Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Further Thoughts on Women’s Empowerment

In my last post, I uploaded the text of a speech I gave last Friday at a women’s empowerment luncheon at St. Thomas University. I was limited to ten to fifteen minutes for speaking, however, and so there was much that I wish I could have included that I didn’t have the chance to say on the topic of balancing work and family life. I thought I’d include some of those details now.

The subject has been much on my mind of late. Though I don’t have any (human) children, I have had an avalanche of bad luck in the last couple of years with my pets, health crises and losses that have more than tugged at what little professional attention I have. Moreover, my father’s recent full retirement last year, which I mentioned at the end of my speech, has really thrown the whole family into disorder. His inability to adjust to life at home—scratch that: the confrontation with the fact that he had no life at home to retire to after a life of unchecked workaholism, has really opened my eyes to the necessity of building a balanced life before it is too late.

And then there is the return of Educating Rita to the syllabus. It’s not the first time I’ve started my English composition and literature class with this film, but it had been a while. I thought I’d bring it back this year, which is also the thirtieth anniversary of the film’s release (the film is based on the 1981 play of the same name by Willy Russell, who also wrote the screenplay). The story, somewhat of a retelling of Pygmalion, involves the quest of the main character, Rita, to go to an Open University program to study literature. She is a working-class young woman, and sees this chance at an education as a way of “finding herself” and living a more fulfilled life. It’s a wonderful way to start an introductory literature class, since one can only hope that students might be infected by Rita’s enthusiasm for books, or at least be better able to understand what a literary education might offer apart from three required credits.

It’s also just a damn fine movie, one of those that always yields a little something more the more times you watch it. I saw it for the first time in the theaters when it came out. I was only ten years old, and who knows what effect it might have had on me. Since then I’ve seen it countless times. At first I identified with Rita as a student, and now I identify with Frank, her tutor. This last time I saw it, however, I was really struck by the pressure Rita gets to have a baby. She’s married, and twenty-six, and so it’s expected. I’ve always read it as a common expectation given her class. None of her family sees any value in the kind of education Rita wants; their definition of happiness is work that pays enough to sustain a family, and the joy of “eight different kinds of beer” at the local pub.

This last time, however, I saw the situation with more clarity. It’s not so much that her family believes that once Rita has a baby she’ll realize the happiness to be found in that, and abandon the fruitless search for a kind of happiness they can’t understand. Rather, it’s a form of control. The relentless pressure to have a baby her family exerts is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that having one will tie her down and so take up her time and energies that she will have no choice but to give up her studies. It’s a threat Rita understands, which is why she secretly continues taking birth control pills months after she’s told her husband, Denny, that she’s stopped.

Maybe my new, darker reading of this situation was colored by having coincidentally seen Life Happens, which I mentioned in my speech, more or less around the same time. As I said in the talk, it’s the story of two young women, one of whom has a baby. The entire conflict of the film is the struggle of the new mother, Kim, to keep some semblance of her former, pre-baby life intact while still being able to be a mother, even though she seems to be blessed in a variety of ways many new mothers are not. For one thing, the baby is unusually quiet, well-behaved, and healthy. She carries him around on one of those papoose contraptions, and he doesn’t so much as squirm. I’ve seen chihuahuas who put up more of a transportation challenge than this kid does. Furthermore, she has a job, and doesn’t seem to be in any sort of dire economic struggle. Finally, she lives with two roommates, who could potentially help her with her son.

The problem is that no one wants to help her. Her roommates are resentful of any time she asks that they take care of her son, and the message of the film is that Kim must learn to “take responsibility” for her child herself. Her boss is such a total witch that she pitches a fit when Kim arrives at work with her baby strapped to her back. She threatens to fire her if she ever does it again, and refuses to support her in her idea for a new business.

Kim’s story might have been Rita’s story had Rita caved in to the pressure to have a child. The message young women are getting is not that they have choice, but that they must choose, which is not quite the same. An ultimatum is not a choice, and the message of a film such as Life Happens is that if you “choose” to be a mother, every other choice is off the table: dating, friends, work—whoosh! Gone.

It’s a severe punishment, to say the least. I had another relevant experience around the same time, during the first week of classes. I was already about fifteen minutes into class when a woman walked in with two children, a girl about seven and a boy about four. She did not ask if she could bring them with her—she just sat down in the back of the class with them. I was a little miffed at the lack of courtesy, but I regularly allow my students to bring their children to class as long as they ask first and the children behave, and so I let it go. These kids were louder than any I had allowed before, however. You could hear them all throughout my lecture, talking to each other as they colored some pictures they had brought.

One never realizes how much one talks about sex until one is in front of a couple of kids. I was introducing the concept of cultural studies to my students, and I found myself embroiled in a discussion of Twilight. I wanted to make the point that although it isn’t “great literature,” it is nevertheless a text that reveals a lot about us from a cultural studies perspective, especially about the sexuality of teenagers. Every time I would have said “Edward and Bella having sex,” I substituted “Edward and Bella making whoopee.” Other times I have had children in my class, I’ve warned the adult that I won’t censor myself on their account, and that has been part of the agreement. This time, however, there was no such previous agreement, and damned if the little girl wasn’t paying attention, which had also never happened before. I was trying to get my students to understand the concept of the canon, and when I asked whom they thought was the greatest writer who ever lived (hoping they’d say Shakespeare, which would lead to a discussion of Dead [white, male] Poets), the little girl shot her hand up and yelled “Me!”

