Thursday, February 2, 2012

Defining Womanhood

Be honest: are you consciously writing your own definition for womanhood, or are you using a definition that was written for you? And what tangible item most defines what you do or don’t want to become? ~Melissa Ford

This post has taken me over a week to finish because, you know, time and sleep-deprivation-induced brain power are limited these days, but nonetheless I thought it was still worth posting once I finally completed it.

Mel at Stirrup Queens wrote this fantastic article about who defines womanhood in the context of reviewing the movie The Iron Lady. The Iron Lady is about Margaret Thatcher (hmm, this is the second time Margaret Thatcher has come up in a post that fascinated me in a week, is the universe trying to tell me something?)

A few paragraphs worth quoting:
At its heart, the movie is dually about men’s inability to separate women from the adjectives they use to describe women, and the fact that WOMEN can’t separate themselves from the adjectives others use to describe women. That we allow others to define what it means to be a woman, and we go by a long-established, patriarchal definition for womanhood. Yes, we are sometimes conscious of that fact and rail against it, but just as often, men still have expectations and assumptions (popular ones: all women want children, women want to get married, women know nothing about sports) that they then tweak when they get to know the actual person, and women question themselves (even if it’s just in passing) if they don’t fit into these preconceived notions about women.

...all will walk out of theater wondering if... we are allowing the traditional definition of womanhood to guide our decisions, or if we are eschewing the expectations the world has for women and making our own choices. Are we marrying because we want to or because it’s the next logical step? Same with family building? Same with career choices? Margaret Thatcher is just the receptacle for holding all these enormous ideas.

And moreover, when we write the definition for ourselves and state emphatically in our hearts what we do or don’t want to become, are we staying strong and following our dreams, or are we being sidetracked by self-doubt when others voice their opinions on our choices? How can we tune out the judgment; which when we boil down judgment to its essence is simply other people trying to define our lives for us, to write the dictionary of our selves.

I am a mother. Furthermore, I am a crunchy, attachment-parenting-leaning type mother. I am also the primary income earner in my family, and I work in a male dominated field. As such, I am constantly negotiating and renegotiating gender roles and expectations. My own expectations, my parter's expectations, my co-workers expectations, even my own mother's expectations. These expectations are based on traditional definitions of womanhood and the role of women in the domestic sphere.

My negotiations have not always been pretty. What I'm about to admit will probably piss off everyone - stay-at-home moms and hard core feminists equally. But, it does illustrate the conflict I've struggled with along my journey.

When I was pregnant with SchmoopyBoy, my mother told me with great certainty that I would be quitting my job to stay at home with my child because I "wouldn't want some stranger" to raise my child. Of course the idea that my husband, my child's other parent could possibly stay at home wasn't an option even considered because of her preconceived notions of the male gender role as bread-winners and bumbling incompetents with babies. At the time, rather than engage her in dialogue, I reacted angrily and sputtered that there was no way I was going to give up my education and career to be "some man's scullery maid". Yep, that's right people. Not my proudest moment. How many -isms are implied in that statement? I don't even want to go there now. I am so ashamed I ever used that comparison.

My world got turned upside down once SchmoopyBoy was born. I cried every day for two weeks before my maternity leave ended and it was time to leave my baby and return to the office. Once I returned to work, I judged SchmoopyBoy's development. Every time I observed something that didn't meet with my pre-determined (and completely cluelessly unrealistic) expectations, I blamed my husband. Clearly, I thought, if I were the one at home full time everything about my child would be perfectly in tune with what the books said should happen. After all, I am the mother, no one could possibly know how to do things better than me. When SchmoopyBoy's sleep habits fell apart at about 4 months of age (which is completely normal and common by the way - they don't call it the 4-month wakeful period/ 4-month sleep regression for nothing) I once angrily blurted out "Why don't you be a real man and get a real job so I can stay with him". Yep, that's right people. Another not-so-proud moment.

Traditional definition of (white middle class) womanhood - FAIL.

Feminist definition of (white middle class) womanhood - FAIL.

When it comes to black and white definitions of womanhood, I fail. I end up bouncing back and forth between extremes like a ping pong ball being swatted across a table in a game of Gender Role Dichotomy Table Tennis. I cannot and would not be willing to live like a 1950's housewife, taking 100% of the child care responsibilities and cleaning up after my husband as he lazily sips a frosty beverage at the end of his oh-so-hard-boo-hoo-for-you day. Nor can I be a female version of a 1950's father going off to work and coming home expecting my house to be neat and dinner prepared by my husband who would then of course taken on the role of 1950's househusband. While I do think that redefining manhood is a necessary component in redefining womanhood, trading traditional gender roles is not redefining womanhood or manhood, and is not my idea of what feminism is about.

Defining womanhood for me has involved embracing a traditional definition as nurturing mother, because to some extent I find that role with my children to be very natural. But it also has embraced non-traditional definitions because I find that I am indeed ambitious when it comes to my career, and I find tremendous satisfaction and experience greater mental health and self worth in the professional realm. I do struggle with balancing the domestic and professional aspects of my life, and frequently beat myself up for not performing either role to the best extent that I believe I can and should, but finding balance in life is rarely easy for anyone. So, to answer Mel's question, which I printed at the top of this post, I am creating a definition of womanhood that draws from definitions that have been previously written. That definition continues to evolve as I travel this life's journey.

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