A younger person of my acquaintance recently got married. In conversation, her grandfather mentioned that in keeping with these #metoo times, she had chosen not to change her surname. My husband and I were amused by this, especially as nearly a decade earlier I had also failed to change my surname upon marriage (more out of horror at all the administration involved, than a statement of modernity). Unkindly, we sniggered at how the point had been completely missed. #metoo isn’t about feminism, it’s about sexual assault, isn’t it? We spent a good few days quipping “me too” about pretty much everything: from my complaints about uncomfortable feet in high-heeled wedge sandals (a pressing feminist issue if ever there was one) to fancying a coffee. It got a bit out of hand to be honest.
This misunderstanding aside, as a forty-something European woman in 2018, I am obviously a benefactor of the struggle of generations of women who went before me, without whom, I wouldn’t lead the life I do. I was able to access the education I wanted, work and live independently and delay childbearing, all of which were either impossible, or at the very least, difficult for my grandmothers and their peers to achieve. I was of the generation who believed everything was possible and we could indeed have it all.
Fast forward to my mid-thirties: despite a somewhat prolonged adolescence, I was now living in a charming foreign city with my partner, had just given birth to our first child and was “enjoying” maternity leave. Life was good….although perhaps I could have done without becoming the sole co-ordinator of household management as a by-product of being at home.
Domestic life had become, well, very domestic. Knowing I would never empty the laundry basket alone was enough to send me scurrying back to work after six months, in spite of the impressive histrionics upon leaving my beautiful first-born in someone else’s care for the first time. This way at least, I wasn’t looking at the toilet that needed a good scrub, or at the tumbleweed of fluff that multiplied on a daily basis under my sofa, for hours at a time. It was all still there when I got in from work of course, but then again, nothing in life is perfect…
The entire conundrum was no one’s fault and yet both of us were at fault. Why had we so easily fallen into traditional roles based on gender? We are and were “modern” people, so how had I become such a Desperate Housewife (without any of the glamour or drama – unless you count running out of milk several times a week as catastrophic)?
In later years, having resolved some of these domestic issues, I became an avid listener of podcasts. This was mainly in response to an intrinsic sense of tiredness, which essentially meant that I’d joined the slow readers group. Regrettably, reading anything too taxing had become an onerous task, although I missed exposure to challenging thoughts and ideas. Plugged into my headphones, once again I could re-engage with an intellectual world that had slipped from my grasp. It was convenient too; I could listen on my way to work, while simultaneously constructing a “to do” list in my head.
There were two seminal moments for me, which pierced through the mental notes I was making as I listened. One was hearing the insightful and generally brilliant Esther Perel expounding on how even now in the 21st century, gender roles require redefinition. She neatly dovetailed this assertion with the #metoo movement, encompassing social justice for women, as well as opposition to sexual harassment in her discourse; male currency has intrinsically remained unchanged; women’s has changed ….sort of. Well not enough anyway. The rules have changed, boundaries have shifted, but our modes of behaviour haven’t. Basically, we’re in a bit of a pickle. And perhaps the venerable older gentleman was (unwittingly) on to something.
The second moment of clarity arose from a Dear Sugars (Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond) podcast discussing the emotional and/or hidden labour that many, or most, women do within a male/female parenting partnership. It’s all very well if the man of the house changes light bulbs and occasionally produces dinner – but who’s running the whole shebang? Generally, who’s signing the teachers’ forms and ensuring that the younger members of the family are nutritiously fed, clothed and entertained appropriately? Who usually deals with general household and logistical management? Who buys presents, plans holidays and manages the social calendar? Who’s also in paid employment, often full-time? Who’s, put purely and simply, on it? Hmmmm.
Esther is right. We do need to consciously redefine who we are. Women need to push back a little; if we’re economically active in a “man’s world”, then it’s unfair if we’re still shouldering the majority of the unseen, unpaid or emotional burden. As Cheryl delightfully put it: “ I don’t want it all. I want half of it all.” Me too.