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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

 

Sexists: a spotter's guide for nice men

I've blogged about how I'd like to see more men smacking down sexists before, but the last couple of days I've been in embroiled in an online argument with and about misogynists, and something seems to have emerged:

A lot of men don't like misogyny, but find it difficult to spot in its subtler manifestations. Therefore, if a woman accuses a man of misogyny, they don't really know what to think. They don't want to support sexism, but they aren't sure if the woman is right or not ... so they stay silent, and inadvertently give the sexist man - who isn't going to care about the opinion of a mere woman - tacit permission. Because if he was wrong, somebody rational/sensible/devoid of those bothersome ovaries would have said something, right?

I've been talking about that, and I thought I'd put together a post compiled from my statements in that debate to help men of good will identify the early signs.


Here's the first thing: it is dispiritingly difficult for a woman to bring up the issue of misogyny. If she does, no matter in what context or however appropriately, she can predict sure as sunrise that the following will happen: a man or men will step in, assuming a tone of patronising authority, and explain to her that she's wrong. It wasn't sexist. It, whatever it was, was caused by other things. He will talk down to her, declare that whatever sexist incident happened was not something she has any business getting worked up about, and generally set her straight. Often he will also argue with things she didn't say, and that may in fact be the exact opposite of what she's saying. He may inform her of facts that are common knowledge and correct her about things she knows perfectly well, with the insulting assumption that she's incapable of seeing the blindingly obvious.

He will sometimes deny instances of misogyny so staggeringly obvious that it's hard to read his opinion as anything other than 'There is no such thing as sexism' - because if the thing he's denying is sexist isn't sexist, then nothing is. From this, a woman can easily read the implication: being treated badly because you're a woman is fair and does not need changing.

He will do all this based on no facts, evidence or expertise in the field. (Things that she might very well possess. She will, if nothing else, have a lot of experience of sexism: live as a woman, and that happens to you.) His dismissal of her concerns is generally based on nothing more authoritative than his own feelings - which he considers more authoritative than her feelings, knowledge, experience, education and expertise all put together. There is no kind of qualification a woman can produce that will convince him that her opinion is better supported than the opinion he's just produced off the top of his head.

At this point, the woman will get frustrated. But the men of good will observing will wonder why she's getting so upset. If they're nice they won't step in to 'correct' her, but they will start to wonder why she's so bothered by someone who, as far as they can tell, is just disagreeing with her about something. Women are generally more sensitised to tone when it comes to men talking down to women, naturally enough, and a man who misses the tone (which is almost always a warning sign that things will get worse if she sticks to her guns) will see it purely as a theoretical disagreement between equals. Because he thinks men and women are equal, and tends to assume other people do too.

So here's the first tip: when it comes to men patronising women, there's a difference between disagreement and dismissal. And a man using a dismissive tone to a woman on the subject of misogyny is a man acting extremely badly.

In the arguments I've seen recently, often a man dismisses a suggestion of misogyny when there's the allegation that a man did something violent to a woman or several women. He will do it with no knowledge of the case; again, his lordly feelings are his only guide - and those feelings motivate him to put down any suggestion of misogyny as a serious issue. From this, the women get an under-the-radar but definite message: 'We don't really believe in misogyny. Or at least, not on the word of a mere woman.' Chris Rock sarcastically asked whether you had to shoot Medgar Evers before you got called a racist, and there's an equivalent with sexism: it seems like you have to write a manifesto before some men are prepared to consider the possibility.

A man making such a pronouncement is saying that, in effect, a man has to provide tremendous evidence of misogyny before women's concerns about him will be taken seriously - and as very few men admit to misogyny, bottom line becomes 'Shut up about discrimination; I don't want to hear about misogyny even when it gets women raped and killed and mistreated every day and might have done so in this case.' The woman isn't upset because he disagreed with her. She's upset because he assumed misogyny was a dismissable concern.

And ruling out misogyny for bad reasons is dangerous.

A man who knee-jerk assumes a woman is wrong when she mentions misogyny is a man who is actively fighting against a woman's right to voice her concerns about anti-female bigotry. If he takes a look at the facts of the case and has a lot of information at his disposal and seriously considers the possibility and then comes to the conclusion that it wasn't a major factor, that's fine. But if all he has to say is 'Misogyny? Nonsense,' based on no evidence, the problem isn't his opinion about whatever subject is ostensibly under discussion; the problem is his opinion about women.

