Note to readers: I am 32, I am white, I have enough money to have a nanny and my man is a very involved father and a total feminist. But still I am just a woman.
Another title that will have detractors of feminism mocking those women who, « still in 2017 », can’t talk about their condition but through provocation. Naughty girls. Being around these idiots for too long, I could almost see them as sweet persons. And because I do like sweet, I tend to make the work easier for them.
So yes, I do take pleasure in choosing provocative and vindictive titles, deprived of any subtlety so that I can show my hands and warm the heart of every clito-sceptical.
My vagina and I, so it is. I could have written My identity, my vagina or in reference to the French Philosopher Renée Descarte (“I think, therefore I am”), I vagina, therefore I am. In short the idea is that my identity is, deliberately or not, very much defined by my sex. I could be born a woman and feel like a man, that’s not the question. However, it’s much more difficult for me today to be born a woman and to dig myself out of this box. Indeed, since I popped two kids, it seems like whatever I do, my sex determines a large part of who I am, not to say that my identity sometimes seems to easily skinned down to this condition. As Judith Butler says, gender is what you do, not who you are. But here, whatever I would do, I was seen as a woman and only a woman. Biology was just overriding social construction.
The friend who suggested me to write this article gave me some food for thoughts:
- What does it mean for you personally to be a woman?
- Has being a woman ever limited you?
- How would your life be different if you were a man?
And finally, a one more precise question “What changed for you after you had children?” And that’s the angle I chose to try to answer the above.
Attempted answers to stomach-aching questions
I’ve always felt that my identity was broadly determined by my sex. I was born with a vagina. I have always felt like a woman and am proud of being a woman. Yes, I did spend my teenage years in Adidas tracksuit and Nike TN shoes so that I could look just like my buddies… until a point I dropped the mask. Then I proudly started to put on my woman identity. I thought it was a real choice, a choice made easily since I also thought I could decide to become a man if I wished so. It felt like being a woman was something that I could have decided freely. I was managing a team of older men but I did not feel any kind of pride about it. I liked to nestle against my partner without any issues. I could wear heels or drive my motorbike. I was a woman for sure but, depending of the contexts, I was much more than “only a woman”. I was multiple and confident about it. Growing up, I realized all the inequalities and discriminations women are facing everywhere and anytime. I became aware. But still, I was perceiving myself equal to men. I don’t remember I ever suffered any discrimination.
Then I decided to have children. Children of love and out of a well thought decision. I even had two at once. And almost overnight, being a woman was no longer neither a choice nor a game. It became my condition, that gradually got confused with my identity until, at times, both became one.
I realized that the reason why being a woman was neither a pride nor a shame, but just a simple fact without consequences, was because I wasn’t always thinking of myself as a woman. Then, carrying babies, bringing them to this world and feeding them defined me in perspective of the other figure, the man.
I became a mother. A mother by choice, but still a mother. With everything that makes a mom inferior to a dad, here and now.
Let’s be clear here: I’m as proud of being a mom than I was of myself before having children. But, I regret that my “mummy side” completely swallowed up some of the other sides of my identity; not only to other people but also in reality. And that is what I want to emphasize here.
I’m not complaining, I’m observing.
Be a mom and shut up
I am feeling down in the dumps and I hope I’ll find the right words to avoid misunderstanding. Being a mother involves making sacrifices that men don’t have to make. They have to make sacrifices too but no one can deny that these sacrifices cost them less. I assume there is no need to give details here.
Another observation: some of these sacrifices apply to all moms, from the most involved to the most detached. Not all mothers have a so-called maternal instinct (we’re not bitches!) that would make the countless daily concessions more bearable. Even the mothers feeling their maternity is more thriving and blooming than anything else make costly sacrifices; sometimes changing who they are or at the minimum some of aspects of their identity. I think I belong to this category.
Some things are lost when you become a mother, at least temporarily, if not on the long term or even forever. The joys of motherhood do exist. They are a source of emancipation that, sometimes, makes up for exhaustion, fears and doubts. But no one ever told me that fulfillment should work like communicating vessels. Looking at your babies smiling and watching them growing up is a different kind of joy than the one you feel with professional accomplishment, just to take the most obvious example.
Here’s one of the most hurtful comment I had to hear while I was confiding in on some of the new challenges that came up in our couple since we became parents: « You need to accept that unlike you, to feel happy, your husband needs to keep doing his hobbies like before. On the contrary, it seems like you’re taking a daily satisfaction in taking care of you babies”.
So that’s IT! ! My husband and I (un)JUST(tly) don’t have the same needs.
