Being a Female

When I was seven, eight years old, I spent my Saturday afternoons in the pub with my dad and his friends. My dad was well known, with a business that supported lots of others, and quite a distinctive personality and appearance. While these pubs were strictly child free, we were the exception. I was the single, only child allowed to be there.

I suppose it was an arrangement that worked for everyone. I can’t imagine the men would have wanted to deal with a high energy, talkative sort of child. That might have been a bit much of a disruption to their relaxing Saturday’s off. But I wasn’t that kind of child. I was most myself and happy when watchful and quiet. So it probably suited all of us just fine. I’ve always thought really fondly on those many afternoons, spent in the company of middle aged men.

As I remember them, we would sit around a table in the bar for hours and hours on end. The men would have pint after pint of Guinness, and I would be given coke after coke after sickly sweet coke, amused that they imagined that I needed to match them drink for drink. I suppose it goes to show that no amount of sugar was going to turn me in to a hyper kind of child.

The atmosphere was always quick and full of fun. The point of any conversation was to entertain. And I wasn’t left out from all of that. Maybe I presented an additional challenge of trying to keep the language clean, who knows. I recall scenes from children’s tv being enacted on my behalf, which must have been hilarious for everyone. I soon realised that their expectations of me, as a young girl, were so low that a little witticism well timed would gain a hearty and outsized reaction.

Hanging out in Dublin’s pubs is a joy that’s never left me. When I became an adult myself, or close enough, I could start to go with my own girl friends, and there the craic and the banter was still to be had. And now that I am approaching middle age myself, I again often find myself enjoying hanging out in the pub with a bunch of middle aged men. Long after the other women have had the better sense to head home, I’m often still hanging on, enjoying the pointless stories and jokes.

Throughout my life, I haven’t been completely oblivious to the expectations of what a girl or a woman is supposed to be like. I went along with my friends and took ballet and played with stickers, I enjoyed those things. At other times, the expectations haven’t felt like they related to me. It hasn’t concerned me. I generally just haven’t gotten involved, and found that that’s mostly been ok.

I suppose I grew up, influenced of course by my parents and older siblings, to believe that rules were there to be questioned. Never ones to instantly jump at what society suggested, but to hold the notion critically for a while, and consider what the choices really were. What will happen if I follow this rule, and what will happen if I don’t. I felt little pressure from them to conform majorly to any female stereotypes either. So this is the attitude that I’ve had about doing certain “girl” things. If I wasn’t interested, and it looked like nothing bad would happen if I didn’t get involved, I simply wouldn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, my choices have not always been sensible or at all protective of my well being. There was the time, for example, when my working in one of the seediest nightclubs around overlapped with the decision to go without a bra. I went weeks, becoming more and more uncomfortable, aware of people’s looks and reactions, while a sort of dumb defiance built up in me, before I eventually gave in.

Years later, in my late twenties I was happily working in a busy and fulfilling job. I would hit the road and meet with hotel managers and owners to consult and negotiate. Here I was, wouldn’t you know it, in the company of middle aged men once again. I soon realised that their expectations of me, as a young woman, were so low that a bit of well timed level talking and good business sense would gain an outsized response. I did well.

And now it’s time for me to make a sad admission. Instead of being annoyed that they would be so ready to dismiss young women, I think I prided myself on being a bit different. Not from other specific young women, because I knew lots of really great ones. But, from the generality of young women, as I too perceived them to be. I have fallen foul of that greatest of errors. I’ve been pleased with the responses I’ve gotten, I’ve been bolstered by the sense, that I’m not like other women.

So I guess this means, feminist that I’ve always considered myself to be, that I might be a bit sexist. The thing is, women are treated as a minority. And as such, any woman is somehow meant to represent all other women. Which puts us all in an impossible situation. How can I establish myself, in a way that will be best for my success, and support another woman while needing to be clear that she does not represent who I am?

I’ve always believed that women can do anything that men can do. I just may have failed sometimes, to be sensitive and respectful of the expectations that many women carry with them and all that they have to do in order to get to where they are, as they are. So you’re damn sure I’m celebrating all the good ones from now on (even those, yes, even those that are younger and more successful and better looking than me).

I lived my life up to my mid thirties certainly aware of the pressures of what it means to be a girl and a woman. There are times that I look back on with disbelief at what I thought was normal, like the conflict of wanting to be one of the boys while also wanting to be a sexual object to the boys, in my teens. But a lot of the time, and certainly as an adult, I’ve been able to step back and disassociate myself from them when I’ve wanted. Nothing bad has happened.