So that's Sign One for the guys: a woman mentions that she thinks something is sexist, and a man asks her, 'Who are you going to believe? Me or your girly eyes?'

Does this mean a man is a sexist, men of good will may wonder?

There are two answers to that:

First: intentions are not the issue. If an argument tends to support sexism, then we don't need to prove a man hates women to have a problem with what he's saying.

Second: check his reactions.

Nobody is asking men to spot misogyny all the time. Women have more experience of it, so are more likely to be the ones who spot the warning signs.

After the warning signs emerge, consider these two common patterns:

1. Man says something that puts women on guard.
2. Woman says something about it.
3. Man says, 'Oops, didn't mean to sound sexist, sorry. This is what I actually meant.'
4. Woman says, 'Oh, okay then.'

or:

1. Man says something that puts women on guard.
2. Woman says something about it.
3. Man ignores woman's obvious concern that he's belittling her gender, and repeats his point in a louder/more dismissive tone.
4. Woman objects.
5. Man starts implying she's a bad person for daring to do the worst thing in the world and call someone prejudiced, and again repeats his point in a more dismissive tone.
6. Repeat until woman either explodes or gives up in despair.

The difference between the two is easy to spot: the sexist is the one who either ignores or dismisses the woman's concern about whether he's implying degrading or dangerous things about women. A decent man may not like being accused of sexism, but he usually at least addresses the implication and tries to think about it. A sexist either puts on his martyr's robe or his teacher's hat.

So if a man wants to support women's equality, he doesn't have to be the first one to see, or even to understand, the subtle sexism in another man's initial words. All he needs to do is respect the fact that when women allege that a man is being sexist, they're often right - and even if they aren't, a) Their concerns are legitimate and they have the right to raise them, and b) a non-sexist man will respond to those allegations in a way that eliminates him as a suspect.

Basically: the easiest way to spot a sexist is in how he responds to a woman saying 'Hey, that thing you said sounded sexist.' A decent man may not agree with her - either her opinion about the subject initially under discussion or her suspicion that he's being sexist - but he at least takes the concern seriously. A sexist doesn't.

Because the thing is, a decent man respects women and doesn't want to make them feel uncomfortable or degraded. If a woman says 'Hey, you're making me feel uncomfortable/you sound like you're degrading me', a decent man cares. He may not agree with her theoretical opinion - and it burns me how often one has to say 'Women don't call you sexist just because you don't agree with them' - but when a woman says he's made her uncomfortable, he cares. Because he recognises that women are human beings. A sexist doesn't respect women, so if a woman says she's uncomfortable with what he says, then he doesn't care how she feels about it: he only cares about how he feels about it, because feelings are only important when the person feeling them matters. Ignoring a woman's concern that you're being sexist is sexist. You don't have to grovel, you don't have to let yourself be brainwashed, you don't have to have made her uncomfortable on purpose: you just have to care, like any decent person cares when they've upset another human being. If you don't, it's a pretty loud declaration that you don't believe what women think and feel matters.

If you don't find it easy to see sexism in a man's post, try looking for it in how he behaves when women bring it up. That's your biggest clue.

And guys, if you think a man is being sexist, please, please say so. Women can tell him he's being sexist till they're blue in the face, and he won't listen. Know why? Because sexists don't listen to women.

Some men worry that they aren't qualified to speak for women. Those are the decent men who respect women. If you worry that you're overstepping, you're the guy we want to hear from. Just say that you obviously can't speak for women but that as a man you think there's some disrespect for women going on. It's fine. If you are obviously speaking out of concern for women's rights, women will forgive you if you get something a bit wrong.

