A few things about the extraordinary vulnerability of being a parent who is poor:
- You can’t afford to lose your temper. (You could lose everything).
- You can’t afford to unwind by sharing your problems with someone.
- You can’t afford to be tired and stressed and making less than perfect decisions.
- You can’t afford to cobble together solutions; for your own protection cobbled together solutions are illegal.
- You can’t afford to take time off work to deal with your kid, who is now stressed and tired and making not so great decisions, too.
- You can’t afford to pay fines, even ‘reasonable’ ones – so you end up being imprisoned.
Photo credit: Aboriginal performers on Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s Facebook website.
Kiese Laymon’s debut novel, Long Division has just been published and I can’t wait to read it. Laymon is an incredibly perceptive writer (I’ve talked about him before here) and I don’t want to fangirl him too much but even his Facebook messages make for thoughtful reading.
Here’s an essay from last year by Laymon in Gawker – “Kanye West is better at his job than I am at mine (but I’m way better at being a fake-ass feminist)” that reminds me that if we aren’t finding our social justice politics a struggle then we probably aren’t really living them and that our personal relationships are usually where our most brutal hypocrisies present themselves. I wish we talked more about that part of our lives.
A month or so later, I sat in front of a computer screen in New York and wrote a piece critiquing Les for reducing my Grandma to a cat and Kanye for the destructive gender politics in his art. I ended the piece with what I thought was a harpoon to Les’s gizzard: “I should have asked Les if he deserved to ever have his hand held by a woman.”
The essay generally, and that sentence specifically, helped me run away from truth, reckoning and meaningful change. I don’t want to run any more.
I am better at fucking up the lives of women who have unconditionally loved me than Les is at lying and Kanye West is at making brilliant American music. And even worse than the bruising parts of Kanye’s art, the paranoid femiphobia of HaLester Myers, or the pimpish persona of Stevie J, the abusive gender politics of Paul Ryan and Todd Akin, the thousands of confused brothers out there who think “misogyny” is the newest Italian dish at Olive Garden, I have intimately fucked up women’s lives while congratulating myself for not being Kanye West, Les Myers, Stevie J, Paul Ryan, Todd Akin or the brothers who like that misogyny with a few breadsticks.
Even before the essay, I wanted the fact that I’ve read, and taken notes, on everything ever published by Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Imani Perry, dream hampton and Rebecca Walker to prove to everyone — especially women I’m interested in — that I’m way too thoughtful to be a dickhead. I wanted folks to know I’ve made my male students reckon with being born potential rapists, that I have defended black girls in need of abortions from rabid pro-lifers at abortion clinics in Mississippi. I wanted women to know I was a man who would always ask, “Are you okay? Are you sure you want to do this?”
I couldn’t wait to tell some men –- but only when in the presence of women — how sexism, like racism and that annoying American inclination to cling to innocence, was as present in our blood as oxygen. When asked to prove it, I’d dutifully spit some sorry-sounding mash up of Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West and Mark Anthony Neal. But just like them, I never said that I know I’m sexist, misogynist and typical because I routinely fuck up the lives of women in ways that they can rarely fuck up my life. I never said that I’ve used black feminism as a convenient shield, a wonderful sleep aid, and a rusted shank to emotionally injure human beings who would do everything to avoid emotionally injuring me.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. And of course there are all kinds of qualifications and conditions I want to explore, but beneath all of that conditional bullshit lies a lot truth, a bit of reckoning and the possibility of change.
Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme is progressive because it treats maternity leave with the same degree of legitimacy as sick leave for women in the workforce, and his scheme also provides more generous leave entitlements for parents and their newborns. (Hopefully the scheme also helps encourage women with great career potential to stay attached to the workforce long enough to rise to positions of seniority where they can remove institutional barriers that are holding back disadvantaged women). But for goodness sake, I know what Abbott meant when he said ‘women of that calibre’ and it was not a clumsy way of saying ‘I hear you sisters, ‘work life balance’ is crazy difficult and we must do what we can to assist you all’. Abbott’s comment was transparent snobbery. It should alarm us as feminists because the conservative side of politics has a long history of promoting motherhood to patriarchy-approved women – ie. white, married, middle-to-high income – while not only denying support for, but actively undermining, mothers outside that spectrum – eg. single, disabled, non-white, incarcerated, poor. I’m not suggesting that the parental leave scheme is harmful to poor mothers but it isn’t immediately helpful to them, and particularly not if it is sold with the overt message that some mothers are more equal than others.
Angelina Jolie wrote a perfectly sound (and engagingly heartfelt) article about her decision to have a double mastectomy. Her article will be beneficial for women encountering the choice in similar circumstances, and also for destigmatising mastectomies generally. But it is not a particularly insightful piece. The screening Jolie promotes in her article is unaffordable to many in the US and the preventative surgery she ultimately decided upon has problems of its own that are not explored in the piece. Her article also emphasizes genetic risk at the expense of environmental factors which are far more significant in contributing to cancer rates. This is a concern because genetic factors are corporation-friendly but environmental factors are decidedly not. (For an excellent overview of this criticism of the breast cancer campaign I recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay “Cancerland”). Jolie is not a writer or a medical specialist, she is an actor, so there is nothing offensive to me about her article being relatively narrow and personal in focus, but the response to it almost everywhere has been somewhat.. star-struck. Jolie didn’t write the bravest and most important story for women this year – can’t we just be satisfied with her writing a significant story?
