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Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady Asks How We Define Womanhood

Just like the movie, The Iron Lady, this post isn’t really about Margaret Thatcher at all, at least not in the political or historical sense.  It is just a long question about who is writing the Dictionary of You.

I have a double snap-and-go currently in my front hallway, this behemoth that has been hanging around like an albatross for the last seven years.  I can’t let it go, and I can’t let it stay.  It came out of the storage room with the cleaning with the intent to donate it to Goodwill.  The night before it was set to leave the house, I put out a call on a listserv saying that I had a double snap-and-go if anyone wanted it.  No one wrote back, but I told Josh that he should probably leave it the next morning while he was gathering up items to take with him to donate.  Someone might write that afternoon.

It has been in our hallway since.

Our friend was over this weekend, and we started talking about the snap-and-go — you sort of can’t miss it.  I asked her if she knew someone who was looking for one, and she said no.  I think she only commented on it because it’s not the sort of thing you expect to see when you walk in the front door of a house that only contains elementary-school-aged children.  But it made Josh ask again what we were doing with it, and I snapped, “we’ll donate it.”

Though the thought made me sick.

I think all of us have this vision of what motherhood will be like.  This mental image of ourselves as a mother (at least, this extends to women who want to be mothers).  Mine was this vision of myself pushing a stroller with a baby inside.  In my head, new mothers took their children on walks around the neighbourhood, pointing out the trees and fire hydrants even though the baby is usually unconscious.

And then one day, that vision came true.  It didn’t look quite like my mental image because there were two babies instead of one, and there were two heart monitors in the basket below the stroller instead of a diaper bag.  But I was on a walk with my babies, just pushing them while I talked about the trees and the fire hydrants, and that moment, that patch of sidewalk, will forever be in my head as this time when I realized that my dream of motherhood finally melted into an actuality of motherhood.

In The Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher tells her husband, Denis, when he proposes that she could never be the sort of woman who washes the tea cups.  Her mother was that woman — she didn’t even take Margaret’s acceptance letter to Oxford to read it because she claimed her hands were still wet — and Margaret wanted to fight hard against being limited by how others perceive women.  In other words, Margaret was not an accidental feminist.  According to the movie, her life choices were specifically made to rail against this notion of women’s work vs. men’s work.  Of course, it is impossible to get through life without washing a tea cup.  But every time a tea cup is in her hands, you think about how much that tea cup symbolizes the life Margaret most wants to avoid.

What you don’t want to be is just as powerful as what you want to become.

As we walked out to the parking lot after the film, I told Josh that I needed to put the snap-and-go in our basement.  He didn’t ask me why, he just agreed to move it when we got home.  I don’t think I can part with it, any more than I think Margaret Thatcher would have been able to control her emotions if faced with the expectation that she should wash a tub full of dirty tea cups.


Before I saw the film, I read a few reviews of it which all said that Meryl Streep was brilliant, but that the movie itself was a mess, not knowing what it wanted to be or say.

And I’d like to respond to those reviews and say that I could see quite clearly what story the writer (as well as the actors) wanted to tell and what conversation they hoped people would have leaving the theater.  By the time we were walking to the parking lot, it dawned on me that all the reviews I read must have been written by men, because the ideas explored are ideas that are — for the most part — inaccessible to men.  By which I mean that they may be able to understand womanhood in the intellectual sense, in the same way that my male gynecologist has some inkling that when he slides in the speculum that it’s painful.  But since he has never lay on an examination table with his feet in the stirrups, his knees shaking while someone told him that it hurts more if you don’t relax and had someone slide a metal instrument into his vagina, and then force it open like a flower blooming internally… well, he can’t really fathom why a woman can’t stop her thighs from tensing when she gets in that position, especially once she is told that it will be more uncomfortable if she doesn’t relax.

