handkerchief. Long, elegant, slim, smooth legs. No visible body hair. Big eyes. Pink lips. Straight, white teeth. Sweet smile. Smells like flowers. Dresses to show off all assets.

Some women do look something like that naturally, and many look as close to it as they can manage with the aid of “beauty” tips and treatments. Creams, lotions, face packs, working out, high heels, deodorants and fragranced products, expensive haircuts and hair treatments, dressing to “make the most of” their natural figure, tooth whitening products, make-up, concealer, surgery. All that stuff and whatever else works.

Those are the “pretty women” I was talking about. They comply, deliberately or not, with the ideal that our culture gives them or if they do not exactly comply, they strive to be as physically “perfect” as nature (complete with some or all of the aforementioned beauty tips and treatment) will allow.

It isn’t fair to judge a woman who naturally happens to fall into the “pretty” category. Nor is it fair to judge those who do not, but who strive to get there because (1) that’s what (they think) patriarchy rewards and (2) it’s been driven into them by every single media message they’ve ever seen that this is what they should be doing. Even those who identify as feminists often say either that they like doing that beauty stuff, or that they don’t like it but can’t kick the habit.

Whatever anyone may think of pretty women (boob job or no boob job), I see that as something totally different and separate to real beauty.

Real beauty comes in many guises.

It is not fake. It is not plastic. It is not about being “perfect” or “flawless” because perfection and flawlessness relate to how well one complies with an ideal, whereas real beauty is its own ideal.

And, unlike prettiness, real female beauty can be found wherever you choose to open your eyes.

It is a young woman running for the bus, hair flying behind her, pose abandoned, no thought for who might be watching or judging – caught up in one, clear moment.

It is an enormous pregnant woman, holding her unborn child with the dreaming, far-off expression of someone who is imagining an exciting new future. It is the huge, crooked grin of a woman who gave birth six days ago, sitting on a Valley cushion for the first time. It is the tableau of a woman nursing her little child, the two of them adoring one another, oozing contented bliss.

It is a little old lady, dressed in yellow, her white hair smoothly curled and her lifetime of wrinkles calmly absorbed in a magazine.

It is the woman I saw walking down the street a few days ago. She was young, tall and rather muscly, wearing a little tennis outfit that showed the unsexy fitness of her body to great effect. Her long, black legs moved with an athletic grace and self-assurance that made me smile from ear to ear. I tried not to stare. She was beautiful. I never saw her face.

It is me. My somewhat less than smooth legs, complete with a few bruises from this or that minor mishap: stretching them out straight together, lifted up into the air, I can see that they have changed shape and tone since I started cycling to work. My little toe is a funny shape. My fingers are long and bony, from playing the piano, and from all this typing. My fingernails are all different lengths, they need a trim. My tummy is still a bit wobbly from where I had Baby M. There, just up a bit and to the left of my belly button is where there are most stretchmarks. That’s where her bum used to stick out, and she would wiggle it when we were in the bath. I have a nose that comes right out of the family photo album.

It is me, the marks of who I am. Who says I’m not beautiful?

Two great pieces of news in this house. :-)

Firstly, we have at last an explanation for Baby M’s recent strange, moany behaviour and assorted bottom troubles. A new tooth! 17 down, 3 to go.

Knowing that it is a tooth doesn’t actually make the whinging any more pleasant to bear, and nor does it make her bottom any happier, but at least I know what it is and can stop worrying about whether it’s all down to me being a Bad Mother in some hitherto unrecognised way.

The other piece of good news is that my imminent financial collapse due (among other animals) to the shocking expense of my now-departed car has been staved off. The child tax credit people have decided that they seriously underpaid me last year so have credited my bank account with a big fat lump sum. Credit card bill paid, overdraft paid, and enough left over for pocket money at the Big Green Gathering next week. Yay!

On Saturday my copy of the first ever issue of Subtext - the new UK feminist magazine – arrived through the post. (If you have any spare cash, buy it now!)

This post is inspired by a paragraph in Lorraine Douglas’ article Somebody’s Watching You on the subject of the beauty industry and how it embodies the divide-and-conquer method of attack on natural female beauty (and self-esteem), by encouraging us all to judge one another on looks.

One feminist remarked to me that she had noticed that other feminists tended not to conform to traditional standards of attractiveness, and that she believed this meant that those deemed “unattractive” were more likely to find themselves drawn to feminism.

(In other words, ugly women turn feminist more often than pretty women do.)

I have no idea whether this is true, or if there is any evidence one way or the other. However, if is a commonly cited thing and, who knows, it might be true. If it is, then Douglas suggests three main reasons why this might be the case.

(1) Women not complying with the required standards of beauty are more likely to question those standards and thus to discover feminism.

