I’m about to be not-studying for the first time in six years. The last time I was not-studying, I was working full-time as a (seriously underqualified) legal assistant, for my first year out of high school. I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to help people, but I also wanted people to know I was smart and hardworking and that I wanted to help people. It was very important for my brand of feminism at the time that my career would be impressive. I had a lot to prove.
I distinctly remember having daydreams around that time in which I would say, ‘I’m a lawyer’ nonchalantly, in answer to someone’s conversational question. This conversation would preferably be taking place at a high school reunion; extra points if it was in the hearing of the girl in my year level who told people I’d be less successful after high school, because my dad being a school principal wouldn’t help me in the real world.
That was an unkind thing for her to say. But then, six months after I moved to Melbourne for uni, I accidentally became pregnant, and by March the next year I was back in Bendigo living at my parents’ place with a newborn and a barely-started Arts degree. So, I guess her comment was also kind of prophetic, if you define success in the way she meant it (and in the way I always had).
Strange decision for a career-ambitious feminist, I guess, to go through with a very inconvenient pregnancy. It’s one I have difficulty explaining to people, when they ask. I mostly just attribute it to a gut feeling I had that motherhood would be an adventure worth having (although it was more complicated than that). But despite my decision, I also had this feeling, for a while, that my new life as a young, single mother was one that somehow clashed with my feminism. Despite all my intentions to be a very successful and fiercely independent career woman, here I was, unemployed, raising a child and depending on welfare and someone else’s income to do so. I did not feel like I was in any way sticking it to the patriarchy via my life choices.
I haven’t felt that way for years now, but I’ve found it hard to articulate what the shift was. A little over a year ago, I wrote an article for this publication about feminism and children. I intended to pitch a follow-up about motherhood and feminism, but kept balking. What I want to say about parenting and feminism is potentially a bit off-trend, feministly speaking; I don’t want to regressively suggest that motherhood is an ideal or essential or superior state of womanhood, because that’s absolutely antithetical to what I believe. But I do want to put forward parenting as an example of a space in which a feminist ethics of care can be radically anti-capitalist.
After thirteen years of schooling, six years of tertiary study, years spent in various jobs and internships and work experience and nearly five years of being a parent, the field of knowledge in which I easily have the greatest expertise is that which concerns my son, Oscar. And I don’t mean parenting knowledge in a general way; expertise in nappy changing, or running a household, or teaching young children to read. I don’t even mean administering insulin or monitoring blood glucose levels, which in my case is a major part of parenting, as Oscar is diabetic. These skills have all involved steep learning curves, but I wouldn’t say I’m an expert at any of them. What I mean when I say that I’m an expert when it comes to Oscar is that over the last almost-five years, I have come to know Oscar, specifically, extraordinarily well in a seemingly infinite myriad of ways.
It’s a hard kind of expertise to quantify, a parent or guardian’s expertise in regards to their child(ren). For this reason, I think, it can be too easily dismissed or ignored. For example: last November, Oscar had to have surgery on his feet. Because he has Type 1 diabetes, he needed a fasting plan. Due to a series of administrative errors and miscommunications within the hospital, he ended up on the wrong plan and had too much insulin in his fasting body in the lead up to the operation. I knew this, and in the pre-op waiting room I repeatedly asked the nurses to get a doctor to come and see him. I was monitoring his glucose levels closely, and knew his body and insulin sensitivity well enough to know that his sugars were going to get dangerously low very quickly.
He needed a dextrose drip. I could not get anyone to take me seriously enough to try to reach a doctor with any kind of urgency. The nurses kept talking to me in the would-be placating tone that some people use with young children and pet animals, and exchanging looks with each other every time I approached their station to ask again if a doctor was coming. It wasn’t until I told them I was going to give Oscar glucose tablets, disqualifying him from the surgery, that they called a doctor. By the time she arrived, Oscar had fallen unconscious.
I was distraught and frustrated with the dismissive attitude of those nurses, but assumed it was a one-off. But I’ve spoken to a lot of parents about it since – mostly women – and it sounds like this easy dismissal of a parent’s knowledge of their child was far from being a singular experience. One mother I spoke to told me about a time when her son was in hospital as a baby, being treated for an illness. This mother asked the nurse if she could breastfeed her son before he was given medication, as she knew how he reacted to medicine and did not want him medicated on an empty stomach. The nurse agreed, and then gave him the medication on an empty stomach anyway. The mother reacted: why did you not listen to me? When she looked at her son’s file later on, she saw the words ‘anxious mother’ written across the top.