And I own that I will never know what it is like to be a man.  To talk through the world as a man.  To be treated as a man.  Or the pressures that men face.  I can understand them in the intellectual sense, and I can be empathetic based on my understanding, but I’ve never lived it, so it is difficult for me to sometimes recognize those moments that men probably catch as they sail over my head.

This is a movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, and performed by a woman.  Perhaps it just needs to be reviewed by a woman.

At its heart, the movie is dually about men’s inability to separate women from the adjectives they use to describe women, and the fact that WOMEN can’t separate themselves from the adjectives others use to describe women.  That we allow others to define what it means to be a woman, and we go by a long-established, patriarchal definition for womanhood.  Yes, we are sometimes conscious of that fact and rail against it, but just as often, men still have expectations and assumptions (popular ones: all women want children, women want to get married, women know nothing about sports) that they then tweak when they get to know the actual person, and women question themselves (even if it’s just in passing) if they don’t fit into these preconceived notions about women.

The movie takes that idea and explores it within the confines of an actual woman — Margaret Thatcher — who is both affected by that old definition of womanhood and one of the creators of a new definition of womanhood.  For all of her accomplishments, for all of the groundbreaking work she did for women behind her, for all of her foibles and smallmindness and naive beliefs and stubbornness, the movie kept returning to both how others viewed her through the lens of woman as well as how she saw herself and her relationships with others through that lens.

There were the obvious — men shout, women shriek; the women’s rest room at Parliament had an ironing board in it.  And then there were the subtle, the commentary maybe missed by a man, but which cut to the heart of a female viewer.

“You’re supposed to be a mother,” one man shouted at her.  “You’re a monster!”

The way she hid her children’s clutter and crumbs from the front seat the first day she drove into Parliament, after she had left them crying at home, almost as if she is discreetly packing them away — because of her own guilt?  Because of how she feared the men would view her if they had any reminder of her home life?  Because she wanted a strong separation between her role as a mother and her role as a leader?  Because she honestly hated having things out of place, even in her car?

The letters she wrote the parents of the soldiers who died at the Falkland Islands, reminding them that she was the first prime minister who was also a mother, and how she could empathize with their loss as a mother.

How she played into her male colleagues ideas, asking the American Secretary of State if he wanted her to play mother and pour the tea after a particularly sharp diplomatic decision.

At its heart, this movie is about a leader unable to divorce herself from her other roles of wife and mother, just as no woman can seemingly divorce themselves from being seen as the nurturer, the caregiver, the creator — either by men or by themselves.  We want to accomplish so much, we want to break that glass ceiling, we want to be seen as more than wives/mothers/daughters/sisters.  And at the same time, we are limited by men —

(Let’s play a quick game.  A child gets ill at school, who do you think the principal expects will arrive at the school to take care of the sick child?  Out of the two parents, which one do you think will be expected to step up to the task unless there are extenuating circumstances stopping them from reaching said child?  Which parent do you think feels guilt over whether they can be there or not, and which one trusts that the child is cared for but would love updates about the child’s well-being?  This is obviously a heterocentric game, but I think you came up with the same answers I did.)

and we limit ourselves.  We worry how others perceive us.  Are we cold if we want to stay at work and not pick up a vomiting child?  Do we seem uncaring if we don’t show up to school events?  Offer to host Thanksgiving?  Take care of an ailing parent?  Do we seem like we don’t have our priorities in the right place if we take a job that requires a lot of hours away?  Do we look like a failure if we can’t juggle work and parenting neatly?

And don’t women judge other women?  I’ve certainly heard it — women judging women.  Why can’t she volunteer?  I work just as many hours as she does, but I’m at the school volunteering (and yes, I have uttered that one).  Haven’t you heard people judge women who go back to work “too soon” or judge other women for not having a career at all.  Don’t we put the word “just” in front of “a stay-at-home mum.”  Don’t we judge women who hire cleaners or nannies — especially if they’re not working but sometimes even if they are and obviously need the help.  Who breastfeed or who don’t breastfeed.  Who let their babies cry-it-out or who helicopter parent or who free-range it.  We spend just as much time judging each other as we do judging ourselves.

