Naomi Lakritz wrote a funny piece published in yesterday’s Citizen about gender equality. I guess my marriage has arrived since I often find myself at the sending end of the cell phone call going “The peanut butter, you want it crunchy or smooth???” On the other hand I often write detailed grocery entries to my husband’s attention reading: “2 cans of crab meat in tuna aisle, not in frozen fish section. If only frozen avail. 1 can of crab meat will do. Strawberries: preferably not rotten. ” And so on.
But to be honest, the fact that my husband and I work as a team to feed the kids, change the kids and drive the kids is of little comfort in a society that I still perceive as profoundly sexist. Yes, women have more opportunities than they used to and they can be mechanics or doctors or vice-presidential candidates just like the guys do. But unlike the guys, they can expect brutal scrutiny into the why, the how and the where of their career/family choices. And I am not talking only about Sarah Palin, who is a readily available example of this sad situation (on that topic, I found that column right on the money) . When my husband took a sabbatical to look after our 5 month-old son while I went back to school full-time, I faced a barrage of criticism – including the silent treatment – from friends and acquaintances who couldn’t believe, in turn, that I would do this to my kids or ask this from my husband. The fact that he was looking forward to his “pat” leave did nothing to assuage their sense that I was somehow cheating my family or going against the natural order of things. At the same time, one of my university professors was confiding that when her husband asked his employer for parental leave, his superior instead offered him a pay raise with the advice to hire a cleaning lady. Equality, yes but…
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I didn’t always approve of “working mothers” (by the way, I profoundly dislike that term. Working mothers. As opposed to what? Women of leisure? Since I joined the ranks of the “working mothers” not only do I get a lunch break but I can go pee when I need to, so there.) But I realised that the vehemence with which I criticized mothers who left their children in daycare was nothing more than the energy I needed to justify my own choice to stay at home to myself. It seems that this attitude has become pervasive, with each woman becoming an illustration of the way things should or shouldn’t be when in reality, individual choices are made for very personal reasons having nothing to do with a social statement. We will have reached full equality when women no longer bear the sole responsibility of making the world go round.
Rebecca adds: What I’ve noticed about the stay-at-home/work-outside-the-home dilemma is how hard it is to predict, before the fact, what will work for you. I have friends who had serious careers in which they’d invested years and thousands of dollars of tuition, who decided, to their own surprise, to stay home, and at least one friend who was very snippy about daycare until she had a baby and thought she’d go nuts if she didn’t go back to work after the first year. As for me – I thought when I was expecting my first that I’d put him in daycare at 12 weeks, the soonest they take them in Manitoba. Then when he actually arrived, the thought made me sick to my stomach, so I was a full-time SAHM for a while. Since then, I’ve somehow muddled into a compromise that involves working (largely) from home, grad school part time (night classes) and a part-time nanny whom I adore who takes care of the baby at our house, often when I’m working in a different room. Most days, this seems like the best of all possible worlds – in the same place as my kids most of the time, intellectual gratification, slow but steady work on my degree, and not putting the baby in an institutional daycare, which I think is a different set of pros and cons than for toddlers. Of course, some days it seems like I get all the cons – deadlines and pressure and seminar reading, while juggling kids and, as Véronique points out, no guarantee that I’ll have time to use the toilet, let alone eat a balanced meal.
So I’ve learned, at the end, that not only can you not know what’s right for other women, it can take a while to figure out what’s right for you and your kids. And it doesn’t bother me that other women make different choices, or prefer different trade-offs than I do.
And speaking of Sarah, one of the things that delights me about her is that she is a feminine, fulfilled woman running for high political office. It’s nothing new for women to be able to achieve what they want, despite NOW’s claims to the contrary. We’ve had women astronauts (two of them Canadian), Secretary of State (Condi), head of major earth-shaking corporations (Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman come to mind) surgeons and generals. Few of them, though, have families.
Whole books have been written about how super high achieving women are much less likely to have children and solid marriages. No, what’s new is for a young woman, with an adoring husband, a large (five children!) family, who is, let’s face it, stunning and could pass for a decade younger than she is, to be a serious contender for Vice-President of the USA. Sarah Palin isn’t forced to pretend to be a man in drag, or even to make her candidacy one built around gender. Canadian women of my generation were brought up being told that we could be whatever we wanted, and that was true, as far as it went. Our children’s generation will see that little girls can grow up to be whatever they want, without giving up marriage, family and femininity. You know, as has always been true for men (mutatis mutandis.)
Does that make me a feminist?