Some men feel that they don't need to step in because the women are doing such an eloquent job for themselves. This is because they have enough respect for women to hear what a woman is actually saying, to perceive that women may have intelligence, talent or competence. But you know what a sexist hears when a woman talks? 'Blah blah I'm a girl blah blah I have feelings blah blah I need a big clever man to instruct me.' Even if you have no faith in your own eloquence, say something. Even 'I'm a man and I agree with Woman X' is worth saying, for two reasons:

First, as I said, sexists don't listen to women. An awkward comment from a man will be heard by a sexist more clearly than the most eloquent comment in the world from a woman. It's a sad experience for many women that you struggle and strain to get a point across (not even necessarily about sexism), have a man or men ignore you in lordly fashion, then get your point repeated in very slightly different words by another man, only to have the men who were ignoring you turn around and say, 'Wow, good point!' This drive women to distraction, but if it gets the point across, use it. Say something.

Second, women aren't mind-readers. If you don't say you agree with us, we don't know we agree with us. Instead, we feel like only women care about sexism, that it's impossible to talk about it without being patronised, and that we're fighting against insults and degradation all on our own out here. If the men who understand that women can think for themselves stay out, all women hear from men is the sexists running their mouths.

This is exhausting. Women leave discussion boards and social groups because of this. Even strong-willed women with high self-esteem get tired. As my cyber-friend Will Wildman remarks, silent support is not actually supportive.

So guys, if you want the sincere friendship and appreciation of women: keep your eyes open for sexists. And if you see one, give him a whap. We need you here.


Note: I hope this post will trigger a discussion. I will be moderating it with a heavy hand: this is my blog, created by my time, my effort and my money, and I am going to stand no nonsense. Men who have questions or genuine concerns are welcome. Men who are sexist and wish to patronise, correct or insult me or any other woman poster will be summarily deleted. If you find it unfair, tell it to the Marines. Self-pitying whines will also be deleted.

Comments:
Posted from the online discussion by permission of its author, Caravelle:

On the "how to recognize sexism on the internet" discussion, I am totally sympathetic to the men who don't notice it : I often don't notice it either, and I've had enough stupid uninformed opinions in the past that I tend to assume good faith and see lack of arguing skills where others see sexism. But see, the pattern Kit talked about. I noticed it here, and it's also happening on another comment thread I'm reading. Very often someone will post something I don't think is sexist, I might even think it's reasonable or agree with it. Then female posters will say that his post exhibited sexism, which I didn't see. The original poster is offended and defends their position... And the funny thing is, within two or three iterations of this the OP will be doing exactly the misogynistic things the women were talking about since the beginning.

So to Xavier I'd say : even if you don't see the crime, pay attention to the coverup.
 
Thank you for summarizing your various Slacktivist comments here, Kit. I think they're timely and necessary, and incredibly helpful. I would also like to apologize for remaining silent until now.
 
Great summary of many of the things I have seen for the last couple of days.

I would add one more tactic I have noticed in this recent discussion -- avoiding responses by the tactical use of "time off the board." Person A (guy who just doesn't see the misogyny) posts an easily refutable comment.

Person B (a woman) posts a long and detailed response.

Person A disappears for several hours and then returns with a comment "didn't have time to read anything after I posted" thus effectively silencing the voices of his opposition.

It is the internet equivalent of putting one's fingers into one's ears.
 
Adding another comment I made in the discussion:

There's a particular kind of sexist around these days that's often the instigator of these kinds of problems.

Because women have sweated blood to make it socially unacceptable to be sexist, most sexists nowadays will protest that they aren't.

This kind of sexist will profess, loudly and often, that he supports women's rights, and will sometimes point to examples. Usually they are things for which he can take absolutely no credit, such as the increased number of women in public positions (er, did you arrange that yourself, pal?) or the fact that he has female relations (wow, you mean you actually know some women? Amazing!).

However, in this case, he just happens to think the woman is wrong. In this case, he just happens to think there was no sexism. In this case, he just happens to think the woman's stupid. And in this case. And in this case. And in this case. It's not because he's sexist, you understand: it's because he's rational, and he will explain to you at great length just how very, very rational and right he is.

This doesn't make him sexist. How could you say such a thing? It's just in this case, he's right and she's wrong. That's not him, that's just circumstances. The kind of circumstances that happen every time a woman won't let him do her thinking for her.

He doesn't have a problem with women. He just has a problem with her. And her. And her. And her. And her...
 
@mmy - I'd add another common behaviour, employed when the guy's really stuck: disappearing without answering anybody, and then popping up later in a different discussion, acting like nothing has happened. That way, if a woman says 'Hey, I'm still bothered by what you did', he gets to class her as the troublemaker who just had to start something when everyone was having a perfectly nice conversation.
 
