Lessons in Feminism, From my Father.

I remember one time, my parents and I were travelling in the car on the way home from somewhere. I remember travelling in the car with them a lot, when I was young. We lived on a farm, so even going to the local town meant a good 45 minutes in the car. So obviously, to pass the time, we often talked together. One of the interesting things about my memories of these conversations is how many of them were about ideas. We didn’t really talk about what was happening on the farm or at school. We talked about more abstract concepts.

On this particular occasion, Dad was talking about church, and mentioned something he’d said in a sermon. ‘Could I give sermons when I grow up?’ I asked him. ‘Could I be a priest?’

It was the mid-80s. We were Anglican Church-goers, and the idea of women in the priesthood was not new, but it was by no means widely accepted, especially not in our small West Australian diocese. My father was a deacon by then, having assisted as a lay person during services for some time. But even though women did help in the service occasionally, and were involved in other areas of the church family, they were not in leading roles.

Yet my father didn’t go into any of this. He simply told me that if I wanted to be a priest, then I could. By the time I was grown up, he suggested, there might be lots of women who were priests.

Obviously, by that stage, the church and I had parted ways entirely. But that wasn’t really the point–it was that he was demonstrating that he believed that women could be priests, in a culture where that wasn’t necessarily advocated.

And when I think back over my child- and young-person-hood, there were several incidents, where my father reinforced this notion. He was passionate about education–he still is. It was expected that my sister and I would go to university, and that we would have careers before we had children. The world was our oyster. We could do whatever we set our minds to. When he was travelling a lot, involved in agripolitics, Dad needed a farmhand to take care of the farm while he was away. He hired the daughter of a local family, and she worked for us for a couple of years. See? I felt like he was saying to me, to everyone around us. Of course women can do anything. Even farming.

My father has always enjoyed talking with women. I remember sitting in the kitchen with him, and my mother and a female family friend, while we discussed international politics, economics, history. I think he enjoyed talking to anyone, really, but most of my friends’ fathers didn’t seem to sit in the kitchen talking about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Especially not with women.

And once he had showed me that the world could certainly use more strong women, and that I could be one of them, he would turn this around on me. I’d bring home a report, I’d do well in a competition, and he would shrug, then say, eyes twinkling, ‘Yeah, it’s alright I guess. FOR A GIRL.

Because he could throw that line at me now, knowing that I got the joke. It’s not that others had moved beyond that attitude, that prejudice. It still existed. It still does. But it was his way of pushing me, and of praising me without having to say the words.

Of course, my mother was an important role model, and I don’t want to diminish her involvement in raising children who questioned authority and the status quo. It’s just that often, when I’ve thought about feminism in terms of how I want to parent my own children, I’ve focussed very much on showing them how strong women can be. How women and men are multifaceted, how we can choose our own directions, regardless of what our culture has to say about how we should behave. But it’s not just up to me. It’s not just up to the mothers to show their sons and daughters where the potholes lie along the landscape, and to teach them how to look out for them, when they’re out on their own. It’s up to fathers, too. Because if only the mother is doing this, if only the mother is insisting that women should be treated with respect, that the housework and the out-of-housework can be the responsibilities of everyone, that women can go to university or get a trade, that women can have valid opinions, and become leaders of nations or companies–or churches–then how believable is it, when the men are not, so to speak, singing from the same hymn book?

My father showed me that he believed that women could be whatever they wanted. He and my mother supported me to travel overseas, to go to university, to choose a career I wanted, rather than one which was dictated by any traditional interpretations of what women should or shouldn’t do. In their day, women often felt that their only choices in life were to be teachers or nurses, or to begin a family and stay home with the children. My sister and I grew up knowing we could be anything.

So… I became a teacher who now stays at home looking after her children.

Haha!

