I have become adept at helping my toddler to wee inconspicuously in public places. I have accepted that the wails and yelps that emit from the living room are just the white noise created when brothers express their feelings* for each other (*read wrestling). I have come to terms with the fact that my children are unlikely to compliment me on my new haircut because they just. Don’t. Notice. That’s right: I am living with boys.
The males in my house outnumber me 3:1 (4:1 if you count the cat). This is an interesting prospect for me: I was raised in a house with 5 other women and my brother. I should mention that my brother was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus- conditions which meant that he spent a chunk of his adolescence at a school hundreds of miles from our family home. When he was home, because of his physical disabilities, his name did not regularly feature on the weekly household chores rota. He was, and still remains, someone who needs some looking after, and largely due to this, he did not (as so many clichéd ideas assume) step into the shoes of his late father and become ‘the man of the house’. My mother remained the mother and did not (as so many clichéd ideas assume) ‘become mum and dad’ because in my experience, that is just plain impossible. She did, however, run the house single-handedly and work, as well as venture into further education, winning a place at Durham University. Not bad, for a girl.
To add to this female heavy experience of home-life, after the age of 11 I attended an all-girls’ secondary school run by (you guessed it) nuns. Female nuns. You catch my drift: my life was short on males. My only exposure to men-folk were the boys on the bus (on the way to their all-boys’ equivalent), male teachers at school (and you may remember how that one turned out), and the teenage boys who lived on my street. Quite a limited selection, then. By the age of 13-14 however, I had begun to venture into the world of wooing and had an intense eye-to-eye relationship with a boy from the bus which eventually culminated in us exchanging some actual words (there was no Snapchat then) and sharing a short-lived romance. Leap-frogging over my late teens (which consisted of 1 x broken heart, 1 x inappropriate age-gap and 1 x long-distance relationship), by my early twenties I had conformed to expectations and found myself living with my future husband in a flat, both of us finding our feet in the world of real work. Before long we had bought a house, acquired a cat and put a ring on it. So far, so clichéd.
Fast-forward 15 years and I am now a wife and mother of two boys, eating their way through their fledgling years on planet earth both literally and metaphorically. So what about the new generation of males in my life: the ones that I grew in my own uterus, nurtured as babies and am now in joint-charge of guiding towards adult life and all its mine-fields? As a woman- a woman with so much exposure to women- how do I best navigate these boys through the formative parts of their adolescence whilst imparting my vital experiences from the viewpoint as a female? So that, without so much as a raised eyebrow, they grow to think and behave as feminists?
Even as a woman, I feel nervous putting my ideas about feminism down in writing. What do I know? Can I even coherently define feminism? Recently a conversation with a male colleague came to mind in which he argued that not all patriarchy was bad (?) and that in essence women needed to stop fighting against men. For my two-penneth, I ventured that women will keep fighting until they have a voice- an equal voice. And I guess that is what my one-sided exposure to women during my own upbringing has left me with. In a house of 6 women, we certainly weren’t all fighting for the same side, or even have an equal opportunity to speak, but speak we did. And at school, I had no boys to consider in terms of how I appeared or what I said; if anyone was going to drown me out in the classroom it was another female. I am not advocating single-sex education for all, and don’t see my own children going into an environment surrounded only by boys. But what a single-sex education did for me as a woman was to allow me to be free to develop without considering the opposite sex. My school wasn’t outwardly visionary for its newest generation of Catholic girls, but even if it didn’t realise it at the time, I believe it gave us all a safe space to be a woman. Growing up a woman with women has given me a voice, and for me, that is what feminism boils down to: having a voice and having a choice. Having an equal chance at everything.
As an adult I have been on the end of the discrimination that comes with being female. That deferential discrimination which too often means that returning to work after having a baby means you lose all the headway you made before you left. The vile discrimination that gives men the strength to retort that, “You shouldn’t have got pregnant if you couldn’t handle the consequences”, after you politely ask them to move to the side so that you can get your pushchair out of the café door. The physical discrimination that allows boys on bikes to grope you in the street in broad daylight.
However, I am crucially aware that I myself have blindly conformed to norms which do not stand up to contemporary feminist scrutiny. When both my children were born I took the full maternity leave myself, without much discussion with my husband. As someone who works part time and mainly in the evenings, I find myself doing the majority of the housework and cooking. I am at the school gates every day, and go to assemblies and school events; my husband does not get those opportunities. My outward actions seem to present the ideology that mummies just do these things, and daddies just go to work. How am I teaching my boys that men can have equal opportunities when it comes to parenting? How am I showing them that women can have equal opportunities when it comes to careers?
It’s a difficult one to square. Surely change only happens when it is modelled and experienced first hand? Therefore, if I want my boys to have an equal view of gender roles I should be making strides to return to full-time work which would see me level with my husband’s management role within 5 years. Equally, my husband should be at the school 2.5 days per week. Only, we don’t want to do this. We are not going to do this. Equal voice, equal choice. If change is something that only happens when it is witnessed first hand, then perhaps I am doing mine and my husband’s parenting style a disservice. At heart, we are partners and we are equals: our kids see that. Neither of us have ever felt like we needed to threaten the immortal, “Wait till your father/mother gets home”. Neither of us plays ‘good cop/bad cop’, but instead the kids know that they will get ‘come to me, and you’ll get the same answer-cop’. And I hope that reflects one of the key tenets of feminism too: that being in a relationship is not about having a shouty dad or a cuddly mummy, but about the consistency of equality in every aspect of that partnership. If we can teach our boys that, then hopefully they are already on their way.
For once I leave this blog without a conclusion; only time will tell if we have successfully raised a new generation of feminists. But in raising boys, I hope to show them that mummy, like all women, has voice. And as a woman in a house of men, I hope I continue to learn what it means to be male in the 21st century.