Disclaimer: a mother is going to publicly say that sometimes her physical, mental and emotional boundaries are limited and motherhood occasionally pushes those boundaries. Let the silent or not so silent judgement begin!
One of my least favorite things about being a mother of young children is the lack of physical and verbal space. It's funny, even saying that publicly I run the risk that I will look like a bitch who resents her children. And I love being a mom and love being with them. But, I am constantly being tracked and talked to. Every task I perform when my children are home is happening with a background of them wanting my constant verbal input. I have a very busy mind so constant talking feels like a disruption of all the self-talking my brain is doing already, often while I'm performing 1-3 tasks simultaneously. And they always know where I am physically in the house but they still often confirm it with a holler that necessitates a verbal response. It's developmentally appropriate and reflection of a true connection and bond. This is healthy and good and normal. And when I'm not overstimulated, I love engaging my children with physical affection and verbal attention. But it is inconvenient and sometimes even oppressive. Inevitably, if I take two steps out of a child's eyesight, even when I've just spoken of my intended whereabouts, I will hear my name called out. I am needed. Two steps away. Not in thirty seconds when I will return. Right now. I am usually going into the garage to grab them whatever snack they've requested or running up the stairs for something I or they want. That in no way deters them from the distress they feel upon my removal from their sight. They often come in when I'm using the toilet. I will come upstairs to my room to change my clothing (and to get 30 seconds of silence) and there will be two little feet padding 10 steps behind me. This does not happen to my husband when he is home. He says that it makes him kind of sad to only get my attention leftovers (which is valid) but I think if he had the full impact of the level of attention I receive, it would definitely drive him even more bonkers than me as he's a social but introverted person. This is how I feel as an extrovert. I have no idea how introverted or highly sensitive primary caregivers do this. My kids will talk to Tim and want to know if he's home when they suspect he has arrived (by asking me, of course), but he is not object of this constant homing beacon dynamic. They will sometimes transfer it to him if I'm not home, especially for a significant amount of time. But it only applies to him when he's alone with them. It applies to me when I'm with them all the time, so the majority of my waking hours (and sometimes sleeping ones) for the past ten years. This is not just about the fact that I am their mother. It is also because I am their primary caregiver. So this dynamic does transfer to dads who are stay-at-home parents. But that is statistically very rare, right?
Women are biologically responsible for propagating the species. Not all women should or are interested in doing so (nor should they be coerced to) but this process cannot work without uteruses. In order for humans to continue to exist, women are required to share BODILY space. And while it's magical (seriously, really cool) it is also difficult, sometimes oppressive and even dangerous to our physical and mental health. It's genuinely hard. It hurts. It changes us physically forever. It requires us to walk down the tunnel of birthing, wherein no one can follow us. No matter what medical interventions available to a woman, no matter the supportive coach, no matter the bad ass strong fetus, a woman births alone. It's empowering and painful and amazing. But no one can do it for you, not in that moment. That requires courage that many do not understand. And often we enter that solo space without being prepared for it, at least the first time.
We also seem to praise women who are mothers as being "selfless." That the epitome of good mothering is not caring for yourself. And while parenting requires inevitable stewardship over the safety and well-being of a tiny person, that in no way means you stop having needs or should shirk them indefinitely. Yet every damn Mother's Day card is about giving, sacrifice and selflessness. What is on Father's Day cards? Golf clubs and grills. Why? Because men are defined by their interests and activity (including work) and women are defined by their nurturing and giving to others. We expect dads to express their fatherhood by taking time off to play and we expect women to be selfless and want to hang out with their families. I know mothers of adult kids and grandkids often want family time on Mother's Day. That's awesome and I can totally see myself wanting that in my 60's. In my 30's, I want sleep, time with my friends, time alone with some family time sprinkled in as well. And I love it when we get to share that time with our extended family, whom we don't see as often as we'd like. People have different needs and if the day is supposed to be about them, it's always good to ask them what that looks like for them this year instead of assuming or just keeping up tradition.