Does this make a mockery of my entire upbringing? Of course not. Because I’m a teacher who did a double degree in German and Philosophy, and who worked in retail and volunteered at the soup kitchen. I’m a parent who wrote a thesis on German Green politics, and travelled on her own around Europe, and waited tables and edited a friend’s autobiography. Thanks to my childhood, I bring to my current position a wealth of other experiences, upon which I call everyday, whether I’m working in my home or out if it. And if I had wanted to, I could have been a priest or a farmer, and I still could. The gift my father gave me was one of potential, and I’m excited that both the Handsome Sidekick and I get to pass it on to our daughters, and our sons.

Hands

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Bundles of Joy, With a Focus on the Joy.

Gut reactions are an interesting emotional experience. Sometimes, they’re totally on the mark, like when I hear about a terrible accident somewhere, or when someone has mistreated a child or an animal. But other times, it niggles. I feel a certain way, but then logic gets in the way. I find myself asking what it is that’s making me uncomfortable or angry; I often have to accept that my initial reaction is based on some kind of prejudice or assumption. Once I realise that, I usually feel a bit foolish and vow to be more open-minded, and I am, until the next time when I realise I’m not. I guess we’re all a work in progress.

My gut reaction to this blog post, by Veronica Foale, who has some ‘genetic quirks’ as she likes to put it, was probably one of judgement. Foale has Ehlers Danos Syndrome, which was diagnosed after she had already given birth to her first two children. It was recommended to her that if she were to have any more children, that she pursue the route of IVF so that the embryos could undergo preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Doctors could then determine whether the foetus would have the genetic blueprint for the disease.

Foale did become pregnant with her third baby, and elected not to have the genetic testing. As she points out, her ‘version of EDS doesn’t cause intellectual disability, nor does it decrease life expectancy, and as it is a spectrum disorder, I would have no way of knowing how severe my child’s issues would be (if any) until they were born.’ Foale writes that someone recently made the comment that she should not have had children because she is disabled.

And I suppose, my first thought to that was, ‘yeah, I suppose I agree.’ After all, if someone has a disability which is proven to be hereditary, then isn’t it irresponsible to pass those defective genes onto the next person?  Except… this seems rather draconian. And judgemental. And prejudiced. And makes assumptions on quality of life based on some arbitrary, subjective experience.

As Foale explains:

‘Eugenics is an insidious thing, because in theory, it seems almost sensible. Breeding in order to create desirable traits – surely there’s nothing bad in that?

Until you think about all the amazing flawed people you know, and imagine a world without them here.’

 

Of course, we don’t think of this kind of attitude as eugenics, or we don’t like to. But it is. We wouldn’t deny an able-bodied woman the choice to pursue a pregnancy, or even the choice to give birth to a baby who was disabled. However, we consider that because a person is disabled, s/he will be unable to parent a child, at least, not without financial or physical help from others. 

This train of thought carries with it a lot of broad assumptions about other people’s lives, and other people’s bodies: that disabled people might require assistance in some aspects of their lives, therefore they should not have autonomy in other parts of their lives; that disabled people are a burden on society because they need financial or physical help; that those in society who aren’t disabled would naturally make better parents.

One of the interesting things about discussing disability is that it can quickly become a focus on what others can’t do, as opposed to what they can. It’s very easy to judge people for not being able to do something we can do, and to make leaps of logic as to what kind of an impact that must make on their lives. But in reality, we can’t imagine what someone else’s life is like, regardless of how able-bodied the other person is. Deciding how well someone might cope really isn’t possible, because while we can make broad assumptions based on basic human needs, each person’s perception and experience of life is unique. We can’t get inside someone else’s head. We can’t imagine how difficult or easy life is for anyone, besides ourselves.