Of course it was not meant to hurt, there was perhaps even a will to provide support. But that belief alone – that this new source of emancipation would prevent us from needing (anymore) the things that made us happy before – is harmful. To be misunderstood can be a very violent feeling, close to loneliness; which is often increased by full days spent with one baby or more for the mothers who decided or were forced to stop working (the line between the two being too often very thin).
My husband is 100% there and has been so since our twin daughters were born. He took 5 months of an unpaid leave, not to « help » me – what a reductive term! – but to do his 50% of our new parenting responsibilities. However, when it was time for one of us to go back to work, the circumstances made it so that it was him who did. So I went from being a part-time parent to being a full-time mom. Slowly, the drive of the initial stages of motherhood flamed out, exhaustion took a toll, bringing its share of doubts and uneasiness. That’s when I realized my woman condition, slowly but violently.
Putting work on hold, not so much of a choice
Work. Let’s speak about it. Work is the corner stone of the war against inequalities. Of course there are women who are not recruited because they may start a family and the ones who are put at a sideline after a maternity leave. And there are women who simply lose their job, like me. I was working for an international organization but under a very provisional contract. Once knocked up, I could only accept the “incapacity” for my employers to renew my contract as agreed. It was a risky pregnancy and I had to be repatriated to France from Cambodia where I was living at the time. That was it. In my boss defense though, I agree it would have been complex to work from France on projects that were requiring my presence in the field with the local teams. The health of my two babies as well as mine were at stake so at the time loosing my job was just insignificant. But today it’s tough; tough to admit that I had to put my finally-about-to-start career on hold, for an undetermined period of time.
I’m not complaining I’m observing.
I reckon that with a better contract I would have been covered.
I reckon that with two babies inside of me, the idea of choice was extremely relative.
After I gave birth we didn’t go back to Cambodia. The health care system there was too limited for us to go back and settle there with two fragile babies (they were still recovering from a tough birth). My husband got a teaching job in Hong Kong days after the girls were born. I decided not to look for a new job in our new country right away. I decided to take care of our daughters for their first year. It was my choice and I accept it. But it sometimes costs me dear. Gradually, I have learnt how to live with my own contradictions.
I’d like to put in perspective the concept of choice.
When we left France I just didn’t look at the job opportunities for me here. I lost my job in Cambodia and none of us had any serious employment opportunity in France. There was one certainty: my husband had a job waiting in Hong Kong. We were both delighted to come here, that is for sure. The question is to whether I really had the choice to go back to work after I delivered my babies. So the answer is probably yes, as we always have choice. It’s just that the choice I had, like for many other women, was very limited.
First, there’s the physical component. How can you go back to work when you sleep 4 to 5 hours a night, 45 minutes at the time? Then there is the cultural dimension. The belief that women and not men should stop working is so deeply ingrained that it becomes a “second nature” for us, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu outlined. I could have fought against that second nature but nor I was feeling like it neither I did have the strength for it. Finally, there’s the practical dimension. While my husband got offered – from France – a quite good opportunity here in Hong Kong, all was new for me. In short, I was exhausted, trapped in my cultural patterns, in a country I knew nothing about. That logic made that I was the one staying at home looking after the babies.
My husband is a teacher. We had a deal: no commitment in anything beyond the lessons he was paid to teach. Other roles or activities – as interesting they may be – would have to wait. I was alone at home with two newborn babies. I needed him every single hour he was not at work. He did great the first months. Then this training came up, then that project, then this and that and this and that… as many interesting possibilities to which it was probably difficult to pass on. As many side projects that slowly nibbled his time at home, with me, with the babies.
I had to explain that I felt like our deal was not respected anymore, that not having him around was taking a toll on me. I was feeling more and more tired. Exhausted. He told me how thrilling theses projects were, that they were part of his fragile personal balance. A balance now reduced to three pillars: family, work and sport, he said. I understand how work can bring a sense of fulfillment, especially now when that pillar of mine had just disintegrated before my eyes, taking down along all the exciting side projects that came with it. It’s hard enough to loose your job without having to constantly remind it to people; including the ones who do understand but conveniently forget, sometimes. It seems like empathy has its limits, even from the most affirmed supporters.
Today I keep burying my head in the sand; just like an ostrich. I’ve become really fond of that bird lately. But my time will come and with it, I hope, a renewed dignity. A dignity based on sharp awareness about what is left behind, but most importantly, about what I earned and what still needs to be taken.
And it can always be worse
Now, the third pillar: sport.