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I’ve never read a blog post where a man worries about how he’s being perceived in terms of his nurturing capabilities.  I have seen sensitive, thoughtful, emotional posts from men but never one from a man fretting that if he spends too much time at work, people will think he’s not a committed parent.  Who cries on his way to work because his child mentioned that she’s the only one in the class who didn’t have a parent at the school concert.  Who wonders how they’re going to get the laundry done and go to work and cook dinner and take care of a sick parent.  A woman may end up with the same solution as a man when something has to give — she may leave the laundry undone and phone in dinner — but she will write a blog post about her guilt.

I have never read a blog post by a man wondering if he can “have it all.”  I have never read a post by a man taking a women’s definition of what it means to be a man (perhaps because women didn’t get a chance to set these societal roles in place) and using that external definition to judge themselves.  Harshly.

I read those on women’s blogs all the time.

This is not a Pain Olympics, this is not a women have it harder situation.  I think it is equally difficult to be a man.  This is strictly an explanation, to all those male reviewers who saw the same movie I did, as to why they missed the point.  Why they were so limited by their life experience as a man that they couldn’t understand how much was infused in Margaret asking the ghost of her husband at the end, “tell me the truth.”  Because it mattered to her how she was perceived in her role as a wife.  Did she do it well?  Because it matters to women.  As much as we think we can set it aside, the judgment, the self-doubt, the self-assessment creeps back in where we least expect it.


Actually, that was perhaps the brain of the film.  The heart of this film is a simple relationship between husband and wife, and do we love enough.  Did we give enough of our time to the people we love (and yes, this is also explored in regards to her twins, but the real story is with the love of her life — Denis).  Are we ever really ready to let them go?  And what is more painful — not allowing a ghost to go by holding onto tangible items and memories, or releasing that person and realizing you can’t hold them anymore?  You can’t talk to them anymore?  You can’t hold their hand and steady yourself.  That you need to now steady yourself on your own.

And that however much we think we can be tough and make it on our own, that all of us will be brought to our knees at some point over the enormity of losing someone you love.

The film didn’t take a strong stance on her time in office — you could equally see her as a destroyer or a saviour, or more likely, a bit of both — nor did it really come down hard with answers on whether she loved enough.  I think some will see her and think that she should have given as much energy to her family as she did to public office.  And others will see her and think that it’s amazing that she managed to have a great love with her husband as well as raise twins all while running a country.  See, it’s that judging thing again.

But all will walk out of theater wondering if we are loving enough and if we’ll be able to let go.  If we are living our lives “enough.”  If our lives matter.  If we are allowing the traditional definition of womanhood to guide our decisions, or if we are eschewing the expectations the world has for women and making our own choices.  Are we marrying because we want to or because it’s the next logical step?  Same with family building?  Same with career choices?  Margaret Thatcher is just the receptacle for holding all these enormous ideas.

And moreover, when we write the definition for ourselves and state emphatically in our hearts what we do or don’t want to become, are we staying strong and following our dreams, or are we being sidetracked by self-doubt when others voice their opinions on our choices?  How can we tune out the judgment; which when we boil down judgment to its essence is simply other people trying to define our lives for us, to write the dictionary of our selves.

Be honest: are you consciously writing your own definition for womanhood, or are you using a definition that was written for you?  And what tangible item most defines what you do or don’t want to become?

And now go take that item and place it in clear sight to remind yourself each and every day who you are and who you want to be.  Erase every other person’s definition of womanhood and write it yourself.

Photo Credit: By Williams [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


1 serenity { 01.25.12 at 7:28 am }

This is an amazing, thought-provoking, absolutely TIMELY post for me. Because I am meeting with a woman today in the hopes that I’ll be able to leave my full time job and take a more part time consulting job.