When it comes to children, of course we want the best for them. We want to protect them from harm, from pain. We want to make their lives easier than those of the previous generation. We try to create environments where children will be protected, and so we place emphasis on parents being mentally and physically healthy, and if they don’t measure up to this fairly narrow definition of ‘a good parent’, we can be pretty scathing in our judgement of their perceived failings. We rigorously screen adoptive and foster-parents to attempt to ensure that children who might have had a rough beginning have a better future. But the problem with all this is twofold. First, we can’t control everything. Even if we wanted to, we can’t make life soft and problem-free. We love our children, but sometimes, life is hard for them, and that is the case, whatever their abilities. And second, we can’t plan for every eventuality on a personal level. Two friends of mine were in very successful careers, doing jobs at which they were highly competent. When they got pregnant, both of them suffered from ante-natal depression, and one of them was so depressed after the baby was born, that she needed help everyday. Without it, she told me, she wouldn’t have been able to even get out of bed. And yet, before she had a child, nobody would have doubted her capability to cope.

We make decisions about who should and shouldn’t have children based on what we think we know, or what we think we can predict. But if we start judging who can and can’t reproduce based on the quality of one’s genes, where does it end? Take my own situation: both the Handsome Sidekick and I need to wear glasses (due to an inherited condition). He is colour-blind. My father has a hearing difficulty which developed as a child and which may be hereditary. My paternal grandfather died of heart failure, my paternal grandmother died following a stroke, my maternal grandfather died from complications with Parkinson’s disease. There are other mental and physical health issues in both our family trees. And yet, we have four children, who may have inherited any number of these diseases. I didn’t think twice about these conditions when we decided to plan a family, and nobody has ever asked me whether I’m concerned about my children developing these problems when they’re older.

I understand that this is a very emotive topic.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach.  What’s more, the concept of what is disabled and what is not is in constant flux.  Even ten years ago, we knew far less about conditions such as autism or Alzheimer’s disease than we do now.  Research and advances in medicines and treatments have changed how we engage with these conditions, and our society has had to alter its perceptions, as well.  This is not to say that science is going to attempt to mould us into some kind of bland copy of the person who came before us, but it does mean that we need to become more accepting of the diversity which exists in our community, rather than trying to deny it’s there, or prevent it from coming into being.

I understand that people, when deciding that a disabled person should not become a parent, are really making that decision on what they think it would be like to be disabled and a parent, or what it would be like to parent a child with a disability, or what it would be like to be a child with a disability. I know this last is where my thoughts were, in my first reaction to Foale’s discussion of her third pregnancy. But as I realised, and argued above, each person’s experience is different–that’s what makes us all so interesting! And we are more than just our genes. We are people with personalities, which encompass strengths and weaknesses, and qualities both irresistible and undesirable, and the perception of which are which is highly subjective.

Deciding whether or not to have a child is not a rational, straightforward decision. It’s fraught with emotion and expectations, and the resulting offspring often inspires more of the same. But telling someone that she cannot have a child because you’ve decided she won’t be able to manage, or she will do a poor job as a parent, or she simply isn’t physically up to the task, is not only condescending, it’s mean. Rather than judging, wouldn’t it just be better if we went out of our way to help out parents, regardless of their abilities, because no matter where you’re coming from, it’s hard work. And every parent I know could use a little less ideological postulation, and a little more solidarity. Count me in.

It’s the Greatest Country in the World!*

*YMMV

As much as I don’t believe in the religious concept of ‘sin’ (I think people can certainly do wrong things, but that those actions are punishable within our system of justice, rather than there being a spiritual reckoning at some point), I can see why pride is listed among them. Of course, it’s natural to be proud of a particular achievement, but pride can fog the ability to really be objective, to assess just how worthwhile a place or achievement is, in the greater scheme of things. Untempered pride can be dangerous.

What does it say, then, when someone states that his or her country is ‘the greatest in the world’? What is that supposed to mean?

For a long time, I’ve had a problem with this turn of phrase, because I feel like it doesn’t even really make sense. A country is such a blend of nations and cultures, which are often thrown together due to geographical accident, rather than ideological compatibility. Is it really the case that one country can be the greatest in the world? And if so, where does that leave the rest of the world?