Thanks for posting this. As one of the guys who tends to assume good faith (and sometimes poor communication skills) on the part of others - and, well, as a guy - I tend not to notice sexism unless/until it becomes very, very blatant. I'll keep this in mind as a way of being more aware of it.

Also... was this sparked by a Slacktivist thread? I've missed the last several threads, but... yeesh. I expect better, you know?
 
@Michael Mock: the thing I'd invite you to consider is this:

As sexists remind us every day, it's a big deal to call somebody prejudiced. It exposes you to ostracism if the community doesn't accept your assessment, because nobody wants to be around somebody who hauls out the big guns for no reason.

Consequently, a woman who accuses a man of sexism is taking a big risk. I do not think I have ever done it without bringing a firestorm down on my head. Sometimes I've done it, the man has agreed and apologised, and then other men have attacked me for doing it even though the man himself didn't object.

Women don't allege sexism lightly. There is a cost to it, even if you have excellent evidence.

So if a woman alleges sexism, 'assuming good faith' on the part of the accused isn't actually being neutral. There are two potential wrongdoers here: one might-be-sexist, one-might-be-false-accuser. If you're going to be fair, you need to assume good faith in both of them ... but that's going to be extremely difficult to pull off.

You could, at best, assume it's an innocent misunderstanding. But to assume that you'd have to assume that you are better than the woman at picking up and understanding social signals that relate to sexism, and that's a big assumption. It might be, but it shouldn't be your default assumption when a woman says 'Hey, that's sexist', because that's, well, sexist.

Otherwise, you're going to have to either have no opinion at all or else pick a side. In this situation, somebody's in the wrong. And if you try to assume good faith in the man, you're assuming the person in the wrong is the woman. Which is, once again, sexist.

This is not to say that you have to agree with every woman who ever alleges sexism. But when the subject comes up, rather than trying to assume good faith in the man, I'd suggest suspending any opinion of him, good or bad, and just listening as she makes her case.

This is especially important as basically nice men can say or think sexist things just because we live in a sexist society, nobody's immune to influence and it's possible to get a bad opinion stuck in your head until someone comes along to correct it. So even if the guy is speaking in good faith, it doesn't mean he isn't saying something sexist.

Basically, if a woman alleges sexism, it's best not to assume she's wrong as a starting position, and assuming good faith on the part of the man tends in that direction. You don't have to assume bad faith either, but assuming good faith is a bigger decision than it looks.
 
Things to try if you're a guy who notices sexism and you want to help other men to do so as well -
- make irrelevant comments about a sexist man's physical attributes after he has just given an important speech
- refer to any group that is more than 50% female as generically female and watch them deal with being excluded linguistically
- when a man makes a point a woman made a few minutes earlier but was ignored you can point that it was already said, and said better, by a woman. Don't wait for a woman to do so.

I've tried these, and others, often and the hardcore sexists do all the dismissive covering up you'd expect but many times guys tell me I have a good point and women will thank me and often note that the particular issue has infuriated them but they've given up fighting it
Just trying to be practical here. Misogyny is deep-rooted and both blatant and subtle (e.g. I refuse to sing the words of my national anthem as written) and the scorn I sometimes get as a guy when I do this is as nothing compared to what women go through every day.

The Kidd
 
@ Kit - I meant more that if a man makes a sexist comment, I am unlikely to notice it on my own unless it's pretty blatant. So I may very well assume good faith on the part of the OP until someone points out that what they're saying is sexist. At that point, I'm going to assume that it's much more likely that the woman is seeing something that the man is missing, precisely because I find it so easy to miss these things myself.

Once the "accusation"... I don't really like that word, because usually when I see sexism pointed out, it isn't done as a personal accusation; it's characterizing a particular comment or position. Anyway, once the accusation has been made, I'm far more likely to err in the other ways you describe: thinking that I'm not qualified to comment; or assuming that because the woman is making her point clearly and firmly, it should be as persuasive to the offender as it is to me.

I am not, in principle, a sexist. I try not to be one in practice either, but it's hard to correct what you can't see. (This is precisely why I appreciate your posts on the topic: they're clear, succinct, and helpful.)