And I have been thinking really hard about my expectations of myself, and my husband, and our life together lately. My two real role models – mother and father – were so traditional – Dad worked a ton of hours, Mom stayed home, controlled us, cooked and cleaned and ‘ran the house’.

For so many years I wanted to be a man. I TRIED to be a man – worked a career, got advanced degrees. A decade ago I wanted to be a CEO.

And then I became a mother, after three years of heartbreak. And all of a sudden, this NEED became clear to me. Be there when Lucky* gets off the bus from school. Be home more. Be around more. Run the house better.

It’s like being a mom redefined success for me; and it’s very much at odds with the career woman I thought I wanted to be. (Course, some of it is realizing I never really figured out what *I* want, just what I thought people would consider “successful.”)

I am trying to figure out what my definition of womanhood is right now. I suspect that, for me anyway, it’s somewhere in between being a SAHM and a CEO. But, you know, those are the very ends of the spectrum and there’s a lot of middle ground between them.

It’s funny that you mention walking with your baby as your vision of being a mother. Mine was rocking my baby. It’s why I cannot get rid of the rocker in Lucky’s room, nor his preemie/newborn/infant clothes, nor his baby blankets. That’s what I wanted for so, so long.


2 serenity { 01.25.12 at 7:29 am }

*Oops, forgot to explain the asterisk above. Lucky is O’s new blog moniker. J is now Charlie Brown. 🙂

3 hopingforababe { 01.25.12 at 8:42 am }

I have been reading your posts lately, and couldn’t skip to thank you for such an amazing thoughtful post. So many aspects of womanhood and perceptions described… that make it so accesible to us women. I will be for sure watching this movie. Thank you for writing to us infertiles and making easier our paths at the Land of IF, but most of all for writing to women.

4 Sarah { 01.25.12 at 9:36 am }

I think one of the problems women have is that we’re trying to create a one-size-fits-all definition of womanhood, trying to measure our success by standards set by men, in a society founded by men.

E.g., our career defines our worth. It doesn’t for all women. I fully understand the point of view of feminists who believe every woman owes it to her fellow women to go back to work as soon as possible after the baby and make a success of your career. But I also understand the point of view of women who feel that you can never put a career ahead of your child.

And it’s a sticky situation because there’s undeniably a gender gap in the workplace when it comes to pay and promotion, and taking a year or two off for mothering is a factor in that. But that same gap means that the father is usually (not always!) the main breadwinner to start with, so it’s most logical for the mother to take time off for caregiving… (I’m aware that this is a simplification, ignoring a host of other issues).

For all of that, when I had children, I was all about staying at home to focus on them, and I was shocked to find that I missed my work so much, and that contributed to my postpartum depression. The workplace represented an environment where I knew what I was doing, as opposed to home with the baby and complete ignorance. I ended up working part-time for about eighteen months, before switching to fully stay-at-home with the birth of my second child.

Obviously, we all need to figure out what’s best for ourselves. But that doesn’t eliminate the feminist guilt, that we’re not doing what’s best for all women. And I don’t know if there’s any way to address that.

5 loribeth { 01.25.12 at 9:49 am }

Great post, great questions, Mel. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have seen some of the reviews, & they have been lukewarm. It never dawned on me that they might all be written by men — I should go check some out!

I feel like I’ve been aware of & fighting against stereotyping all my life. I grew up in the 1960s & 70s, so I have always been very conscious of the women’s movement & sexism (and Mrs. Thatcher too) — the possibilities and the limitations, because I happened to be born a girl.

It’s an especially interesting question, since I wound up living childless/free not by choice. Women without children are a growing segment of the population, yet it’s still a scenario that many people find unimaginable or abnormal. For the most part, in our minds & in our social structures, woman (still) = mother. And these days, with feminism and modern medicine, the majority who haven’t walked in our shoes seem to assume that childlessness is a conscious choice — that if you’re a woman without children, you didn’t want children (because if you wanted them & couldn’t have them, you would have just adopted or done IVF, wouldn’t you?) — and also that you were too focused on your career to make room for children in your life.

