This one’s for my granny, really. I feel pretty sure she would have been an open water swimmer, such was her love of sea swimming. But she was the wrong side of an ocean of feminism, born before women swam against the tide of patriarchy… I could continue to extend this metaphor, but you get the picture.
My granny is a true matriarch. Right now, with 85 years on the clock, she is nursing her husband through his final weeks on this earth. Their exchanges are tender and touching, and we wonder what she will be without him. But at the same time, we’re watching an amazing, strong woman working like a horse to care for others, as she has always done, and she seems like someone who could never be adrift.
At one point in her life, she was caring for three children under the age of seven, and her ailing father, travelling by train from Hampshire to Dover to look after him, putting her feelings of exhaustion down to worry and grief, and missing the signs of her fourth pregnancy.
As a grandmother, she was always cleaning, cooking and playing with us. She’s the only person I know to have had a replacement shoulder from all that ironing. She’s the only person I know who irons underwear.
My own experience is from another place. In between her becoming a mother in 1951, and me in 2006, came the feminist movement. Women of my generation blog about the fact that motherhood is a hard grind, then leave the laundry to fester to go for a swim.
We get lambasted for it, too. Not by our menfolk, parents or grandparents, but ironically by other mothers of our generation who say that we should be grateful for our children, and not whinge about motherhood, rather bask in the sunshine of its eternal glory. Articles like this one lament a current ‘fashion’ to akin motherhood to martyrdom.
I love an irreverent moan, and feel that the success of bloggers like The Unmumsy Mum is a success for all maternal-kind. In my mind, motherhood is akin to martyrdom, as it always has been. My grandmother was a martyr: a fulfilling career and hobbies weren’t really on her radar. She martyred herself to a pile of ironing.
Sometimes I think finding motherhood tough might be a bit wussy compared to my granny’s generation; I can’t imagine not having a washing machine. But our battle ground is the same: expectation. What we actually expect of women may have shifted beyond recognition in the last 85 years, but women’s behaviour and choices are still dictated by societal expectations; in that sense, the feminist movement hasn’t yet done its work.
In the 50s, women were largely expected to marry, stay at home, have children and raise them. It was an age of respectability and conformity. This meant that women had little choice when it came to education, work and personal liberty. Expressing dissatisfaction in your marriage or with your children was a sign of ill mental health.
Now, successful women are expected to be educated, have good jobs, have equal, loving relationships, bright children, amazing homes and looks that belie their true age. In the sense that we make more choices, we have liberty by the bucket load. And yet we’re as oppressed by a media wall of aspiration and judgement as our grandmothers were by 1950s rules of decency.
I’m not saying we have it harder, just that things haven’t moved on as much as we’d like to think. Choose career, and you get judged for leaving it late to have children. Choose children, and you lose out in your career. Get fat in pregnancy and get teased. Get thin, and get accused of using a surrogate like Beyonce Knowles.
Now, as in my grandmother’s day, it’s women who judge the hardest. This culture of expectation pitches women against each other, and that hasn’t changed either. If in the 1950s you’d expressed despair at the demeaning job of wiping endless shitty bottoms, you may have been the subject of gossip at the vicar’s wife’s tea party; now you’d face a bitter rebuke in the pages of The Guardian like this bit of misdirected vitriol by Bibi Lynch.
Now, as in my grandmother’s day, the practical and emotional ties of motherhood trump any amount of choice. Right now, my youngest is sitting on my lap, and I can tell by resting my cheek on his forehead and because his breath doesn’t smell very nice that he’s not very well. No matter what wonderful choices I had in my education, career and clothes, I am in exactly the same spot as my granny was all those years ago as primary care-giver.
And now, as in my grandmother’s day, women have true strength. If we stop judging each other, comparing ourselves, or squinting into the mirror for wrinkles, we’d see small, modest stories of unerring feminine strength, like my 85 year-old granny washing her husband’s feet to make him more comfortable.
I do feel thankful that I’m a woman in a time where I can leave the laundry (two days on the landing damp in a basket) and go swimming. My granny grew up in Dover and loved swimming in the sea; I wish she hadn’t had to abandon it. I don’t think she’d be up for open water swimming now, but she’ll always be with me as I swim.