It’s interesting that a parent’s concern (especially if that parent is a mother) is so easily attributed to anxiety. It reminds me of archaic and sexist conceptions of hysteria. It’s also interesting to me that in some circumstances, to some people, the idea that a parent might have accrued some useful knowledge about their own child seems to be incomprehensible – especially when that knowledge is seen (erroneously, in my view) to somehow be fundamentally in competition with professional expertise.
Another parent spoke to me of her frustration at not having the knowledge she’d gained over fourteen years of stay-at-home parenting recognised as involving skill and difficulty within her social circle, which is made up predominantly of people working in professional contexts. ‘I would never presume to know everything about doing [my partner’s] job,’ she said. ‘Why is what I do any different?’
This emphasis on parenting as a ‘job’ is common. One mother I spoke to referred to her partner as her ‘colleague’ when it came to raising their young family. I find myself in two minds about this kind of framing. On one hand, I think it’s doing something vital, because parenting is hard and valid work and should be recognised as such. But on the other hand, parenting is more than a ‘job’ – it’s also an intimate relationship, or a series of relationships – and a big part of me is sad and frustrated that we need to describe work in capitalist terms before we feel that it can be attributed any value.
There’s an emphasis on self-empowerment within contemporary feminism which I think is hugely important. But I also think that the idea of self-empowerment can become tangled up in capitalism’s consumer culture, and social media-driven narcissism, in ways that can warp it into an aggressive individualism. The kind of thinking I’m referring to privileges the ‘right’ to do whatever one wants to do for themselves (I’m thinking of those ‘feminist’ pins and key rings that are being sold with, ‘WOMEN DOING WHATEVER THE FUCK THEY WANT IN 2018’ printed on them, but there are other less overt examples) over anything resembling genuine and thoughtful care for other people.
Andrea Ruthven writes that ‘women’s alleged liberation through capitalist consumption, competitive individualism and heteronormative desirability can be read as a contemporary dystopia.’ There is something about a world in which capitalist value is the only value worth attributing to anything that certainly feels dystopic to me, and it disheartens me to think that strains of pop feminism, with their potentially powerful platforms, are buying into and perpetuating this kind of value system. I know that we need to eat, feed and clothe our children – we live in a capitalist society, and I don’t want to offer an unhelpfully utopic alternative to this dystopia by ignoring the importance of structures and policies that support parenting work financially. But I’d also like to think that we’re working towards a feminism with goals beyond merely improving women and non-binary people’s access to participation in consumer culture.
I can understand that there is perhaps some danger in using a term like ‘feminist ethics of care’. Caring has long been read as part of an essentialised femininity in an oppressive and damaging way, and I don’t want to perpetuate that tradition by suggesting that the onus of caring should remain on women. It’s important that we rectify the fact that care and emotional labour have long been unfairly expected more of women and non-binary folk than of cis-men. But rejecting the importance of care and emotional labour, in the name of feminism, feels to me like throwing the baby out with the bath water (so to speak). Capitalism and the patriarchy have a history of being insidious bedfellows, and the radical antidote to both – especially in the current state of the world – is surely more care for each other, rather than less.
My knowledge of Oscar’s behaviour, health conditions, idiosyncratic ways of communicating, subtle emotional cues, etc., etc., etc., is a radically unmarketable kind of expertise. When I graduate next month, and start looking for work, no employer will care that there is one five-year-old child in the world with whom I’ve become so close we can have conversations without speaking. Someone said to me recently that, given my interest in feminism, they expected that I probably dread having my identity tied up in the fact I’m a mother. Much better to be thought of first as a writer, or an editor, or one of the other things I’m educated in and sometimes get paid to do.
I understand where they were coming from, but in my particular case, they were wrong. I’m more of a mother than I am anything for which I’ve been trained or paid. It’s not the only way of working in the world as a feminist, obviously, but at the moment it’s my way. I take that as a success.