Not all of us without children, whether by first choice or not, think of ourselves as “career women. ” There also seems to be an assumption that, if we’re not going to have children, we should be doing something really spectacular with our lives — if not in the workplace, then running off to live on a beach in the South Pacific or doing volunteer work in Africa or something like that.

I salute those who do make those choices, but really, I think most of us just want to live a “normal” life, working at a job that’s reasonably interesting & pays reasonably well, spending time with our friends & families (if not children) and doing some fun things in our spare time — a few hobbies, maybe travelling every now & then. Is that too much to ask?

As for a tangible item… hmmm. You know, the first thing that popped into my head was that I always loved to play the board game “Battleship” when I was a kid. My (boy) cousins had it, & I would play with them sometimes. I always secretly wanted it for my own game collection — but of course, it was a “boys” game. Makes me want to run out right now & get one & challenge dh to a game tonight, lol.

6 Chickenpig { 01.25.12 at 10:52 am }

I wanted to be my great-grand aunt. She was born in the 19th century and was educated at a time where women rarely were, except to become teachers or nurses. She got her under graduate degree in chemistry, and THEN went on to get her Masters and her doctorate degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering from COLUMBIA in the 1920’s when very few men were going and getting their doctorates from Columbia, let alone women. She worked in the bio chemical field developing antibiotics and working on vaccines, including the polio vaccine. She had two great loves, her first husband when she was very young (he died of appendicitis) and her second in her 30’s? 40s?whom she met while living in NY working for Phizer. She never had children. I thought kids were yucky, I wanted to love deeply…but be independent and have my own money and my own house and a great job and be respected for my intellect…blah blah blah. I didn’t want to have kids and stay at home and be known only for how clean my house is. I don’t even think I can find anything here that can remind me of the kind of woman I wanted to be. An old text book maybe? *sigh*

The comment about the battleship cracked me up. My sister and I used to challenge other neighborhood kids to ‘psychic’ battleship. My sister would play, and I would innocently look at the other person’s board and send my sister the image of where the ships were. She never lost 🙂 I couldn’t beat her at cards, either, she always knew what I had in my hand.

7 k { 01.25.12 at 11:02 am }

I haven’t seen the movie, but holy cow this is an amazing review. I even hesitate to call it that, it’s more a commentary on being a woman in general.

Being a woman in a lesbian relationship, you’d think some of these ideas would be less prominent, but they aren’t. Sometimes I think they’re amplified because we are BOTH expected to be all of those things and be examples for “the community” to prove that we are fit parents.

It’s interesting that you put in the paragraph about not being able to understand what it means to be a man either. Brene Brown (amazing amazing researcher and speaker) talks about how a man she met told her that all that stuff about women was great, but that as a man she had no idea how difficult it was to express emotion or not succeed at something. He told her that his wife and daughter would “rather see him die on the white horse than fall off of it”. Sometimes I wonder if we women are so busy railing against what we see as the expectations society has against us that we fail to see what society does to men. Raising a boy has made me keenly aware of this.

I WANTED to be the woman who stayed at home and was the soccer mom and carpool mom and bake cookies mom. I’m so not any of those things. I work at a job I hate (currently anyway), I can’t cook, and I would much rather chill on the couch and watch a movie with my kids than have to leave the house again for ANYTHING once I get home from work. I’m not sure what object represents the kind of woman I wanted to be, because I think I’m still figuring out who that is.

8 Mina { 01.25.12 at 11:51 am }

Great review. When it comes on dvd, I will see it (cinema is out of question presently).

It seems to me that even though it is obvious that women and men are different, this entire atempt to redefine their roles and substance is in fact a quest of proving who is better. Which leads to all sorts of wrong conclusions. And conflicts.

