Monday, January 21, 2013

A small act of revolution

I never considered breast-feeding in public an act of revolution. It didn't take courage. In the same way that Lena Dunham says "it's not brave to get your clothes off in public if you're not ashamed of it", I never had to work up the nerve because I felt completely entitled to do what I was doing. This is not the case for all women. In fact feeling uncomfortable breastfeeding in public is one of the reasons many women give for giving up breastfeeding entirely. And yet time and again we have public figures making women feel uncomfortable for doing what they are legally entitled to do - feed their babies.

In the latest debacle, a breakfast TV host has insisted that whilst "mothers should be able to breastfeed any time, any where" they should do so in a "discreet" "classy" way so as to ensure those around them feel comfortable. Personally, I have never seen a woman breastfeeding in public who was not being "discreet" and "classy" about it - so this comment is completely moot. What would indiscreet breastfeeding involve, I wonder? Stripping off and hanging a tassle from the free nipple?

Men and women who are deeply uncomfortable with the sight of a mother breastfeeding her child in public need to look a little deeper inside themselves to ask the question: what, exactly, is it about the sight of a baby eating that is so off-putting? Are you worried you will catch a glimpse of a woman's nipple? Is it the idea of a baby sucking on a breast? Would you prefer not to have to think about that at all? But really, why? Why is that your business? Why does a mother need to concern herself with your comfort levels over and above her baby's need for nourishment?

Cristy Clark has written an insightful piece that suggests the discomfort arises from the fact that the business of caring for children, that is - women's intimate business - has traditionally been obscured from public life, and now that times are changing and women are being permitted to enter the public sphere, some of us are expecting to do so on our own terms, rather than on the terms that are being dictated to us. In other words, we are not apologetic about bringing our womanly activities into plain sight. We want public life to include activities that are relevant to both men and women. And it is this that makes so many uncomfortable. I see the parallel here between this and the Lena Dunham controversy - not that a woman would publicly expose her body, after all, this is something that occurs all the time without comment, but that she would do so in a way that does not seek permission from men and is not apologetic that she doesn't fall into a certain type of womanhood that is deemed to be publicly acceptable. It is the lack of shame that seems to appall  the most. The lack of willingness to be told. The fact that there are women, in public, suiting themselves! Suiting their babies! With nary a backwards glance! The cheek.

I remember sitting in a restaurant in South Africa, breastfeeding my baby, and the women at the next table talked about me in Afrikaans, saying I should not be doing that in public. Later that evening, my father-in-law reported that the mayor had told him a white woman had been seen nursing in public earlier that day. That would be me, then. Whilst in a mothers' room in the same country, I was sitting feeding my child when a little girl came up and angrily closed the modesty curtain around the chair I was sitting in, telling me other people weren't supposed to see that! Whilst I never experienced this level of disapproval in Australia, the attitudes displayed by David Koch and others tell me that it is still very much an issue in a country where it is actually illegal to discriminate against a breastfeeding mother.

The fact that some intelligent high profile feminists tell those of us who would take issue with this attitude to move on or focus on what really matters beggars belief. Implying that because no one important is listening, we should not bother replying,  is condescending in the extreme. Public figures, regardless of the medium in which they espouse their views, reflect and influence public opinion. The comment by David Koch hit a nerve because his views are so appallingly commonplace. And by telling us to get over it, or reserve our outrage for something important, these fellow feminists are actually displaying an attitude which is dangerously close to misogynistic.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Of course part 2

Of course, we’re all anomalies.
We try so hard to be everything we want to be
 but inevitably get told, you want too much.
Get back in your box.

Of course it’s ok to be human
To laugh and cry and be sad and happy
And flawed and real.
But don’t tell anybody I told you.

Of course suburbia doesn't have to be a quiet hell.
 Lots of people like it just fine.
The quiet hell is within me,
and I take it wherever I go.

Of course part 1

Of course motherhood is political:
it’s incompatible with our values
as much as it attempts to reinforce them.

Society is in a double-bind:
we want a mother to be loving
nurturing, soft and understanding.
To take care. To be there.

But we don't want to have to support her
to be all those things
No public breastfeeding no understanding
no crying babies
no screaming toddlers
no boisterous children
no it takes a village.
Do it under your own steam please.
Maybe best if you stay home.

And when you're done being a loving
(and attractive) mum
please disappear
from view, don't be complicated
or shout or expect too much.

Don't disagree or complain.
Just smile.
You're your own
worst enemies you know!

Of course we want to hear you:
to be invited into the private sphere
to be a fly on the wall
of the tell-all confessional

But we don’t want to hear what it’s really like
back there. Just smile and say it’s ok
I can have it all and I’m not even trying.

Make it look easy but not so easy as to
make others feel bad.
And don't expect us to value 
your contribution.

What do mothers contribute anyway?
Clean washing?
Maybe you should get a job.

But no equal pay
no affordable childcare
no career breaks
no time away from those precious children
no flexible hours
aren't you committed to the job?
what kind of monster are you?
Selfish. We all have choices in life.

You're public property you know.
Of course we want you to look sexy
but don’t show too much breast
or not enough
or be too young or old or different.

Of course we like you just the way you are
as long as just the way you are
is just how we have told you to be
with just enough quirk on the side
to make you interesting
but not threatening.