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Will McAvoy has a fair bit to say on this particular issue. (Image Source)

 

This has been on my mind over the past week or so, due to the shutdown of the US government. More than any other voices, those I’ve heard most often proclaim that their country is the greatest in the world have been American. It is almost a catchphrase that every president has to use at some point or other. It’s a symptom of a dichotomous language that politicians use the world over: either/or. Either America is the greatest country, or it isn’t. Either you’re with us, or you’re against us. To assume that there are shades of grey allows for doubt to enter the picture, and then questions are raised. Questioning your country’s greatness might mean you doubt that greatness. And that doubt shows weakness.

Doesn’t it?

A person can find his or her country amazing and wonderful. It’s quite possible–and quite normal–to love your own country above all others. But blind adulation and empty proclamations of greatness don’t lend themselves to a healthy relationship, because it means we overlook areas where we may not be great, but with some work, could be better. No person, nation or government is perfect. Those of us who live in a democracy should remember that our own systems are not the pinnacle of governance. We can still do better. Given the current situation, we can do a lot better.

It makes me so sad, to see dear friends of mine in the United States, having to deal with the fallout of self-centred individuals who have seen fit to bring the government to a standstill. I’m sad, because my friends deserve better.

Please don’t misunderstand me: my own country is by no means perfect. I love living where I live, but I’ll be the first to admit that we have a plethora of problems. We have our share of ignorant, xenophobic politicians, who can be downright mean, and incredibly short-sighted. Australians can be racist, intolerant and immature. We even have bumper stickers to prove it.

Round

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Sigh.  It just makes me so proud!  (Source, Source)

 

If any of us want to lay claim to ours being the greatest country in the world, then we need to accept the bad along with the good. We need to take ownership of our history and our indiscretions and our wrongdoings. We need to ask ourselves where we could possibly improve. We need to accept our faults. And we need to realise that just glossing over the surface and shouting to everyone how much we love our country and how great it is, is not going to make it great. Moreover, we need to realise that it’s really OK, if we’re not the best. We can surely admire other nations for their strengths, even if they have strengths that we don’t. Imagine, what an amazing place our world would be, if we could just be honest and admit that we’re not always the best. We’re not always right. Sometimes, we screw up. Sometimes, we’re childish. Sometimes, we need to say ‘sorry’, and then ask, ‘what can we do, now, to make it better?’  Only then, could we really argue that we have attained greatness.

I would love to read the news on Monday night and to find out that the US government will be resuming normal activities from that afternoon, or even from Tuesday morning. I’d like to read that the Republicans have managed to heal the fissures in their party, and that the budget will be passed. But I suppose that’s unlikely to happen. It would mean some politicians would have to stand up and tell their constituents that it’s unfair to hold the country to ransom. It would mean some politicians would have to swallow their pride. It could mean that these representatives might lose their seats, next election. Would they really be willing to do this? What is more important: individual political success, or allowing the federal government of a country of over three hundred million individuals to continue?

This shutdown will probably last another few days. Maybe a week. Maybe two weeks.  And then the debt ceiling issue begins to sag above us. I don’t even want to think about the problems that might bring. I just want to hope that there will be a resolution before that. Because then it starts to really impact the rest of us… who don’t even get to vote for any of these politicians, and yet have to find ways to deal with the fallout.

Claiming your country ‘is the greatest’ effectively shuts down any kind of dialogue about how we can get along, how we can improve relations with each other.  And it goes further: it sets up a comparison, insinuating that everyone else is less than best.  It means you are holding yourself up as a yardstick to the rest, by which they can measure their greatness, or lack thereof, compared to yours.

So, is the United States the greatest country in the world? To those who would argue this, and especially to those who are preventing the country from moving anywhere, and who are threatening the rest of the world’s economy with their bullying tactics, and who–most importantly–are stopping their own workforce from being able to get on with doing their jobs and getting paid for them… well, to those people, I would simply shrug and say:

‘I expected better.’