[part 2 of a 2009 essay; click here for part 1. FYI: I wrote this essay back in 2009. So, in its world, I'm the parent of just one child, who is three years old.]
When you start learning about childbirth, when you start observing debates over the very personal choices involved in selection of care provider and desired level of medical intervention, when you see those debates dismissively framed as ‘the mommy wars,’ when you hear horror stories from individual women, when you start noticing how popular culture represents birth (as inherently an emergency, as an opportunity for normally-strong and normally-kind female characters to go apeshit crazy and scream at their comically befuddled male counterparts, above all as a situation in which doctors and not birthing women are the active forces and decision-makers)–well, when you notice all this stuff, it’s hard not to think, holy crap, I’m trapped in a disaster of a patriarchal system! My family had a fantastic birthing experience, but we had to educate ourselves and swim against all sorts of currents to get to it, and we’re coming out of a position of privilege that facilitates that kind of getting-what-we-want. I know very well that many women aren’t so fortunate.
After our child joined us in the outside world, gender-based expectations were applied to my family with gusto. Our culture strongly suggests a particular role for Mommy and a quite distinct one for Daddy, and when you don’t act within those roles, people notice in weird ways. When my husband would take our young baby out into the world (to the bank or grocery store or wherever) while I was at work, strangers would regularly say things like–I kid you not–”So is your wife calling you every ten minutes to check how you’re doing?” or “Giving your wife a little break, eh?”
People talk about fathers as babysitters, or at least as their equivalent. We used cloth diapers, and we noticed quickly that various cloth diaper sites describe the simpler all-in-one styles as good to have around for babysitters and Dads. (Amazingly, my child’s father can change any sort of diaper, as he has opposable thumbs and a brain!)
Meanwhile, my partner is better-suited to being a primary parent than am I. By that, I simply mean that he is–as we have always known–by far the more patient and easy-going of the two of us, has had wildly more experience with children, and has always liked children-in-general more. (I love and enjoy individual babies and children a whole lot when I have actual relationships with them and/or their parents, but only puppies are appealing to me as an anonymous group. Well, and kittens and so forth.). Yet even our closest friends and family members have trouble accepting (not so much that my male partner is as much or more of a nurturer and day-to-day decision-maker as I am but) that that’s totally okay. I don’t mean they think our version of equally-shared parenting is bad for our child or that either of us is a poor parent; I mean, far more interestingly (and understandably), that they seem unable to believe completely that my un-mommy-ness and my husband’s very active parenting role don’t make me feel inadequate as a mother.
If I allude to the reality of his greater inclination to certain mommy-coded activities or feelings, people almost uniformly respond with something reassuring like “No … you’re a great mom!” Yes–I am a great parent–exactly as I am, fulfilling my own and my family’s needs and desires even when I don’t fulfill society’s expectations of ‘the good mother.’ And it’s striking to me that it’s difficult for fantastic, well-meaning, brilliant people to reconcile that confidence and peace of mind with a nonstandard division of parenting labor.
And then, of course, breastfeeding is illuminating. I’ve been amazed to find that some people consider nursing offensive or at least discomfiting, a disgust/discomfort that unavoidably highlights our culture’s combined sexualization and shaming of women’s bodies/pleasure/love.
People were extremely supportive of me as an exclusively breastfeeding and then child-led-weaning parent, and I have nothing but good things to say about that experience and my whole family’s attitudes toward it. But I’ve also heard enough of other people’s experiences and opinions, both in person and online, to realize with great clarity that for many Americans a woman’s half-exposed breast is normal and stylish and unobjectionable provided that there’s not a baby latched onto it. The same exposed flesh in combination with a happy baby somehow becomes unsettling, something to be compared to peeing in the middle of a restaurant or to be greeted with “Ugh! I don’t need to see that!” That was news to me, and it seemed pretty screwy. It makes one not know whether to exclaim “I’m not, like, a sex object” or “I’m not, like, a toilet.” Confusing!
Then there’s the experience of watching gendered expectations and values applied to our child, who has been approached more as “a little boy” than as “a person”–not only by advertisers (gee, why don’t we want him to watch TV?!?) and popular culture at large but also by absolute strangers in our community and even people we love and who love us. Most people comment enthusiastically on his every masculine-coded activity or inclination and simply do not notice or acknowledge all the feminine-coded parts of his experience and personhood.
And once you enter a store, whoa. My mom was blown away when she went into a bookstore’s picture book section and inquired about what’s new for a three-year-old, only to be asked the immediate routing question: “Boy or girl?” (gee, where do gendered reading habits and, ultimately, academic interests come from?!?). My partner, our son, and I went into a children’s resale shop to find the inscription “Sugar and spice and everything nice” over the nearly-all-pink girls’ section. It’s suffocating.
For me, childbirth and parenting have illuminated the sexism that lurks in my world. My body/life experiences of the past few years have invited me to an increasingly-committed feminism that has implications beyond birth culture.