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How my children changed my feminism

How motherhood changes feminismImmature people believe feminism has a problem with men.

Mature people believe feminism has a problem with the patriarchal systems on which our societies are built.

Mothers know the truth, though. Women don’t have a problem until they stop pretending to operate like men in the workplace. Women don’t really have a problem until they have children.

Men don’t think my place is in the home. Patriarchal systems aren’t effing up my sleep so badly that I can’t be competent in paid work. Motherhood has shown me that children are my biggest obstacles in terms of sexism. My male colleagues aren’t telling me I’m wearing a boy’s colour, my 3-year-old is! And I have no idea where she gets that shit.

Pregnancy is why I couldn’t finish training for a half marathon. Babies wanted me to stay home from work. Toddlers eat up all my sick days. Nocturnal children wake me multiples times in the night (my biology is letting me down there too because I am programmed to hear my offspring’s shrill calls in a way my husband just isn’t).

For real, though: Motherhood has changed my Feminism in a profound way. I never shied away from the terminology or the sentiments of feminism before but my interpretation of gender roles and limitation before procreation was simplistic.

Raised in the 80s and 90s, destined to be a Western woman, I was told I could do anything. Be anyone. Of course, not until I was pregnant did I realise that anything doesn’t mean everything. As a teenager, I wore an old protest badge from my own mother; small, round and pink: “I want it all”. My mother rolled her eyes. “Do you?” she asked. Not until I had it all – the travel, the full-time career, the child, the house, the husband, the more children – and was still tenuously clinging to full-time paid work, did I realise how utterly ridiculous it is to “want it all”, all at the same time. I have never been so vulnerable since becoming a mother.

Before children, as a Feminist, I believed I could do anything a man could if I just put my mind to it; vote, drive stick shift, back a trailer, drink beer, not cook, not wear make-up or do someone else’s laundry. I believed I could be mistaken for a man. Wanted to be. If I really tried to hide it and played up the cool-girl-tomboy thing, maybe no one would notice the uterus and breasts. In my first week of paid full-time work at 23, my legs became a topic of conversation with my boss. I learned to hide those, too.

Now I think – why should I have to? I want to wear a skirt when the sun shines. I want my work (paid, emotional, household or otherwise) to be valued as much as a man’s. I no longer want to emulate a man’s work to prove my worth. I want the benefits of part-time work with at least part of the full-time benefits. I want my skills, my contributions and my views not able to be mistaken as a man’s but respected as a woman’s.

As my favourite colleague and a fellow parent says, “What’s the point of all this Feminism? So we can all work overtime and no one raises the kids?” Of course, he is working on an old definition of Feminism but can we blame him? My definition of feminism is changing every day. Maybe the evolution is what makes the term Feminism both powerful and problematic.

Plenty of boys and men have asked me – why can’t we call it gender equality if it’s for everyone? Feminism is a problematic name for a lot of people but the concept is pretty important for all parents. Stringent gender roles are damaging our boys as much as our girls. At least our girls get some monetary reward for stepping out of the gender box; our boys just get punished. Suicide is a gendered issue; 4 males for every one 1 female. Purposefully I did not used the terms men and women because many are children.

Since becoming a mother, my Feminism has become more about my son and daughters than it is about me. About the time I am entitled to spend with my kids. About the time their father is able to spend with them. Less about having subsidised child care and access to formula so I could rush back to my career, and more about fighting for longer paid parental leave for other future parents. About how outrageous it is that blue truck t-shirts and pink frilly dresses are so much cheaper than my favourite colours, green and yellow, or anything with a “gender neutral” label. About how our family can afford and resource opportunities that all children deserve. About how hard it is to be a parent and believing anyone who doesn’t want to be a parent shouldn’t have to be. About how in a country that forces a woman to keep an unwanted pregnancy, we have a responsibility to help her feed that child.

As a mother, my Feminism has become about safety.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, up to one in three girls will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16 years. As a mother to three girls, this terrifies me and it enrages their father. I haven’t asked their brother what he thinks. I worry he’s too young to ask at 11 but studies show that the average age for children to access internet pornography for the first time is 12.

12! Prepubescent. Studies also show that middle-of-the-road pornography has become increasingly more violent and degrading in recent years. The internet is not your friend’s father’s 1980s Playboy. I worry for my daughters having partners who use porn as Sex Ed. I worry for my son becoming warped by what kids in the changing room at school show him on their phones. For me as a mother, my Feminism has become about pornography and violence. And the impact on all of my children.

How (and when) do I explain to my 11-year-old stepson that he is NEVER under any circumstances authorised to ask anyone for a Snapchat of breasts or to send unsolicited (or solicited) dick pics? How do I broach the topic of other both degrading and unhygienic acts without corrupting his innocence or causing his mother to fight for full-time custody? How (and when) do I explain to my daughter that while she should get to choose what clothes she wears and how much skin she shows, that to see her body nude should be a privilege for select others. How do I explain that photos of her body, which I have taught her not to be ashamed of, could be used as leverage against her? How do I convince my 3YO that pink clouds at sunrise are beautiful and boys can think so too and no, boys don’t get blue marshmallows with their hot chocolates?

Feminism has become an umbrella term, claimed by every sister from Ivanka Trump (ha) to CEOs enslaving female sweatshop workers, but it’s not a term I’m willing to give up on yet. I’ll keep calling myself a Feminist, I’ll continue to be the resident outraged woman at work when the world under-punishes an up-and-coming athlete for sexual assault and shut down casual rape culture jokes by saying, “I’d laugh except it’s not funny.”

I’ll challenge all my four of my children (and my husband) not to shy away from the term Feminism.

I teach my children anatomical names for reproductive organs. I remind by daughter rocking her doll that she doesn’t have to have a baby if she doesn’t want to (and that puppies are just as cute but less work). I explicitly tell her that she can marry a man or woman and no one. I tell my son that it is normal if he wants to cry after a disappointing football trial. I will never pass up on a conversational opportunity to talk about consent and respecting bodies. Ours and others’. I will tell my kids there is not just one way to be a man or woman in this world.

Feminism is a word on fire at the moment but the politics are good for all of us and there are a lot of good Feminist mothers and fathers helping to hold the line with me. No matter what we call ourselves.

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2 comments so far -

  1. A brilliant essay Adrienne! Having had 4 kids I agree 100%.
    When my 3 year old asked what breasts were for I felt I was lying when I told him they were for making milk for a baby. Things have improved slightly on that front but not much.
    The topic of feminism and single parenting needs to be exposed. It is fraught with landmines few are willing to tippytoe around. The stats show it is predominately females who single parent. It is a heavy price they pay for their biology.

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