I personally try to define who I am at the present by what is most important at the present. When I worked, I did it fully, went to all lengths to become better, know more, be more efficient. And I was pretty successful. And then my life changed. And I gave up working full time. And then I became a mother. And right now I simply cannot do both working and mothering, and I chose mothering. So right now, I am a mother and a wife and a house runner full time. I suspect the future will bring changes, as future is bound to, but for now I can’t focus but on the present. I am so grateful I am limited by my narrow vision right now, because guilt it something I can surely make without.

9 Esperanza { 01.25.12 at 11:58 am }

Wow, so much I want to say about this. So much that I think I need to write a post. If I manage to do that I’ll link up here. In the meantime thank you for writing this post and presenting such thought provoking questions.

10 Eggs In A Row { 01.25.12 at 12:07 pm }

This is a battle for me, and always has been. My beloved Grandma was a “maverick”. She went to Cornell, ran for the school board, and worked for Planned Parenthood and the Senator until she died. At the same time, she had dinner on the table NIGHTLY, always had her lipstick done, and wore pearls to the grocery store.

My shrink constantly asks me why I am always comparing myself to a 50s housewife, and I guess it’s because I saw her as the ultimate woman. I’ve got to get over it!

11 Sushigirl { 01.25.12 at 12:26 pm }

My thoughts on this film were:

There was too much time devoted to the present day. I respect Thatcher in that she got to the top, but am far less enthusiastic about what she achieved when she was there. But I just thought it was a shame that they focused so much on her Alzheimers, which I suspect she would be disgusted about and didn’t need to be covered in as much detail as they did. It just took up waaaay too many minutes, at the expense of more interesting times of her life.

I thought the sections about her time in office were wildly disjointed. The film moved from the Falklands to the Poll Tax Riots in seconds. In between, she destroyed an enormous number of livelihoods; some communities, and particularly the women who live there, still struggle with the consequences of her policies. She might have been a strong woman but she was no feminist. I thought it would have been more interesting if there was any sort of indication about she thought about all this, and how she justified it to herself. Or at least some sort of comment on the effects of her actions on other women. The film boiled it down to being heckled by one miner.

Also, she leapt from being encouraged by male colleagues to stand while not believing she would win, to coolly ordering the sinking of the Belgrano and giving Geoffrey Howe a bollocking in cabinet. There could have been a bit more character development, I think.

I also thought that they could have included a bit more about her relationship with male colleagues. There were a few good set pieces, like the one with the American diplomat. But not much in the way of a plot. And Richard E Grant was criminally underused as Heseltine.

12 Eve { 01.25.12 at 1:15 pm }

Very interesting and insightful…your thoughts on womanhood are rightly complex. I also agree that being a man is extraordinarily difficult, especially for men who really have an sensitive spirit. Hmmmm…the object that comes to mind that I DON’T want to define me is my mom’s old zippered ‘housecoats’, with a ruffled collar, blousing sleeves and embroidered pockets. I spent so much time wondering what woman hid beneath those thick polyester things, what of her curves and skin and passions and insecurities. I think that is what I strive to change in my own role as a mother and woman, that there is nothing about me so awful I need to hide it…and that our body and minds are beautiful things.

13 Ellen K. { 01.25.12 at 1:26 pm }

Sort of offhand: It’s not easy to unload a used double Snap & Go, anyway, even without a strong sentimental attachment. I regularly posted mine on Craiglist for about 6 months with only one reply (no, I will not sell it for half the asking price and drive it to your house 40 miles away because my city address is “really far out” from your really exurban home). Finally I practically threw it in the car trunk of an acquaintance whose cousin 300 miles away was expecting twins. I had purchased mine used, and the seller was relieved that someone had finally responded to her ad. The stroller has been redesigned a couple of times since your twins were born. So your stroller might have just ended up languishing on the floor at Goodwill, or in a landfill. Hang onto it and — well, it’s not very soft, so hold it close to your heart. It will do more good there than elsewhere.

