Kathy Burke’s documentary All Woman explores different perspectives on being a woman today. The episode on motherhood got me thinking about selfishness.
Kathy talked about why she didn’t want to have children, saying “as a kid, we didn’t have much money. If I have a kid, all my money’s got to go on a kid. F— that, I want to spend my money on myself.”
It’s new, isn’t it? Women saying what they want or don’t want with conviction. And crucially, not judging others with different desires.
This is a radical perspective because as women, we’re supposed to be selfless and nurturing. How soon do we become aware of this? My two year old niece carries around a baby doll, making sure it stays warm and feeding it snacks. So maybe we become aware of it from a very young age.
The idea that as women we should be looking after someone – children, partners, parents, friends – is reinforced throughout life. It’s embedded so deeply that identifying your own desire from social expectation is very hard. Sometimes I think I have a deep instinct to nurture, but who knows if it’s social conditioning. Is this why we often struggle to look after ourselves?
Not only should we nurture, but we must be domesticated. Apparently women still do 60% more unpaid work than men. When I lived with a partner previously I cooked and did most of the chores, despite both of us working full-time. It wasn’t a choice so much as getting fed up of things sooner and knowing one of us needed to tidy up. Yes I could have asked for help (and did), but then I was nagging. That’s the trap. ‘Good’ partners aren’t supposed to nag or be awkward, difficult or resentful. And sometimes it’s just easier to do the washing-up yourself than let all these feelings show.
Sprinkled on top of the domestic is emotional labour, of which women are also expected to take the lion’s share. Emotional labour is the niceties. It’s remembering birthdays, responding to invites, making polite chitchat with the neighbours. It’s the hidden stitches holding our social lives together. And women often end up doing it. Because ‘we’re better at it’? Or because we get cornered and realise someone has to.
We are conditioned to derive self-worth from doing emotional labour. To reward ourselves for staying on top of it, or regret when we don’t. I feel bad that I forgot or was late sending friends’ birthday cards this year. Do the men in my life worry about things like this?
Another radical bit of commentary is the 2017 film, The Escape. It depicts a woman who is a wife and mother, doing all of the above tasks. She is desperately unhappy in a way that no-one in her life can understand. Everyone tells her how lucky she is and can’t understand why she would lack fulfillment. Her escape is a ticket to Paris, an act of pure selfishness.
But what if more women were selfish? What if we owned it and even occasionally celebrated it?
As an unmarried childfree woman in my thirties, I feel like I’ve slipped into a secret parallel universe. On an average day, I’m not changing nappies and spend no time hoovering or ironing. I rarely clean and cook mostly for myself. I am not in talks with a mother-in-law about Sunday lunch or booking the car in for its MOT. I am not belittling any of these tasks. They just don’t fall into my current remit.
To be clear, my life isn’t all cocktails on rooftops now either. I’m just here being myself and looking after myself. Living and working through ups and downs. An ordinary yet quietly radical way of life.
And it feels weird, even wrong some days. I should be looking after someone, shouldn’t I? Probably multiple people. It’s been drilled into me for my entire life. Sometimes I’m asked if I have kids and I have a fleeting moment of panic. What if I do and I’ve…..forgotten?
Then the biological clock explodes. So many questions, which the person who asked me probably isn’t thinking. What exactly have I been doing with my time? How have I messed up the only thing I was meant to do? Am I malfunctioning? Have I tried hard enough?
And yet, it is possible to get to this age and not have children. No, it wasn’t the plan. But here I am.
So I live in a state of mild confusion at being out of sync with expectation, constantly aware of what I don’t have. But also in a state of giddy, almost unbelievable freedom.
I remember the first time I realised it. Some time in my early thirties, newly separated and eating dinner alone. Taking myself out to watch a band play. Completely alone. My default setting at the time was sadness. Yet as I sat there, beer in hand, about to go to a gig which I could leave whenever I got tired or bored, it hit me. These were my choices. There were no one else’s feelings to consider here. No one to nurture, no drama, nothing to clean up, no expectation, no apologies, nothing to feel guilty about. No real need for sadness actually.
A free woman.