Feminism is part of my poiesis - the poetics of who I am always becoming, and of how I am transforming the world.
(It took me frikkin' ages to come up with that, but I am very happy with it.)
I became a feminist at the age of 20, my second year of uni, my first year in Melbourne studying at Monash University. I'd always been for equal rights but I have a cringeworthy memory of me at the age of 16, sitting on the steps at my school, agreeing with my boyfriend (who went to university) that feminism was innately sexist and we were humanists. Without going into details, reproduction was involved in my journey towards feminism. Mostly I became a feminist for all the reasons a lot of people think women become feminists - some man did me wrong, in addition I was treated appallingly because of my biology by ‘the system’, left adrift afterwards, and I was angry and bitter and sad and scared and grieving what I thought was a Humpy-Dumpty heart - all the king's horses and all the kin's men couldn't put my heart back together again. My heart was put back together again eventually – a DIY job – but the fine cracks remain. There is rarely a day that goes by that I don't see some article or image or hear some sentence drop from someone's mouth that reinforces to me that the time for feminism is now.
2. What has surprised you most about motherhood?
I always thought when I had kids I'd be Penni + kids. I thought feminism would protect me from any kind of identity loss. In reality there's an enormous chasm between who I was before motherhood and who I am now. Motherhood is an extreme, physical and emotional and psychic metamorphosis, and it keeps threatening your identity, even as your kids grow up – actually in some ways more so now that the kids are older. I yearned for a baby, and always knew I'd love being a mother (and I do), but I didn't know I'd hate it too. Having said that, I didn’t know that I would be such a creative mother, nor that it would so completely and perfectly connect up my imaginative, intuitive self with my analytical, pensive side.
I was also surprised by how invisible mothers are, the whole madonna/whore thing…yada yada yada. I mean I probably shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. And I was surprised at how much I devalued the work of motherhood.
3. How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?
I think the biggest change is that I've gone from being an academic feminist to a practical, ordinary, everyday feminist - apart from the incident I mentioned in the first point, I moved in feminist friendly circles, I wasn't really ever challenged on a personal level. The way that mothers and fathers are received out in the ordinary world is a constant source of frustration. Single dads are heroes. Single mums are welfare cheats. Not once in my life has anyone stopped me in the supermarket and said I was ‘amazing’ to take both my children shopping. Martin practically gets a standing ovation. On the other hand, people often tell me how incredible I am to study and write and have young kids, I doubt Martin gets the same admiration.
I notice different things now. I'm not just critiquing magazines and films anymore, I'm critiquing culture as a whole, and in particular I am very aware of material objects, the things we surround ourselves with. I think you enter the materialist big league when you have kids, and it's very easy to invest emotions into things, to divest yourself into the objects you own, to try and reorder yourself and identity through acquisition and possession. I really try and deconstruct my own desires and that of my kids. I think the entire (western) world has been afflicted by a melancholic, consumerist, unfulfillable desire, and it’s killing the world. And it often boils down to the ‘oikos’ – the household as a social, economic and political entity – and its destructive collective wants repackaged as needs (a deck, a playroom, a family room, furniture for the family room, a harmonious couch, an inclusive big screen television, a democratic second television, computers for all).
Also watching my daughters develop powerful imaginative lives, I realise more and more that the answer to the world’s malaise lies in the restorative power of the imagination.
4. What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?
I really don’t know the answer to this. Obviously I try and limit the girls' access to prescriptive models of femininity (they don’t watch commercial television for example), while creating the space for them to explore their own girlhood, including via the objects I don’t particularly like (such as Barbie). But I think all parents have limits about what their kids can or can’t eat/watch/wear/play with.
Feminism has not necessarily made me a better mother. It’s made me a self-critiquing mother, given me an alternative, perhaps kinder model for self-critique (instead of worrying about whether the house is clean enough, I’m thinking about whether or not I’ve met my own social or intellectual needs, in order to ensure I’m fulfilled and happy, which in turn makes me a better, more resilient, more patient mother). I
5. Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?
I guess, looking at the above, there is no ‘failed’. That’s kind of the point of feminism for me.
I do feel compromised. I feel like my time and my space is always crowded by other people’s needs. We’ve always worked on that as a family though.
And I’ve made compromises along the way. Things have trickled in, princesses and fairies and Dora and pink…I’ve had to accept that K-Mart will play a part in shaping my daughters' experiences of their femininity and I try to be okay with that.
6. Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?
It’s hard to disentangle this from being a mother who is also a writer. I am always all these things – a feminist, a writer and a mother. And that is full of pitfalls and problems and headaches and frustration (as well as, of course, great joy and immense satisfaction).
7. Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?
I think any kind of communal living involves sacrifice. There’s a difference between sacrifice and martyrdom. I guess we just constantly reassess whether or not things are working for us and address the issues as they arise. I have made my fair share of sacrifices, but they are for the greater good and we’ll all benefit in the long run. And my family has made sacrifices for me too.
8. If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?
I don’t know if Martin is 100% comfortable with me calling myself a feminist, he used to find the term quite confronting, though in practice we’ve always had a very equal partnership. I think he understands the term more now, and he certainly sees and resents the discrepencies I’ve talked about here. I know that he would absolutely hate to be the kind of man who didn’t contribute to the household. He sees men like that as oppressing themselves, he despises that kind of learned helplessness that many men trade on. And in his opinion they’re missing out on the joy of family life. He reckons you’ve got to step up, get involved, get physical and be part of things, or your kids will see you as a lump, a part of the furniture.
9. If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?
When Fred was a baby I identified with AP more than any other style – we attempted natural births (and, apart from a little whiff of syntocin th first time, succeeded), coslept, I breastfed until she self-weaned around 2, we both carried her in a sling, and we believed in gentle discipline – in her first year I did everything I could to make sure she never cried, and she rarely did (and she’s grown up bold and brave). But I found myself retreating from identifying with other APers as it seemed laden with extreme expectations and a lot of guilt and judgements (as if there wasn’t enough maternal guilt in the world!). By the time Una was born, I was a lot more concerned with holding on to my shattered sense of self before I drowned completely in motherhood than I was with being an attachment parenter. I am now soothed by Winnicott, 'good-enough mother' who gradually withdraws from her total preoccupation to the baby to create a space in which the infant can develop a healthy sense of self.
10. Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?
I don’t think feminism has ever really reconciled its relationship with mothers. I think it’s still uncomfortable with motherhood as a threat to identity and autonomy. There are so many crappy old stereotypes attached to motherhood, plus a whole bunch of new ones (MILF, yummy mummy, Supermum, and the whole celebrity mother push). It's hard to maintain realistic expectations of yourself when you have that to contend with, let alone garner support from society to just make it through the day.
I think feminist theorists like Kristeva have given mothers a poetics of experience, and I for one find her writing redemptive and empowering. Because motherhood rocks. It attaches you in the most vital way imaginable to the mysteries of the universe.
Women have more choices now, and higher expectations about their own quality of life. I think feminism has opened up a family dialogue about how the family will work, there are fewer assumptions about roles.