14 smiling scar { 01.25.12 at 1:48 pm }

Wow.. great post…

.. I am sitting here thinking that I can’t think of a single item that represents who I want (or don’t want to be). well other than the obvious (as I stare at my laptop with all the debris of a rewrite on an article around me) that I want to play with ideas and write… but even that isn’t quite right. I just have no idea who I want to be right now (that or the mother dream.. and the other dreams are so so distant that I left all the associated objects back in NZ/USA) . Once again, you got me thinking Mel!

15 Curly Sue { 01.25.12 at 1:52 pm }

First of all, your review of the movie makes me desperate to see it! Maybe you missed your calling as a movie critic 😉 Second, *wow*, you have given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

16 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.25.12 at 2:06 pm }

Now I really want to see this movie!

I think my blog would be the item that defines me. It’s the place where I’m continually clarifying who I am and what I value. It’s an extension of myself and a combination of self-defining and other-defining. The influence levels vary at different points in time.

I thought you might like this, which I found on Pinterest:


17 Detour { 01.25.12 at 2:28 pm }

Wonderful post, Mel. If I had to pick one image/activity I most relate to motherhood, it’s walking with a stroller, too. I love your moment of recognition when you were walking with your babies.

My husband and I talk about feeling like we have to fit certain roles as men/women or (eventually) fathers/mothers. He’s really opened my eyes as to just how much pressure men feel to succeed and provide for their families.

18 Ana { 01.25.12 at 2:34 pm }

Amazing post. So much here. The one thing that struck me about the “game” you proposed, as the mother of two boys & the wife of a very involved & very sensitive man…what do we, as women, really want from our men or the men of the future? Do we want them to feel the same guilt/angst as fathers that we do as mothers? Do we want the school to call the fathers first & assume that dad would drop everything to get the sick kid, or do we enjoy being the go-to as much as we complain about it (our daycare always calls my husband since he’s closer by and does the drop off & pick up…it bugs me)?
In many ways I think women have taken on both roles these days—the “have it all” of career and leadership AND parenting and homemaking really encompasses what was previously divided into male & female roles. But with more men wanting deeper involvement in parenting/home-making, I think they, too, will soon (if not already) feel the pull of trying to “have it all”. I really believe those blog posts detailing a dad’s guilt at missing the soccer game or ignoring the messy house & ordering in dinner on a busy night are not too far away.

19 kh99 { 01.25.12 at 3:08 pm }

Awesome post and now I, too, want to run right out and see this movie. I felt disappointed when I read the reviews about it being a mess, yet Streep was nominated for it. Perhaps you are correct about the reviewers being men.

I don’t flatter myself to think that I am writing a completely new definition of womanhood for myself but I don’t think that I am using one spelled out for me. My life is very different from my mother’s and mother-in-law’s: my husband and I both work and support our family; my husband is so helpful around the house that I sometimes feel like my nose is out of joint; I have an advanced degree. Sometimes I wonder also how my infertility and path to motherhood has helped me write a new definition. After all, I’ve not carried a child but am a mother to a child who is biologically mine. I enjoyed my three months of maternity leave but also enjoy my job. I’ve also had days when I wonder why I’m leaving my child to go to work and wish I were home with him.

And my husband feels the same way. We had a tiff with his mom recently (our babysitter) because she seemed to imply the emotions our son was feeling were something he needed to “get over.” We disagreed and vehemently expressed how much we value his emotions. We don’t want our son to grow up believing that emotions are bad, especially when expressed by a male.

My husband often comes home and tells me of something said to him by one of his more “traditional” male coworkers about family and it blows our minds. I like to think we are different.

20 HereWeGoAJen { 01.25.12 at 3:45 pm }

That is exactly what my thought of motherhood was too. And that is exactly why I never let anyone else push our stroller. It’s what I always wanted to do and I am not sharing my stroller!

21 Emma { 01.25.12 at 3:53 pm }

Wow! I wanted to see that movie before I read this post, but now I am definitely making sure I watch it when it comes out on DVD.