(2) Women who have discovered feminism are more likely to reject those oppressive standards of beauty and to actively choose non-compliance.

(3) Women who do meet the patriarchy-approved standards may well feel alienated or rejected by a feminism that does not “approve” of pretty women.

Reading this, I found myself thinking – number one, check; number two, check; number three, um. I found myself feeling a bit dubious about that one. No, not feeling dubious. I found myself almost sliding over it and not even noticing it properly until I read the paragraph a second or even a third time.

What is this? Is there inside me, little feminist non-judgemental me, some hostility to pretty women? Is that why I managed to almost completely ignore reason nunber 3? It is easier to think that pretty women don’t want to be on my bus than to believe that I’ve put a sign on the front that says No Pretty Women Here, Thanks. But I think the latter might be nearer to the truth.

Fat women, thin women, women with dodgy teeth, spotty women, short women, tall women, women with facial hair, women who laugh like drains. Ordinary women. Any women but pretty women. Cos pretty women intimidate me. I decide in my head that they are too pretty, and therefore too popular, to like me – so I decide in advance that I don’t like them. How unfair is that? It never even occurs to me that someone who looks like a cover girl might think like a human being.

The patriarchy’s got me. I blame the patriarchy!

This is, sort of, a follow up post to yesterday’s Choice and Responsibility.

In a response to Twisty’s original post, Bujor Tavaloiu at Strength Never Power makes the point that casting a critical eye over choices that are patriarchy-approved as suitably feminine – while useful and necessary – misses something important.

What it misses is the rottenness of the whole idea of marking out certain choices as “feminine” and others as “anti-feminine”. Our culture (by which I mean, of course, patriarchy) sets out a whole raft of behaviours* and labels them “feminine” / “womanly”, and therefore rubbish – beneath the dignity of a Man.

* Like these
Wearing pink,
At the kitchen sink,

Sweeping, dusting,
Weeping, fussing,

Grieving and moaning
Heaving and groaning

Nursing, caring,
Not cursing or swearing,

Sewing, knitting,
Blowing, submitting.

If you are a woman who does these things, makes these choices, acts “feminine” then you get a mixture of scorn (for being feminine, and not being interested in the same things as men, and therefore being rubbish) and, if you are lucky, some condescending approval (for being a proper woman – not as good as a man, obviously, but at least you know your place). You might even – a la Victoria Beckham or Nigella Lawson – get some economic power, some independence and some status or, if things really go your way, a rich husband.

If you are a woman who rejects these things, and chooses “to blaze forth in a fury of white-hot anti-feminine iconoclasm” then you get a mixture of scorn (for not being a proper woman) and, if you are lucky, some approval, in the form of a condescending kind of respect (for at least having something in common with the men who scorn you). You might even get some economic power, some independence and some status. You might even – a la Margaret Thatcher or Nicola Horlick – make a grand success of life in a man’s world and acquire super-heroine status.

In other words: to be successful you have to either embrace “femininity” and make it your trump card, or you have to reject it and play up your “masculine” qualities. Either way, even if your efforts are met with success, you will still be scorned by some. Sexed-up female celebs are called pop tarts or bimbos, or sexbots, while de-sexed female powerhouses are called ball-breakers or unfeminine or simply mannish.

Rejecting the sexbot model for success, what’s a feminist to do but try the latter tack, or to give up on success altogether?

What, indeed. It did strike me while reading the Linda Hirshman essay (this one) yesterday that her recipe for fixing the ongoing second-sex status of women was to encourage women to be more successful in the workplace, by better and fairer arrangements in their homelife. My own reaction to these suggestions is always something like a Yes, But.

Yes, women should have fairer arrangements in their home lives so as to help them be successful in the workplace. But, why are we letting the existing (patriarchal) definition of success govern our ambitions? Why does success need to involve going out and making lots of money? Why should childcare continue to be treated as something unsuccessful people do?

Yes, But – should we not, at the same time as empowering women to be successful in the hitherto male-dominated workplace, also be demanding a shift in our cultural evaluation of the work women already do? This would (1) make women who do it more valued and (2) encourage more men to do it, thereby freeing the women who don’t want to do it to do something else.

Yes, But – let’s redefine “success” and “value” to mean something other than merely economic success or economic value.

Trouble is, it won’t work. Nobody wants to know. Men don’t want to know. To bring about such a radical shift in attitudes is more than anyone can dream of achieving.

Ick, ick, ick. Can’t we tear it up and start again? In our new world, can we please, please, please be allowed to like both knitting and fast cars? Can we be allowed to wear pink without looking girly? Can we be allowed to work like stink and be rewarded for it if we want to? Can we be allowed to choose staying at home if we want to? Even if we are men? Without having to think about the rotten bogging politics of it all, and the what-will-people-think?

