By Gisela Ervin-Ward
Turn to the mother next to you and ask her if her view of feminism and the practicalities of living a feminist life changed after she had children. Go on. I’ll give you a minute.
So, how did that go? Whether the mother you spoke to gave you a mute nod or slapped her thigh and declared: ‘Well, let me tell you a story…’, I’ll wager that she probably told you that she felt the weight of the gender roles shift when she became a mother.
When I asked Rebekah Robertson, author of About a Girl, a memoir about her experience supporting her transgender daughter, Georgie Stone, she said: ‘When I had children, I literally felt the brick wall in front of me. Slammed into it. It wasn’t even a glass ceiling; it was a brick wall. I was the one who sacrificed my career, and there was no question that it would be me [who did so].’
Now, if the mother you spoke to was the parent of a child who needed extra advocacy support, she probably reported that this shift was magnified once it became clear that she was going to have to parent differently. When we realised that school-as-usual was not going to cut it for our dyslexic son, it also became clear that if things were going to change, it was going to have to be me, his mother, who took the lead in changing them.
During our conversation, Kate Jones, co-host (with Mandy Hose) of Too Peas in a Podcast, reflected on the gendered division of advocacy; ‘My fear for women who have a kid with a disability is that they get left behind. It usually ends up being the mother who does the caring. It either digs you in or unsettles you. When it happened to me, I had to think what does that mean for me?’
In Too Peas in a Podcast, Kate and Mandy share their parenting experiences with a particular emphasis on their lives with twins with additional needs. Their listeners echo again and again that on the whole it is mothers who are the carers and advocates for children with additional needs.
As it became clear that Georgie required more support, Rebekah Robertson’s family found themselves at the forefront of campaigning for law reform and the rights of trans children. Together, they started Transcend, a support group for families caring for trans children and Rebekah’s role as an advocate for her child grew. She noticed that other women were doing the same: ‘People revert to old roles in hard times. The people reaching out for help from Transcend was almost always mothers. The emotional and physical labour was almost always done by women. The mothers are the ones who are educating the schools and community around that child. Advocacy falls on the shoulders of the mother to keep everything going.’
When we discovered that we had a dyslexic child, I was astounded to realise that in order to cope our family adopted a traditional structure.
I did what I needed to do, including changing careers. I stopped working in social inclusion in the international development sector to become a teacher specialising in teaching dyslexic children. I managed my children’s additional care and advocacy and started helping other families with dyslexic children.
I thought this made me a failed feminist. After all, who would give up a perfectly good international career working directly to empower women and children in developing countries in order to look after her family? I wince at the thought of this now, but my deep internal bias was overwhelming and it started to crush me.
As I learned more and more about neurodiversity, I noticed a stark phenomenon. The support groups and trainings I attended were driven and populated almost exclusively by women. At least in the field of learning difficulties, most of the practitioners, therapists and researchers were women. The people making the noise and getting stuff done were women. And arrestingly, they had each come to the task because they were mothers or carers of children who needed advocacy. There was someone to admire and be inspired by every time I saw a mother advocating for her child.
Not for a second did I think that any of them had compromised their feminist ideals.
After all, what I saw was:
- Women fighting for people and causes important to women, many of which were necessarily intersectional
- Women organising and advocating
- Women in traditionally feminine roles supporting each other
- And to top it off, doing it all within a framework of social justice and human rights – whether they knew it or not.
What could be more feminist than that?
I wish I could report that I realised this during an anecdotally satisfying epiphany, but in truth it was interacting with and watching advocating mothers, day after day that lead me to finally think, ‘Well, hello feminism. I’m back.’
To me, the networks, support structures and advocacy opportunities created by groups such as Transcend and Too Peas in a Podcast are feminism personified. Kate couldn’t imagine the support network that would spring up around the podcast and told me, ‘We did it because we needed support and it turned out that there were other people who did too.’
Most powerfully, the intersectional nature of the work that many mothers do as caring work mirrors the most feminist aspects of being an advocate. For example, in response to the personal vitriol Rebekah and her family have experienced from TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) she said, ‘The spirit of feminism is not about exclusion. That is not what we have fought for. We fought to have autonomy and choices and the freedom to make them.’
Kate said that one of the most satisfying but unexpected benefits from the podcast has been attitude changes they have seen in response to their experiences.
‘The really powerful thing that women do is bring the personal experience. The power of the podcast is that we are just talking to a friend, we are not attacking anyone. People feel we are just sharing experiences. But it’s been amazing how often we have professionals [like doctors and teachers] say things to us like: “I can’t believe that we speak to people like that. I’m sorry”.’
The mother you spoke to when you first started reading this may have also said that over recent years she has seen change in the gendered division of carer and advocacy roles. Rebekah said that in the ten years since starting Transcend, she has seen a larger number of men contacting the organisation on behalf of their children. In the beginning, it was almost exclusively women.
It is comforting to know that for some people, there has been a generational shift and these caring and advocacy tasks are more often shared when there is someone to share them with. At this moment, however families have been thrust into self-isolating as part of the response to COVID-19 and we are managing the reality of learning and working from home with children. With this there is a real risk that any gains that have been made could be lost. As Heejung Chung discusses in the article Return of the 1950s housewife? How to stop coronavirus lockdown reinforcing sexist gender roles in The Conversation, this is a potential problem that needs immediate action.
Kate Jones clearly wants us to be wary of the backward slide:
‘Even our Peas who aren’t in paid employment, they didn’t sign up for distance learning, so if your partner is working at home in the study, he has to come out and do 45 min of work with those children. It is Not. Your. Job… If you are in a relationship it is not one person doing this.’
So if you find yourself worried that you are on the slide, listen to the Too Peas episode Snap Pea Episode 2 13th April 2020 for some support. The feminists will sort you out.
Gisela Ervin-Ward is a mother of three boys. She lived and worked in South East Asia as an aid worker, now she specialises in teaching children with learning difficulties how to read. She also writes stories for children and was recently awarded an Australian Society of Authors Award Mentorship for her middle grade outback noir manuscript.