So, yeah... the extent of my presumption of good faith for a guy who says something sexist is a tendency to assume that he didn't do so intentionally. That presumption dries up pretty quickly if he refuses to even consider the possibility, or to engage with what he's being told.

Again, thanks. I'm still learning how to see these things. You offer patterns to look for suggestions on how to help, which are precisely the sort of things I need for this.
 
Thanks for saying all of this, and saying it so very well.
 
Thanks for the clear and practical advice. I've been a silent-because-I-think-women-can-say-it-more-eloquently man, but now I know better.
 
This looks familiar. The woman who is attacked for calling out sexism looks rather like the LGBT person who is attacked for calling out homophobia. The last time it happened the culprit was more concerned about me overhearing what they said, as opposed to what they actually said. This move immediately concedes defeat, but the culprit is trying to shift blame.

I think your advice is very easy to generalise, to other groups that are not on the top of the social pile.
 
The woman who is attacked for calling out sexism looks rather like the LGBT person who is attacked for calling out homophobia.

Oh yeah, that's a bad one too. If someone's being bigoted, the 'Calling me bigoted is WAY WORSE than whatever I said about you!' move is a bleakly familiar one. Deny and deflect, deny and deflect.

It's a general problem, and I think the advice is generally applicable: if someone demeans a marginalised group of which you're not a member, speak up. A homophobe will probably listen more to a straight person, a racist will probably listen more to a white person, a transphobe will probably listen more to a cis person, an Islamophobe will probably listen more to a Christian, and anti-Semite will probably listen more to a Gentile, and so on. We need to have each others' backs.
 
Kit, I hope you don't mind if I do a bit of a "cross board" comment here.

In the long discussion that has been going on about abortion on the slacktivist board a number of points got lost.

If I could have gotten David to answer clearly as to what a "person" was I would have, next, been able to ask him why he rated the "personhood" of the fetus higher than that of the mother. My sense was that one of the reasons he would not (?could not?) answer clearly is that if once he laid out his criteria he would have faced that question. And, of course, it allows no answer that does not make it clear that "mothers" are devalued or have no value at all in his mystical system.

I find that many men like to play the "philosophy" game when questions of abortion come up. Translated roughly it is "this is far too complicated stuff for you ladies to understand, just go away and let us men figure out the hard questions and we will give you the answers when you bring us our coffee." This is not, of course, the way real philosophers approach the problem it is the way that guys who have taken Phil 101 carry on.

It is yet another way of excluding women from conversations of critical importance to women.

That was why I was trying to interleave my responses to David with statements of support for other women, no matter their choices. I was attempting to show what "acknowledging personhood" actually involves. Women are persons and therefore only they should have the right to make decisions as to what happens to them.

I did, however, appreciate your comment about torture because another tactic in the game David was playing was distancing it from the reality that women actually face. If you are so against the terminations of pregnancies then you should be out there fighting for better medical care for women.

And yes, I do think it was an issue to David that I was a woman and I wouldn't let him get away with simply saying 'lo I have spoken and my words have great meaning.' It was really just another version of the what OTIC had been doing the other day.
 
I haven't really been following the abortion debate, because it's not a comfortable subject for me, but I'd add a suggestion to your suggestion that mothers are devalued. In my experience it's slightly more complicated than that: motherhood is idealised, and actual people are judged harshly based on whether they measure up to the ideal or not.

I'm inclined to blame this on a moral discourse that's long been dominated by fairly sexist men. If motherhood doesn't happen to you, then it's an abstract issue. You can comfortably spin all sorts of abstract ideas about it, and get fond of them. If you don't respect female experience, then a woman who comes along and contradicts your ideas by the standard sexist tactic of 'I know more about this from my big male theories than you do from your little female life'. To men sexist enough, nothing a woman says can be as true as anything a man says, even about female experience ... so the ideal of motherhood remains untouched.

And that's rough on women in all sorts of ways. Very few people reach a helping hand up to that pedestal.

Personally I find that ideals of motherhood are always destructive. A friend of mine talks about the Bad Mothers Club of which she is a member, and it's helpful. There's no such thing as a perfect mother, so find it's better to go on results than on role: is the baby reasonably healthy, more or less hitting its developmental targets, capable of good moods and clean-ish? Then lay off the mother, she's doing her best.