Sport has always been part of my life balance. I was running and swimming. I was also going out and dancing like crazy. I can already hear people thinking that, unlike going back to work, resuming sports is just a matter of personal will; job market and employers have no control on you here. I hear them, mainly men, let’s not kid ourselves. These men who never bear life and never will. These exact same men who did not have their pussy ripped off or their gut cut open. These men, indeed, who did not feed their offspring off their breasts. And finally, these men who can’t make the difference between being tired and being exhausted. I am not sure at all I want to get into the details of the complex relationship a woman has with her body after a pregnancy and the delivery of one or more babies. No need to say that up to a few weeks ago my physical condition was such that I couldn’t even start thinking about moving my body out to something that would look like running. In fact, just the thought of fast walking made me nauseous.
I wish I could have the strength to despise everyone who doesn’t understand that, but I just can’t. They make me feel bad and weak so I can’t find any strength to explain.
There are so many stories to tell. I remember talking about this to a machist ignorant who was trying to be witty or funny – who knows? – saying my husband needs running to wind down, so I probably could wind down as well while « running » errands. I swallowed my anger back whereas I would have loved to shove his stupid bun down his throat, together with his balls.
Let’s be clear here, I’m not a ball cutter per se. However, pregnancy and maternity made me realize that the most hurtful comments and the most obvious discriminatory behaviors always come from men who – despite they never experienced neither one nor the other – still have a very strong opinion about it. Like this friend who one day threw at my face that delivering by C-section is not a real delivery. Another example that left me stunned, only able to mumble a poor justification, putting me down one more notch.
So while waiting to be able to run again, I try to find ways to channel my need to cut men’s balls. I write. First and foremost I write to the moms, but I also write to all women and their supporters. I want to tell them that this fucking feeling of loneliness most probably comes from being misunderstood, and so that there is no need to keep justifying everything – like I did too many times – but to try explaining. Explaining to all – women and men – that the decision to have children should empower women rather than depreciate them. I wish my girl friends who feels guilty because they “keep feeling unease whereas (their) kids are beautiful and healthy” could be better understood and supported. I wish I’d stop hearing women say that those who do everything at home are masochist ladies and deserve it. And last but not least I also wish that one day men could bear our children. In the meantime, could they just shut the fuck up?
I know what I’m saying is harsh, even hurtful for some men, and maybe for some women too. It won’t make things change any faster. It just feels good to vent. Fair enough to do so then. What is at stake for me today is accepting it’s pointless; pointless to try and get people that never felt this deep inner struggle to understand it, or even just acknowledge it. How can you convince those who, by definition, cannot be convinced? At least half of the humanity will remain indifferent to the inner challenges related to maternity. I am not asking them to take those all upon them but to hear them, with all the humility they deserve.
No equality without integrity
Today my daughters are 1 year old. It is like I aged 10 years in the last year. They are beautiful, lively and glowing. To what extent their happiness is a direct consequence of all the sacrifices I made? We will never know and of course it is much better this way. We do not need to know. However, I do know that the military organization I put in place actually works: nights are calm and quiet, naps are long and regular, kids eat everything and the nanny can now manage the two of them at all time – calm or storm. I finally can sit my ass down behind my laptop, and write again. I even started running again, encouraged by my sister. I feel better. But these moments of freedom, I owe them to no one else than me.
I screw all the ladies and all the gents who made me feel like a boring woman who only lives for and by her children or, on the contrary, like an overstressed bitter and emasculating woman who pisses everybody off with her lunacies. Yeah, definitely, I fuck them all.
I’m neither one nor the other. I am myself or at least I have been working hard at it, despite the tsunami that blew my face.
I could look back and says what everybody is waiting for: “ It was indeed super hard. But when I look at them – my children – it was all worth it, all those sacrifices. I’d do it all over again”.
That’s a lie.
What I really think is that being a woman isn’t plain easy so being a mom, that’s a combat sport! You go from a marginalized community to an even more marginalized community. And all the dads of this world could do everything in their power to change that – for those who do – it remains that a cock is not a vagina, nor a womb. And that is precisely the reason why women still face so many discriminations. The goal isn’t to write an essay on women condition. It would be way too difficult for me without reducing women to their sex while reminding us that this sex is actually at the heart of many inequalities against them. In addition, to do so I would need to be capable of putting in perspective the way I feel. Yet the pain still remains too sharp. No, what matters is my own condition, as a woman and as a mother. If my condition relates to those of other women and mothers, be it. I’m not pretending I’m changing the world with my story. I’m just sharing, on a very small scale. I’m sharing for me, and for them as well, my daughters.
Having children made me realise that being a woman is not only about identity but also about the condition. Having children strengthened my feminist’s convictions more than ever, and the need to stand for them. But before fighting for equality you’d better enforce your integrity. It’s a work in progress here.
So if I had to do it all over again, I wish this prevailing hypocrisy could stop and be replaced by gratitude and humility. That is what every mother on earth truly needs. Everything else can actually wait.
Vaginal is not trivial.
 In French, “Je pense donc je suis”