I have a friend who often documents on social media how men take up public space, in particular, on public transportation. There are a lot of widely spread knees and items placed upon seats unnecessarily, often next to a woman trying to be as small and courteous as possible. Sometimes I imagine the way men take up public space is intentional, a way of marking territory, claiming space on purpose before someone else does. It's a scarcity mentally, right? In other situations or with other men, it's probably subconscious. We teach boys to conquer, to take, to claim for themselves what's "rightfully" theirs from a very young age. They are taught that masculinity means muscles, bigness, acquisition of assets. Girls are taught to be small, to be conquered, to be pretty and quiet. We are expected to cross our legs seemingly to be modest, but is it also to take up less space?
My dad grew up with the ideology of "children are to be seen not heard" and I don't think he was fully able to shake it in raising us. I think you could argue that society adds to that mantra, "girls are to be pretty not loud." Women are often praised first for their looks and second for their ability to be humble, demure and meek. There is nothing wrong with physical beauty or passivity in and of themselves. If that is natural to you, you should be those things. But I wonder how much of that is taught? We choose decorations based on how they improve our environment. The more unique and decorative the piece, the more it reflects our tastes as collectors. The problem is, women aren't decorations. We don't want to be placed on a pedestal and admired for our beauty. Not really. We want a seat at the table not on the wall. *
I had someone recently ask me who I would be or what opportunities would I have pursued at a younger age if my gender wasn't considered a liability in the conservative church? I HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA. Why? Because my formation happened INSIDE that environment. How much of myself was shaped by what I was allowed or not allowed to be? How much was explicitly said versus implicitly taught? How much subtle or not so subtle redirection happened when I expressed interest in things I wasn't "supposed to do?" Sure, I can teach children, even professionally. But is that because I was conditioned to or because I actually wanted to? How much of all that stuff did I internalize versus others in the same environment? More than most, I'd say. I'm a very sensitive intuitive person, which added to my "otherness" in a patriarchal space that doubled down on "fact" versus "gut feelings."
A man whose church has gone through the process of "allowing" women to use their gifts fully listened to my sermon from a few months ago. And he heard my words about women being conditioned to not speak up and kinda felt like, "haven't we already addressed this?" Like, if we just remove the barriers, the problem is solved. Oh man, would that it could be that simple! I fucking wish!
Sometimes we "solve" the perpetuation of bad ideology but those it has targeted still carry around those wounds and scars.
That's why it's still hard for women. That's why it's still hard for people of color and for the LGBTQ+ community. Even being given the space or being encouraged to take more space doesn't make it easy. And the second you put your toe over the line, you expect to get pushed back. Sadly, that still happens. A lot. Those with privilege are sometimes willing to relinquish some space but only if you'll use it the way they want you to (hello Colin Kapernick!)
So if women are statistically way more likely to be the primary caregiver of children both as mothers and as professional educators and daycare providers. And children have to live in a uterus to come out fully formed after 9-10 months of incubation. Men are taught to be big and to take up physical space. Women are reinforced to be decorative, which requires smallness. It's not a real mystery why it requires courage for women to create space for themselves and why it requires humility for men to give it. This dynamic isn't random or accidental. These are little and big ways patriarchy plays out in day to day life. This dynamic is perpetuated on purpose. It's like when we admit that our criminal justice department isn't actually broken when it treats people of color more harshly. IT'S WORKING PERFECTLY ACCORDING TO DESIGN. And though we're making progress in small ways, and we really are, until women and other marginalized groups are able to ASSUME equal space and regard without hesitation, fear of reprimand or the need to constantly reassure those with more privilege that we're not going to go too far with our newfound equity, we won't be done. We've got work to do.
* Side Note: Did anyone see Tina Fey on Letterman's new Netflix show? He flippantly said something about how he wasn't sure if women even wanted to write for his talk show when it was on the air for decades (almost like, it wasn't that great even though it was the hottest ticket in town for a comedy writer at the time). She immediately came back with, "We do." OF COURSE WE DO. I think he was saying it more as an act of false modesty, but how ignorant do you have to be to think it's presumptuous to imagine that working women want to be in the top tier of their field?