(When the kid's old enough to speak for itself, that's another issue, of course. But again, that's between mother and child, and idealists would help more by keeping their oar out.)
 
Whenever I call someone out on a homophobic remark they often say "I didn't know you were gay." Whether I am or not should be irrelevant but I make it clear I'm hetero. It sometimes makes them think again, which is the whole point.
The Kidd.
 
Kit -- re the concept of a "bad mother." These people don't want mothers to be actual women they want them to be plaster saints.

I found it amazing how much "better" I found my mother to have been over time. When I was 10 I thought she was just "wrong" and "mean" and when I was 20 I thought she was "misguided but well-meaning" and by the time my mother died I found myself hoping that faced with the challenges she contended with I would do as good a job.

You are right -- the concept of "motherhood" is greatly idealized. Indeed it is idealized to the point that women get removed from the context of their actual lives. I look back on my mother's life and realize that she wasn't just "a mother" she was also a daughter, a sister, a grand daughter, a wife and a grandmother. She was an aunt and a cousin. An army officer and a teacher. A friend and a caregiver. And she was also a person. A woman who was well aware of many of her own failings and who struggled every day of her life to be the best person she could be.

How dare someone criticize her because rather than watching her family do without things she went back to work? How dare someone criticize her because rather than dwindle into a housebound and isolated person she went back to college as an adult and took jobs that provided her with intellectual stimulation.

If, after almost 61 years of marriage and with all those opportunities to fall short of perfection I do half as well as my mother I will be a happy person.
 
I haven't really been following the abortion debate, because it's not a comfortable subject for me, but I'd add a suggestion to your suggestion that mothers are devalued.

I reflected on that a bit, when I was googling for data to show David how hard pregnancy is (because I'd seen this tactic used before : actually spelling out all that can go wrong, and all that's unpleasant when it goes right, with pregnancy really brings the stakes home). I looked up things like "pregnancy statistics" and "pregnancy complications" and most of the results I got focused on what could go wrong for the child more than for the mother.

I didn't want to read too much into it because most people who go on the internet looking for pregnancy facts are having a wanted child and that's what they're thinking of so it's normal to focus on that... but still.
 
I found it amazing how much "better" I found my mother to have been over time. When I was 10 I thought she was just "wrong" and "mean" and when I was 20 I thought she was "misguided but well-meaning" and by the time my mother died I found myself hoping that faced with the challenges she contended with I would do as good a job.

I have the opposite situation. I think my mother is great, even more so when I consider what she accomplished with her life besides raising me and three brothers. Even when I was younger I don't remember thinking she was a bad mother - bad as I'd think she was I never had any doubt that she was still the best mother evah.

However... once when I was at a not-great place in my life she tearfully wondered if it was her fault, she'd failed me in the way she brought me up or something. To which I wanted to say, thank you for the vote of confidence Mom but that wouldn't help would it. I was totally shocked that she'd blame herself for things that I messed up completely on my own, thanks.

But now I'm wondering what kind of messages she might have been getting all her life that could have contributed to this. It kills me that I might be giving her self-esteem issues over things that are really my problem.
 
But now I'm wondering what kind of messages she might have been getting all her life that could have contributed to this. It kills me that I might be giving her self-esteem issues over things that are really my problem.

That is part of the way in which "the abstract perfection of motherhood" undermines actual mothers. They have so internalized the idea that all problems their children have are the fault of "bad mothering" that anything they perceive as worrisome in their children's lives translates into them having done a bad job. Which undermines the esteem of both the mother (I did the job badly) and the child (how good could I be if my mother thinks she did a bad job raising me.)
 
Mmy: your mother was a hero, it can't be said often enough.

When it comes to maternal guilt, I think there are probably two factors - though I haven't been a mother for very long, and may discover others.

The first is social pressure. Boy do people like to judge mothers. Are you familiar with the phrase 'drive-by mothering'? People actually stop you on the street to tell you you're doing it wrong. The judgement starts in pregnancy, gets brutal when it comes to childbirth (the Bad Mother is the one who decides she can't stand the pain and takes some pain relief), moves on to breastfeeding (my husband and I thought we'd invented the phrase 'the Lactatorship', only to discover that there's already a phrase: 'the Breastapo') ... all sorts of areas that are extremely intimate get treated as public property, to comment on and tell you you're doing it wrong.