Sadly, we can’t tear it up and start again. We have to live with what we’ve got.

Which means that knitting is a political act, just as much as ogling fast cars. Wearing pink is as political as refusing to wear pink. One follows patriarchal femininity and one rejects it, but either way we are responding to patriarchy.

Because we can’t just say Screw Patriarchy, I Like Pink.

It’s a bugger. Innit.

I had something all thought out for my post today, but what with Baby M refusing to sleep anywhere but in my arms and some thought-provoking stuff at I Blame The Patriarchy, that is going to have to go on hold.

Twisty writes:

“Making traditional, patriarchy-approved, feminine submissive ‘choices’ is like spitting in the eye of every woman who has ever been raped, humiliated, harassed, denied birth control, abandoned, passed over, or beaten… The consequences of asserting this faux choice mimic the consequences of oppression…. What if, instead of blindly asserting our ‘right’ to ‘choose’ the patriarchal sexbot model, we… examined what it is, exactly, we’re supposedly choosing?

I assert that we’re choosing the path of least resistance. It’s much easier to acquiesce to a set of established conventions—social, aesthetic, political, sexual, sartorial—for which the rewards (dudely approval, other women’s satisfying jealousy) dangle brightly ahead, than it is to blaze forth in a fury of white-hot anti-feminine iconoclasm and risk ridicule, ostracism, and male reproach.”

Twisty also cites and links to this article by Linda Hirshman, who discusses the position of highly educated, elite women choosing to stay home and look after the kids – or even, in some cases, to stay home and play wife before there is any thought of children.

She asserts that such choices are damaging not only for the women involved but also for wider society. Given the power that these women could wield but reject, and given the fact that as an educated elite they do act as role models to other women, Hirsh argues that as a society we would be a lot better off if more of these women stuck to their careers rather than chaining themselves voluntarily to the kitchen sink. Moreover, the women themselves are less well off, because they are choosing to cut themselves off from the possibility of a flourishing life, she says – Hirsh’s conception of the good life requires a person to do more than the menial labour of domestic duties.

I’m not so sure I entirely buy this latter part of the equation, since I am convinced that it is possible (albeit rare) to find relationships of equality where one partner has freely chosen to take on housekeeping duties and to be a full time carer for the children of the family.

The other part of Hirsh’s argument – that women sticking to their careers would be better for society – implies to my mind some kind of responsibility on those women to stick to their careers for the good of society. The premise that we really would all be better off with more women in positions of power is sound. But these women have their own lives, and to co-opt their lives and careers for our own benefit strikes me as wrong. Or is it? Am I blinded by the ideal of Choice?

Hirsh says:

Betty Friedan’s original call to arms compared housework to animal life. In The Feminine Mystique she wrote, “[V]acuuming the living room floor — with or without makeup — is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity.”

Thereafter, however, liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women “choices.” … A woman could work, stay home, have 10 children or one, marry or stay single. It all counted as “feminist” as long as she chose it… Great as liberal feminism was, once it retreated to choice the movement had no language to use on the gendered ideology of the family.

Feminists could not say, “Housekeeping and child-rearing in the nuclear family is not interesting and not socially validated. Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power, and honor.”

(They could not say those things because they implied judgement – and therefore either blame or dismissal – of women who said that they chose to do house-keeping and child-rearing, and that they found this work interesting and validating.)

I do believe in choice as a good, including the choice to do patriarchy-approved things. However, I also believe that the choices we make should, in principle, be examined choices. We should have an eye to their consequences, including their consequences on other people and on society as a whole. We should also have an eye to the reasons for our choices, in order to help us properly understand any underlying motivation. And if our choice is one that complies with a gender-stereotypical norm – and we claim that we want to stay at home with the kids, or that we like wearing bikinis, or that we enjoy servicing our men in time-honoured fashion, or that we choose sex work as a career – then I assert that there is even more reason to examine those choices.

Are we claiming as our own “choice” or “preference” something that in fact arises from patriarchal indoctrination? Do we merely rationalise a situation imposed upon us as one we chose (or would have chosen if we had had the choice, which might be rationalised as the same thing)? Did we make that choice only because all the other choices looked worse? Is our choice fully informed, by a thorough understanding of all the options (not necessarily just the “obvious” ones) and their consequences? What are the consequences of those choices? Do they in some way harm the chooser or put her in a vulnerable position where harm could result? Do they do harm to other women? What are the positive effects of our choices? Would more or less harm, or more or less good, have come from any other choice?

