My only sister is getting near "that age." Meaning, the age when we have to explain to her the facts of life. This is supposed to be done in a positive and affirming way, but I'm really struggling to find a way that doesn't sound like breaking her the bad news.
"Congratulations! You know how you've always been comfortable in your own skin and your body never gave you the least bit of trouble? Yeah, well, those days are over."
As her big sister, I feel I'm supposed to be able to reassure her about being a woman, but it just brings home how uncomfortable I tend to be with the idea myself. I was fine as a teenager and young adult -- I figured the downsides of female biology were just the price I had to pay to get to be the lucky one that would get to be pregnant and give birth. Now that I've actually had to do those things, I'm beginning to suspect there's no good news. Womanhood, even apart from any cultural issues, involves some suffering.
But now I'm the mother of a girl and I feel even more intensely the necessity of getting this right. I can't, I must not, teach my daughter that she's unlucky to be a woman, that it's a disadvantage or a burden. I want to show her a model of womanhood that will make her feel privileged to be who she is.
Motherhood is hard. It starts with queasiness and back pain, then you pass through the anguish of labor, then you lose a lot of sleep and baby only wants the one with the breasts, and after a few years of that the bond with the baby is so strong that their whole life, they're very likely to want you most, especially when they're hurt, angry, or vomiting. And because, likely as not, you're blessed with an extra helping of empathy, you're going to find yourself going to truly ridiculous lengths and ignoring your own heath and well-being to help your kids with their problems.
G. K. Chesterton is one of the few men I know of who can say "women should stay in the home" and make it sound like a compliment. He says that being a wife and mother is a good deal more demanding and requires more skill than most other occupations, so putting the burden of childcare and housework on women is asking a great deal of sacrifice, but it has nothing at all to do with saying that women are dumber or less capable than men. It's saying that they are smarter and stronger.
However, it's kind of cold comfort to be told "you have to suffer more and work harder because you are better" when you don't really feel you are better. When plenty of people don't mind saying it's because you are worse, because you aren't capable of making good decisions, because Eve ate that dadgum apple.
Thinking about this, it occurred to me that culture has two ways of getting some people to take on a disproportionate amount of burden for the good of the community. Way #1 is to take away the rights of that group. Take serfdom or slavery. "Our society needs somebody to pick the cotton, that somebody is you. Because you'd protest at this if you had rights, you now have none." And historically, this has been a lot of what has happened to women! Society will suffer if mothers don't want to get pregnant, don't want to give birth, don't want to breastfeed, don't want to help with the homework and wash the dishes and so forth .... so let's make sure women have no other options but those things, and then we can count on them sticking with it. If they can go to college, run for office, win the Nobel Prize .... why would they stay home when that requires so much suffering?
Yes, I am agreeing that sexism had a very real purpose. It was to make women keep doing the massive body of work that no one else could do or wanted to do, without which society could not function.
There is another way, though. There is the prestige group. Take, for instance, the Marines. The Marines never lack for recruits, even though being a Marine requires all kinds of miserable work like running for miles carrying heavy backpacks and bunking out in the cold or heat. The reason is that being a soldier has high prestige in our culture. It's understood that this is hard, that it takes real skill to do it, and that society relies on it. We feel the same about police officers and firefighters. We know that these are the people who make society function, and they do it by sacrificing more than we do, and so we give them respect and honor.
I think, to some extent, the reason women get so frustrated, especially stay-at-home mothers, is that we really are giving up a lot in order to do what we do, and yet our occupation is given very little respect. Being a mother is hard, takes real skill, and society relies on it, but there are a million reasons why mothers aren't respected. Partly it's a desire for control -- mothers aren't doing their jobs right, the way we think they should, and so they don't deserve respect. (Hence all the shaming for working moms, stay-at-home moms, poor moms, moms with nannies, homebirthing moms, non-vaccinating moms, helicopter moms, attachment parenting moms, tiger mothers, and so on forever.) You are a domestic goddess, until you question your doctor, and then you're "just a mom with an internet connection." You are the heart of the home, until you let your kids walk to the park, and then you're irresponsible. Your work is vital for the survival of the next generation -- until you're poor, at which point it doesn't count as work, as far as the welfare system is concerned, and you have to be seeking a "real" job.
I understand this, I really do. Like sexism, mother-shaming has a purpose. Since mothers are doing work on behalf of all of society, everybody's got an opinion about how they should do it. However, I'd a million times rather have a little bit of help than a lot of advice. And I wouldn't mind a bit of respect.
I understand, it's hard to respect mothers when they have a job that isn't at all exclusive -- just about any woman can do it, and women are half the world. And it doesn't come with all the skilled, creative tasks it used to, like gardening, spinning, weaving, and brewing. (Well, except in my case.) And it looks an awful lot like the work a daycare worker does for minimum wage.
But I maintain that the grueling, life-changing, heart-opening work that is motherhood actually makes you stronger, smarter, better. Like any of those other demanding, service-oriented jobs, it forces you to overcome your limitations and transcend your self-love. The skillset is different that it used to be -- we are now experts on height-weight charts and gluten-free diets instead of on sock-darning -- but it was never about the skills. It's about what it means for a person to take on more of the burden of society than average.
And that respect, most of all, comes from within. A Mother's Day card doesn't make up for the lost sleep, catching vomit in your hands, the agony of birth and having to listen to them talk about spaceships for years on end. But when you see what you do as a sacred calling, as a special thing that not everyone gets to do and not everyone can, it gives you a sense of purpose. I've found and lost that sense of purpose more than once. I don't know how to hold onto it more firmly. But it makes all the difference in the world.
Yes, I know, I started off talking about women and I've only talked about mothers. I won't apologize for being exclusionary, because that's sort of the point of a prestige group -- it's exclusive. However, I will say that the main disadvantage of being a woman comes into play when you have kids and find that it's not just a tangential addition to your life, like it might be for a man, but winds up changing you in ways you didn't expect. And, of course, all the differences between women and men are ordered toward parenthood.
But even if you never have kids, being a woman might require some suffering, and like all suffering, it has the possibility of making you stronger and wiser. For instance, periods. They aren't fun. I don't like them. But I think there's something in having them that makes us stronger. It teaches us that we're not always in control, that stuff happens. It teaches us how to suffer and how to nurture ourselves through it, on the one hand, and put a brave face on it, on the other. Men don't seem to know how to be sick. Either they take to their beds and whimper whenever they get sick (the classic Man Cold) or they try to power through it because sickness is weakness (which is what John does). Women know about having a cup of tea and going to bed early but still showing up to work. We know that sometimes our feelings might be irrational and so we know that sometimes, there's no choice but to ignore them. We know that we are not in total control, but we learn not to let our bodies be in total control either. We learn to sympathize with others.
It's a kind of wisdom you develop over years and years, something I wish there were no need for, but I can't regret that I have. Despite all my complaining about the sacrifice and suffering involved in being a woman, deep down, I don't want to be a man. I feel that I'd be losing something important. True, all the "gifts" of being a woman aren't really gifts that benefit ourselves. Like the power of the priesthood, they are gifts at the service of the community.
But still, there's a pride in saying "I have given something very special to my community, something not everyone could give or has given." I think every person who has done anything really selfless understands this. It is a privilege, even if all it means is that we give and give and get nothing back. It's a privilege, even if we didn't choose it. It's a privilege because service is something special.
I hope my sister and daughter learn this -- that throughout all their lives, whenever they suffer the disadvantages of being women, they feel in their bones that it's a privilege too.