Consequently, it isn't even a rare mother who doesn't expect to be criticised at the first sign of trouble: it's a mother utterly inept in the art of pattern recognition. You get criticised when you really aren't doing anything very bad; expecting the blame if something genuinely bad happens is simple Pavlov.

But added to that, there's just the experience of looking after a baby. Babies are extremely vulnerable. Now, actually there are things that happen to babies that aren't the mother's fault - colic is the big one. If your baby has colic it will scream all day no matter what you do, and the only way to know you're being a good mother is that you didn't flee the house with your hands over your ears and never come back. (I've been very lucky to escape that, but friends of mine went through it, and oh boy. My hat is permanently off to them.)
 
But when babies are small, you have to do everything for them, and so you can drift into the mindset that everything that happens to them is because of you ... and that's going to leave an impression. I actually got a shock the first time my son smiled when I came into the room. It was moving, but it was also astonishing. For the past five or six weeks - a lifetime in babyland - I'd been pouring all my energy into him, learning as fast as I could, working all hours, feeding and changing and carrying and soothing him and just doing what you do to keep a baby alive. He was something I poured into. Love, with a newborn, exists very much in action. I simply hadn't had time to think that while I was putting all this into him, he might also be forming opinions about me.

So it kind of floored me. Turned out he'd been thinking independently all along. He got this look on his face: 'Hey, there's that person I like!' And because I'd been so much in mother-mode, I realised I'd been, effectively, objectifying him. Or at least, I'd forgotten that he could think and act for himself.

Not in a way that he suffered from, evidently. With a newborn you sort of have to, a bit: it helps you not take it personally at three in the morning. But I wonder if those months of babycare leave a trace.

Though that's part of our culture too, of course. Babies really need an extended family; nuclear families with two parents, especially when one or both work, are not what babies are supposed to have, and all the extra effort a parent - usually a mother - has to go to because we no longer live with our parents and cousins probably makes women a little bit crazy too. I suspect I'll probably be a little bit crazy when it comes to my son on and off throughout his life; I can only hope that I'll listen when he tries to set me straight.

Motherhood is an intensely pressured position. You get pressure from within the relationship, through no fault of the child's, simply because it's a big responsibility. You also get massive pressure from outside. I suspect it's the two together that leads mothers to say silly things.

Plus, y'know, all of us do silly things sometimes. But the relationship between parent and child is always intense, and so any mistakes are going to be hugely magnified just because of the nature of the relationship...
 
Boy do people like to judge mothers.

My mother had a moment of utter and complete public horrible judged-by-others when I was an infant. Decades later it still burned in her memory.

Okay, anyone reading this who is squicked out by gross bodily functions should turn away right now.

As I have mentioned I am a coeliac. Mom literally couldn't successfully nurse (and apparently everyone in the room - men included - feel the right to criticize a woman for that) and so she was attempting to find an infant formula that didn't make me ill.

So one day she was sitting in a restaurant with me in a high-chair and my bowels did the 'exploding thing' that happens to coeliacs and the shit was quite literally running down my legs and the legs of the high chair and onto the floor below.

There she was, tired, sore (her breasts were filled with milk but I wouldn't nurse/she couldn't 'let down' I am not sure which was the greatest problem) out for the first somewhat civilized meal she had had in weeks and she ended up having to mop up shit under the eyes of disapproving strangers.

Don't think that memory ever stopped being painful.
 
Turned out he'd been thinking independently all along. He got this look on his face: 'Hey, there's that person I like!'

Oh, my sister talked about that -- her utter and complete amazement and excitement when, as she put it, "I started to see HIM, his separate personality." She told me that she find that part of motherhood rather like an exciting (and dramatic) mystery story.

You wash him, you change his nappies. You feed him and then, one day you realize he likes you.

What a wonderful moment. A wonderful love story.
 
With Firstborn, I was eight months in before I started the shift from thinking of him as a project to thinking of him as a person. Now, of course, he's four and a half; this week, he picked out a present for the birthday of one of his classmates (and didn't do a bad job of it, either).
 
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