A choice, once examined in this way, might seem not to be a choice at all. It may seem like an imposed choice between the lesser of two evils. It might start to look like a bad choice. Of course, it might not – it might come out of the process looking even more like a freely adopted choice, and the best choice in all the circumstances. However, if other reasonable and intelligent women are suggesting that you may have got something wrong in your choices, that what you thnk you have chosen is in fact quite likely to be something forced upon you or indoctrinated into you, that the reality has in some way been hidden from you – then there is at least a possibility that they are right and that a thorough examination of your choices will prove them so.

When it comes to choosing “traditional” roles, and choosing compliance with patriarchal standards, I think it is reasonable to ask, with Twisty, that such choices be examined. We need not necessarily sit in judgement on our sisters’ choices, but if a person (especially one who claims to be a feminist) says that she freely chooses to do more than her fair share of the housework, or to wear make-up and shave her body hair, or to change her name on marriage – we can reasonable ask that she should at least examine that choice. Intended or not, actions have consequences, so I repeat: when we are given choice, it comes with responsibility. We must treat it as a thing of no small value. At the very least, when we have the luxury of choice, we must ensure that we think carefully about how we exercise it.

And feminism can reasonably seek to offer women the tools to do this effectively: by opening our eyes to, and offering an analysis of, the false stereotypes that may influence us; by helping us to be more self-aware; by raising awareness of how what we do affects our lives, and other people; and by creating opportunities for dialogue about choice and responsibility.

That isn’t being judgemental – it’s being a feminist.

Things have been a bit wonky for me over the last two or three years. At last, however, I think that I have Found My Mojo. The last couple of months have been an upward spiral, if you can imagine such a thing, and now I can honestly say that stuff is looking good again.

How do I know?

It’s the huge quantity of hare-brained schemes and greater-or-lesser-spotted radical life-altering plans that are frothing around in my brain and the enthusiastic bubbling of my certainty that my only problem is in making sure I don’t try to do too many of them all at once.

I want to cut all my hair off! Plan rejected – it would mean hairdressing and I cannot tell you how much I loathe the experience of going to hairdressers. At least with long hair I can just chop off the ends now and again and call it done.

I want to cut all Baby M’s hair off! Plan achieved. Actually, that one was pretty spontaneous. It needed a trim and in all this heat I think I got carried away… A good thing too, because not only is she now a lot cooler, her new look is rather fabulous and very, very practical.

[Positive side effects - she will no longer be able to come home from nursery in cute-but-silly bunches that I have to untangle when we get home; total strangers will no longer come up to me in the street and say "Goodness, look at those lovely curls!" (as if I might not have spotted them) or "Where did she get those curls from?" (well it clearly wasn't from me - go study genetics and a possibility might suggst itself) or generally say annoying stuff to suggest that Baby M's only interesting feature is her curliness, with the air of one bestowing a huge compliment; and the weekly hair-washing trauma is going to be so much easier this way.]

I want to get an allotment! Plan at feasibility-study stage. You can rent one for peanuts, literally it’s about £20 a year and you would easily get that back in fruit and veg. So I’ve contacted the council and put myself down on the waiting list. I’m a bit unsure whether the responsibility is going to be more than I should take on, though. What I really need is an allotment collective, one or two local pals who also fancy growing a bit of fruit and veg but like me want to share the responsibility with others, maybe dividing up the allotment into smaller patches or something. (Hey, anyone? Growing stuff will be super-educational for kids!) This is one brewing at the moment.

I want to write more! Plan in embryonic form. Part of the reason for getting this blog going was to start me back into the pre-baby discipline of daily writing. Now that I’m feeling more disciplined about writing, I’m feeling the urge to start doing creative writing as well as the essays, commentary, book reviews, ranting and various other stuff on here. I’m holding back partly out of fear factor (have I still got a creative spark? can I still do it?) and partly because I don’t want to make the mental commitment and then struggle to make time for it. I’m going to let this idea swirl around for a while before I make any decisions about it.

I want to read more! Plan in progress. Goodness I have so much stuff I want to read. There is the Big Read Project over on Touchingly Naive Books. There are piles of books in my other assorted To Read pile (feminist literature, stuff about the politics of medicine, a couple of novels, some stuff that people have recommended). My reading did slow down for a while in June, but in the last two or three weeks I’m getting back into it.

I want to pack in my job and move to a matriarchal lesbian farming collective in Wales! (or something). Plan shelved until both of my parents have either died or at least moved to the planet Zog and can no longer have kittens about my being a total dropout weirdo loser (or something). Anyway, I don’t even know if there is a matriarchal lesbian farming collective in Wales. With broadband.

I could go on and on. The creative energy in me is currently electrifying (get it? ha!) and now I’m just going to go and Turn Off My Computer And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead!

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