By Sridala Swami
Seven years ago, I attended a wedding reception that I will never forget. A few months previously, I had just had a baby and this wedding was one of the first occasions when I was going out with the new arrival. It was quite traumatic for me: all I wanted to do was meet friends and enjoy a few conversations; instead I had to worry about feeds, secluded rooms and diapers.
There were three of us at a table – my (then) husband and I, and an old college friend who was independently a friend and colleague of the husband. U and G started to talk while I tried to calm a cranky child unused to so many people, or to loud music and noise. The conversation between them was animated and mostly about work. Then, in a natural pause in the conversation, G turned to me and stared blankly for a minute before gathering her scattered wits to say:
I raised an eyebrow, but it’s unlikely that she saw it in the ill-lit corner of the garden where we were seated.
“How are things?”
“Fine,” I said.
“Good,” she said and turned back to U to talk office gossip.
That was the sum of our interaction. I could see her struggle to find something to say to me. This despite the fact that we had many friends in common; that we were more or less in the same area of work; that we studied in the same places for nearly four years. That was when I was first struck by the attitude that some people – among them many women – have to those who have just had a child. The general attitude seems to be that if you’ve just become a mother, your brains must be leaking out with the breast milk and no conversation that does not include bodily functions, is possible.
I, on the other hand, was heartily sick of poop and washing and feeds and sleepless nights and wanted to forget for a few hours that I had ever had a child. In the years that have passed since that evening, I have often wondered why this should have been so. It is not that I have ever regretted having a child. I certainly am not a bad parent. But I also know that I need time that is mine, entirely adult and unattached. I’ve never regretted the times when I’ve left my son to go out on my own, on work or with friends, to party or to watch films, to travel or do things that have no direct relation to child-rearing.
Is my determination to have some part of my life unfettered by the demands of parenting ‘unnatural’ or ‘unfeminine’? Do I do it to seek the approval of those who are not limited to the narrow business of motherhood and all its concerns? Why do I think talking about motherhood is ‘narrow’ while talking about cinema or poetry is not?
When I was in college, studying Renaissance literature, I came across this quote while writing a paper for a conference on feminism: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too;”
I was struck by the construction of the sentence. It was part of a speech Queen Elizabeth made to her soldiers while urging them to fight against the Spanish Armada. Notice the way in which she assigns definite qualities to genders, but brings them together in her own person while simultaneously equating herself with all England. If she is a woman in some respects, she seems to say, she is a man in other ways, ways that count; that she is willing to rise above the qualities that make her a woman and become like a man – and not just any man but the King of England and therefore the foremost male in all the known world of the time.
What is unusual is that many decades into the feminist movement, we still feel the need to make these arbitrary and entirely spurious distinctions about what constitutes the ‘feminine’; we still judge in favour of those qualities that we consider are not overtly ‘feminine’.
Is it more feminine to talk about children? Less feminine to not want to talk of them? Which is better?
I read a fair number of blogs, among them a few written by ‘mombloggers’. These women – and men – talk about their children, about parenting, schooling, and a thousand other things that they feel strongly about. Recently there has been some unpleasantness as a result. One such attack said, in its own defence, that it was all right to say what was said because the post was only pointing out how the momblog in question ‘obfuscate[d] the absence of a career with the presence of a uterus.’
It was an astonishing statement. It not only assumed that ‘career’ meant specifically, something that made you get out of the house at a certain time, dressed in a certain way, to go to an ‘office’ and return home several hours later (women working from home while also looking after children clearly do not have a ‘career’. Presumably they are amusing themselves with the jam while their husbands earn the bread and butter); it also assumed that all parenting concerns automatically abdicate the call of the brain (or the heart – another apparently masculine organ) in favour of the uterus; and finally, assumed that these conversations were taking place exclusively among women.
‘Uterus’ seems to spell ‘natural’, and therefore nothing that requires effort or the exercise of reason. One is either born with a uterus or not, so there’s no need to make a big deal of what comes out if it; worse, talking about it all seriously is an affront.
This reminded me so much of G that evening seven years ago, when she had nothing to say to a woman who had just had a child. At that time I met her discomfort with silence, vowing to never inflict my private and necessary absorption with motherhood on anyone else. I even resented the ways in which motherhood suddenly tied me to my gender.
At that time, it seems now to me, new mothers were a ghetto unto themselves, incomprehensible and separate from the regular world of working women, doomed to silence in the absence of places to talk about the gestalt shift in their lives. Now, it appears that new mothers have not only found a few rooms of their own, they have become articulate and noticeable.
In the process, if they have once again embraced all the things that were traditionally considered the province of women – absorption with children, their bodies, the looking after of hearth and home, whether to resume a career or not – it is ironic that the call to shut up about these things comes not from other women who have fought long and hard to claim other areas as their own, but from a man who is annoyed by how popular these women are but is not especially seized by any doubts about what the persistent binaries might mean to our understanding of gender.
Sridala Swami lives in Hyderabad and writes poetry and fiction. Her poetry has appeared in Nthposition, Kritya, Museindia, Chandrabhaga, The Little Magazine, New Quest and Wasafiri; and in the Talking Poetry anthology 50 Poets 50 Poems edited by Priya Sarukkai Chhabria. Three books for very young children, Phani’s Funny Chappals, What Shall We Do For A Cradle? and Kabadiwala have been published by Pratham. Her first collection of poems, A Reluctant Survivor, was published by The Sahitya Akademi in June 2007. She blogs at http://spaniardintheworks.blogspot.com