Writer, educator and mother Polly Dunning shares her insights on remaining true to values of feminism in the roles of marriage and motherhood which are perceived to have embedded sexism and misogyny.
My mother always said to me ‘There’s nothing like marriage and motherhood to radicalise women’. She was speaking, of course, about the noticeable absence of feminism in young women who have not yet come up hard against the structural discrimination that still permeates our world. I thought she meant other women. I was already a feminist. I come from a proud line of feminists going back at least three generations. I was already radicalised. I already had my eyes open to the sexism and misogyny embedded in the roles of wife and mother that I one day wanted to inhabit. I was prepared.
Or so I thought.
I already had my eyes open to the sexism and misogyny embedded in the roles of wife and mother that I one day wanted to inhabit.
It started with marriage. It was not that my relationship with my husband changed. It didn’t really, except that our commitment felt more formalised. It was other people’s reaction towards me that changed. I knew theoretically that it might, but somehow the reality made my blood boil. Seeing my surname erased and replaced by ‘Mrs …’ (I kept my own name) on letters and seating charts, even in jest, felt like a real blow. It was the first time sexism hit me in the face quite so blatantly and hard. How dare I not give up my name for my husbands? The ‘joke’ seemed a way of saying ‘get back in your box, girly.’
But didn’t I know this was coming? Of course, but the visceral experience of it was different. Suddenly my feminism wasn’t just academic. It also wasn’t just about the shadows of lower pay for traditionally female professions (like mine) or working harder to be thought of as ‘good’, while blokes doing half the job were bloody marvellous. This message was clear and no one was even trying to disguise it: you are a married woman, you should change your identity to become part of your husband’s.
The ‘joke’ seemed a way of saying ‘get back in your box, girly.’
This was a minor inconvenience, yes, but it signified something more. That as a woman I am not supposed to determine my identity for myself. I am public property. This sense was exacerbated by pregnancy. Suddenly people I’d never met felt they had the right to touch me, give me diet and medical advice, and tell me how I should be feeling. The reality was that, although I was ecstatic to be expecting a child, I hated being pregnant, but this didn’t seem to be acceptable to say. I’m a woman, and was soon to be a mother, so I had to be ‘enjoying every moment’ of pregnancy and feeling privileged to be unable to walk more than a few hundred metres, unable to sleep yet constantly exhausted, nauseated, and heavy.
…as a woman I am not supposed to determine my identity for myself. I am public property. This sense was exacerbated by pregnancy.
When my son arrived this sense that everything I did was up for public scrutiny intensified. It feels as if mothers work for society as a whole and so every member feels they have the right to give us a performance review at any given moment. Suddenly everything from what (and how) my son ate, when he slept and what he wore, to what I ate and how often I exercised became open to discussion and debate from total strangers. How to be a mother seems even more publicly determined than how to be a woman. But here’s the rub: you’re always doing it wrong.
But your husband is always doing it right. The fact that my husband researched and purchased the pram for our son, and knows the difference between a 000, 00 and 0 clothing size makes him father of the bloody year. I hear women talk about how amazing their husband is for changing a nappy, or fixing a bottle, or ‘helping with the baby’ (I think the word they’re looking for is ‘parenting’). I’ve lost count of the number of women who think it’s perfectly fine for them to do all the night settling and feeding because their husband has to go to work the next day. I do wonder what they think they do all day, because I don’t think they get their nails done and play tennis. I don’t even think they go to the toilet alone or drink a cup of coffee hot.
Here’s the rub: you’re always doing it wrong. But your husband is always doing it right.
And this makes me furious. Childrearing and mothering is so undervalued that we truly think that a man needs sleep so he can go to work and marginally improve the company’s bottom line more than a woman needs sleep so she can raise the citizens of the future. Both mothers and fathers need a whole lot more sleep than they’re getting, but neither needs it more than the other. Why is what traditionally (and usually) mothers do considered to hold such little value?
Yes, I always knew this would happen. But the sexist reality of marriage and motherhood has hit me hard, maybe because I thought I was so ready for it. Now I am well and truly radicalised, just like all those women before me, and that is a great thing. I no longer remain politely passive in the face of casual sexism. I’m not worried about how my feminism will make others feel. Why? Because they already unconsciously dismiss me as ‘just a mum’ anyway, so who cares if I make them uncomfortable? I’m done with only pointing out sexism at appropriate times and events. If you can’t handle the truth about what it’s like to be a wife and mother, don’t invite me for dinner because I am too bloody tired to pretend anymore.
Now I am well and truly radicalised, just like all those women before me, and that is a great thing.
Polly Dunning is a writer, educator, student, wife and mum. She writes on the subjects of feminism, parenting, and education, and has been published in various media including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Daily Life, SBS Life, Women’s Agenda, Essential Kids, and the Mum Life Project, and contributed to the book ‘Unbreakable’ edited by Jane Caro. She is an experienced high school teacher and is currently enjoying the thrills and spills (oh, the spills) of maternity leave with her two young children.