Australia has a problem with anti-intellectualism but this bold article, “Why Australia hates thinkers” doesn’t prove it. Credit to Alecia Simmonds, the author of the piece for getting people talking and also for naming names when she makes her criticisms. Both of those achievements are important but Simmonds’ article reads like having dinner with a scoffing ex-pat. And I should know, I have dinner with such an ex-pat every year when they come back to Australia to visit. (Love you, Dad).
In her article, Simmonds cherry picks a handful of idiot commentators from Australia and then unfavourably compares us to the cultures of France and England. But having been to both those countries I know that these lovely places have their share of over-exposed buffoons, too. Australia’s anti-intellectualism could be demonstrated with less anecdotes and more identifiable measures. I find Simmonds’ swipe at Andrew Bolt for dropping out of a university degree depressing also. His views are repellent but so are those of Dr Steven Kates (ie. “the damaged women” vote), and Kates completed a couple of degrees and teaches in a university. Judgementalism about education levels is a perfect way to prove that anti-intellectualism is justifiable in Australia.
And while we’re madly dividing between us and them, those of us with higher degrees would do well to be careful of defensive statements like those in Simmonds’ article about how poorly paid and noble academic professions are compared to other jobs. I agree that such jobs are paid less than the general public understands but neither description plays too well to the 50 per cent of the Australian workforce who work in full-time jobs for less than $58,000 a year. Some wages truly are embarrassingly humble and so are the working conditions, which can include plenty of unpaid overtime but with none of the autonomy of academic jobs. And who is going to tell a childcare worker her job isn’t a noble one? We’d be better to say that there is a squeeze on workplace conditions that many occupations and industries, including academia have in common.
The article has some very tired old Australian stereotypes, too, that could benefit from re-examination; like, are children here still ashamed of being smart? A huge surge in private tutoring and an obsession with NAPLAN testing among parents suggests otherwise to me. And what of the idea that Twitter is no place for academic thinkers – my feed is teeming with them and links to their work.
But I absolutely agree with Simmonds’ belief that there is a problem with anti-intellectualism in Australia, I just don’t find her article terribly convincing of the fact. Anyway, if you haven’t had enough of this complaint then Jeff Sparrow makes some of these arguments and others in a great response, “Why Andrew Bolt is not an imbecile” at New Matilda.
And to finish up.. a less controversial view of mine? This article is well worth reading. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “How to make the U.S. a better place for carers” in The Atlantic:
Focusing on infant mortality is not typically on a white feminist agenda in the U.S.; the babies at risk are children of poverty, who are in turn more likely to be rural whites and ethnic minorities. But an infrastructure of care must provide care for everyone, just as roads and bridges provide transport for anyone who can drive or afford a bus ticket. Care is for the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled, and the dependent. All of us, rich or poor, qualify as vulnerable and dependent for at least some period after birth and before death.
Posted in babies, body image, classism, fatherhood, feminism, maternity leave, motherhood, motherhood sux, pop culture, pregnancy and birth, sex of the icky parental kind, single parenthood, work and family (im)balance | 22 Comments »
Benjamin Percy writing about one of my favourite authors, Cormac McCarthy and The Road in The Atlantic:
As many have pointed out before me, he’s unafraid to stare into the abyss. He’s peering into the darkest corners of human existence, using a lamp with blood.
I’ve read The Road several times now, but the first time I read it was soon after my son was born. I was especially emotionally vulnerable in that moment because he was having some issues with his breathing: He ended up getting a severe case of croup that closed his throat. He was transported to the hospital by ambulance and was in the ICU for three days. They pricked him full of steroids and put him in an oxygen mask. I’ve never felt more protective, or helpless, or scraped out emotionally than I did then.
Reading this book around that time put me in a mindset that made me particularly vulnerable to the subject matter. The Road is ultimately about a father sacrificing everything for his son—keeping on and surviving despite a nightmare landscape, and only for his son’s sake…..
..And maybe this is the only time this has ever happened to me—but what is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined.
Some have been suggesting I am not radical enough in my feminism in this post, where I argue that an internalised misogyny has led us to devalue mothering to such an extent that we can only imagine equality for women when a sufficient portion of that disagreeable work has been offloaded to men. It says something very unpleasant about the way we view children. As I said in that previous post, men and women sharing roles equally may be what it looks like when we find equality but it might instead be women continuing to specialise (to some degree) in the care of children, particularly when children are very young, and this work being valued equally to that performed in the marketplace.
Here’s an example of such a criticism, and I hate to pick on one particular commenter, because she’s probably a nice person who wrote something in a hurry while trying to get much more important things done than jam-making, but this comment illustrates my point perfectly..
Hello! Okay so it occurred to me that my saying X is a lousy criteria is one of those deals where it would hurt the author’s feelings. Unfortunately, x IS a lousy criteria: “We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.”
People talked about women making jam a 1000 years ago “without freaking out”, and pretty sure women weren’t equal.
Sure, there is nothing particularly radical about making jam. There’s nothing particularly radical about playing golf either, and it is something the men in my office love to do when they’re not ‘working’. I’m yet to see an article disparaging men for it though. And you could wonder why some men are choosing hobbies that give them even more time away from their families and I would agree with you, but why do I care then if women are wanting to make fucking jam?
So in some ways, this article is just one more in a long line of same which claims “I will be as bimbo as I want, and you will call me a genuine feminist or else”. Most of the women writing such drivel are still bimbos pushing sexist norms onto their child. It’s a justification.
Right. Because to talk about pursuing something in the domestic realm as a woman is to be labelled a “bimbo”. Men can pickle vegetables or play a round of golf and neither pleasure will see them labelled brainless for it.