I never saw that woman again, or her kids. By the next class meeting the class had been canceled due to low enrollment (alas, if only the kids had registered . . .). I admit I breathed a sigh of relief even while bemoaning the loss of $2K. She’d been late, she’d made a huge breach in classroom protocol without so much as an apology, and she’d spent the entire class with one ear on me and another on those kids. What kind of a student could she possibly be? Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t enjoy flunking students or being demanding. I had foreseen a semester-long struggle with a fraught woman and a pair of rowdy kids in the back of the class I wouldn’t have the heart to throw out.

I am deeply ashamed now of my selfish reaction.

Who was that poor woman? She seemed older—I wouldn’t be surprised if those had been her grandchildren instead of her children, which means there are two fraught and beleaguered women in this story. Or maybe she was just one of those women who bought into the idea of having children late in life, when she’s “established,” so that it will be “easier” to take care of them.

What a crock of shit.

The truth is she, or her daughter, had no place for those children. The public schools were out for a “teacher workday,” and so these kids had no place to be. Whose responsibility were they? Let’s first look at this question from our current point of view. They are the mother’s, no? She should have arranged for appropriate childcare. If she couldn’t, then she should have stayed home and taken care of them, instead of burdening us with them, impinging on our rights as child-free people to live freely and quietly. And, if she could neither arrange for adequate childcare nor staying home, then maybe she shouldn’t have had them in the first place.

One of the great ironies of the widespread use of effective birth control and the legalization of abortion is that it has made the “choice” to have a child seem downright ornery. Though these developments may have somewhat freed women from the unfair double standard and allowed them to have sexual lives outside of marriage without the threat of unwanted pregnancy, they have burdened those women who “choose” to have children with an unusual notion of responsibility. You’ve made your crib, now lie in it, we seem to think.

Well, if it takes a village to raise a child, then the whole village should be responsible for him or her as well. Why do schools let out hours before offices and factories and other workplaces do, while we bemoan the fact that children aren’t learning enough and need to spend more time in school? Why must workplaces have ramps and elevators and special parking spaces for the disabled, but not so much as a small room with a nanny for the mothers who work there? The other day on Facebook someone was circulating a story about companies who are now including “nap rooms” for their sleep-deprived employees. This is yet another effort to squeeze out the last drop of a worker’s lifeblood on the job, something that’s already anti-family, anti-woman, but also a slap in the face. Now you can nap at work, but your baby can’t.

Another stupid irony. If mothers could have their children cared for safely, preferably somewhere close enough to check in on them when they wanted, they’d be the most productive workers in the world. There should be babies in boardrooms, in offices, and, yes, in classrooms. Looking back on that first day of class, how bad was it having those kids there? My students actually strained to listen to me. Hell, that’s never happened before! I’ve lectured through furniture being moved on the floor above, through construction outside the window, through the sound of a movie being played next door. I’ve had my students distracted by their laptops, their phones, and each other. I’ve had grown students I’ve had to silence for happily chatting in the back of the classroom as if they were in third grade. Maybe if they’d been taught to behave in public with adults, instead of constantly being sequestered with other children, they’d have known better by the time they got to college.

We all need to take responsibility for the care and raising of children. We all need to adjust our behaviors to suit them, to include them, as much as possible, in our world. To allow anyone who wants to the freedom to have a child without getting the leper treatment. Yet another irony is how much lip service we pay to the wonders of children. Ask anyone about children and gold stars will shoot out of their mouths. They’re our future, our hope, blah, blah, blah. But when it comes to the crying, the squirming, the running around, the endless questions—you know, the hard part—well, then, that’s the mother’s job.

Maybe mom wants other jobs, too, and we have to free her up, not by making her “choose” one way or another, but by supporting her and sharing some of the burdens of childcare. If anyone should start the ball rolling, it should be women. To go back to Life Happens, it’s horrible that Kim’s boss, the one who threatens to fire her for bringing her baby to work, is a woman. We need to support one another, as women, for all that women can and choose to do, not divide into castes like some horrible nightmare out of a Margaret Atwood novel.

To return to myself, I should have been more supportive of that poor woman who had to drag those kids along to her first day of class, instead of rolling my eyes and thinking only about myself and my hardship, which amounted to projecting my voice a little more and making a few clever substitutions in my language. In fact, looking back, some of my best students have been mothers. Young women who for one reason or another had children while in college, and, far from having that cripple them, were thriving. They knew, better than the slew of Hello-Kitty-iPhone-cover toting princesses who spend more time on their hair than on their papers, what it takes to succeed. They organized their time and knew what was important. They got it done.

But at what cost?

After that first day of class, the woman with the kids told the little girl to show the teacher what she had done. She came up to me and handed me her coloring, a jumble of blue and red I couldn’t really make out. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “A+!” She left the classroom skipping.

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