And then I became a mum. As a new parent, you look for advice on how to keep your little one healthy and happy. And you are greeted by a torrent of pressure, as a woman, to do so many things, and overall to behave in certain ways. Not all women are the same, so surely there are infinite individual ways for this parenting thing to be done. To read the advice out there, you wouldn’t think so. It’s a tough one to shrug off.

Now I find myself in lots of female only groups and communities. And I’m not different to these women after all. None of us are magic, we don’t have any mysterious parenting knowledge that shows us how to do things. We’re just here, somehow because of our gender, somehow the ones that are taking things on, and trying to figure it out.

Caring

The gender inequality in parenting is blatantly obvious. To be honest, how shocked I’ve been to discover it, only on becoming a parent myself, has caused me to have a good hard look at myself. How have I been so blind? Where has my head been at!

It’s also taken me down another avenue of questioning. Why aren’t more women speaking out and fighting about this? Why are more men and women not pushing for equality? It’s 2021. The push for gender equality is active and visible in every other arena. So why are we letting the inequality pervading parenting continue as it is?

The answer is definitely very complex. One aspect may be that while being really hard, parenting is also really great. Seeing a new little human coming into the world, arriving with their entire personhood, whole and intact, and housed in this little infant body, is incredible. Seeing them grow and learn and feel out the world around them is amazing. It teaches us in a whole new way about what it is to be human. And it brings to life the importance, for each of us, to look after each other.

Parenting is really hard. Parenting in isolation can be horrendously hard. But when the conditions are right, for some people, it can be a wonderful motivator. What more of a reminder that life is short can you ask for, then seeing your little ones change and grow before your very eyes. What more reason to become the person you want to be, then to do it for them, to be their role model. Then there’s the value of your time, which becomes so much more meaningful when you have so little of it to yourself. So, what are you going to do with it?

I’ve started to notice examples everywhere of amazing women, who shortly after having their child or children, do something epic. Like single handedly set up a new business, build it from the ground, and make it a success. Like dedicating their time to campaign for justice for a cause, and making a difference. Or solving a problem, creating a community or providing a service, to help others around them. The common theme? They’re generally fuelled by goodness, by the want to help people, to protect our earth’s resources, to make things better. That’s the power of what parenting can do. The work of caring for another teaches and constantly reminds you of the importance to care.

That is not to say that you have to be a parent to know how to care. There are lots and lots of people who are not parents and who do care. Amazing individuals who are motivated and driven to do incredible work in the world, and to make their slice of it better. Of course it is not at all necessary to be a parent to care and to act in the world with care. However, it is the gender division in parenting that is really harmful.

Parenting is largely seen as being part of the world of women. That world, despite being populated by half of all people, is pushed to the margins of society. While so many people are parents, incredibly, parenting is pushed to the margins right along with it.

We are now seeing more and more women taking positions of influence – in politics, in business, in the arts – hurray! Often with their ascension comes the expectation that they will do some good for women. With parenting generally considered a part of that world of women, they are often expected to do some good for parents and children. When a female politician moves up the ranks, we expect her to represent the concerns of parenting, childcare, maybe even education. To be fair that is often the thing that has motivated her to get to her position.

Historically these positions have all been held by men, many of whom are also parents. These men, though, have not been expected to bring the concerns of parenting to work with them. They’ve probably felt it unwelcome. The world of work and politics has been supposed to be separate from all that. Leave the wife at home to deal with the children, while we get together here to figure out the serious business of making money. Quite a separate thing altogether.

That’s the division that we are living with. Women are supposed to be primarily concerned with the home and the family, while men are supposed to be primarily concerned with providing for them. The more that dad is pushed to provide for the family, the less he may even know them. The less he may be connected to actually caring for them. The less he is thinking about caring as a fundamental necessity to the way we do business and run our countries.

Wouldn’t it be great to see all that goodness that I’m noticing around become part of the mainstream? Wouldn’t it be great to see women and men who care being the ones that drive us forwards.

But this all sounds like ancient history. Come on Liz, get real, it’s 2021, surely we’ve moved on from all that. Yes, it is 2021, and I live here in London, one of the biggest cities in the western world, in one of the most influential countries in the world. Can you even imagine a country like this being built on those sorts of foundations? Can you imagine what a leader of a country like this could look like, in a world where men are taught not to care in order to succeed – not to care about the people they lead, not even to care about whatever children they might happen to have fathered? What would that even look like?