Every time I see/talk to my mom she asks, “What are you making Hubby for dinner tonight?” My response is usually, “Nothing. I’ve been at work all day, why should I have to come home and cook too?” She was lucky enough to be a stay at home mom and so things like dinner and cleaning and laundry got done and got done by her; it was her contribution to the household. I feel like I’m old fashioned when I say that I’d love to follow in those footsteps, but it isn’t financially possible for us. Maybe it’s my selfish nature and sounds like I don’t care about taking care of my hubby (I do), but I don’t see why I should have to conform to that “perfect housewife” mold when I am also working 40 hours a week at a 9-5 job. It’s a conversation I’ve had with my mom on numerous occasions (and my hubby when I feel like I’m the only one contributing to household chores).

I’m anxiously expecting my first child in March and I know I’ll be faced with figuring out how to balance being a good wife with housework with a full time job with being a good mother. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the balancing act between being a good wife and working full time figured out! I know it can be done, but it terrifies me because I know there are the women/mothers out there who do judge and will judge (and I’ll admit I’ve also been one to judge). Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re all doing the best we can with what we have. What works for some people may not work for others.

Instead of freaking out over the balancing act, maybe I need to start figuring out what kind of woman do I want to be and be that woman with confidence.

22 Mali { 01.25.12 at 4:18 pm }

You know, Mel, I think this is actually my favourite post from you.

I think the idea of a feminist in the 60s, 70s and 80s is in some ways quite different from the idea of a feminist now. In those days, simply being allowed to compete in the same arena as men was a big deal. Like Loribeth, I grew up being extremely conscious of women’s rights, feminism, and what opportunities were open to me as a female. And as those opportunities opened up, it was very exciting to me. Whereas I fear that these days feminism takes those basic rights (right to work, right to be paid the same as a male doing exactly the same work, right to divorce, right to say “no” whether in marriage or not, etc) for granted, and expects more from feminists. Like or loathe Margaret Thatcher for her politics, her achievements were amazing. You’ve absolutely made me want to go see this movie, especially with the focus more on her personal struggles/issues than on the politics (though that would have been interesting too).

23 Pam/Wordgirl { 01.25.12 at 7:19 pm }

Oh Mel,

Fantastic post — as I sit here with a groggy toddler climbing all over me so that I can hardly get to the keyboard — having had to admit to my husband (home from work) that I can’t get dinner on the table in time tonight — and that he’s just going to have to get takeout for the twelve year olds — I’m faced with the unwritten post in my draft folder — what I felt when I came across a piece on female literary novelists — and how I’ve been stuck trying to write that post because what I would really be writing about was realizing that I was letting go of my dreams — and it was the only dream I’d ever had – -motherhood didn’t enter my vision of self until I was 27. Every decision in my life up until that moment had been about teaching or writing literature — not marrying, not building a family or connections…and then — abruptly during a take back the night rally in a Missoula park — everything changed. I haven’t been able to write about it because it is supremely painful to me to realize that I can’t do it all — and that what I do do — amazing to me — and deeply fulfilling on an emotional level… makes the other part of my life — the dream of my life — impossible. It is as if the two can’t co-exist. I remember talking to a teacher of mine — a female novelist I admired — and she was talking about the supremely talented women she’d seen through the years — graduating from ‘the program’ — and how it was never those women who published — and how it was always the men, anyway, who published widely and first — and we didn’t have to ask ourselves why. It was unspoken.

There are always the exceptions… but I am not one of them … or the decisions I’d have to make in order to make it possible (long extended stretches away from my family life — because that is the only way I can work…in contemplative silence…) I’m not willing to do right now — and I realize that maybe when she’s in preschool I’ll have a bit of that time back — but it is not the life of the novelist I imagined — I can think of any number of male novelists or artists who toiled away while their support person took care of their children and meals and work… but I don’t know of many women whose support person did the same…and how the hell is Margaret Atwood who she is? I should probably read more about how she did it — or Alice Munro…

I guess the crux of my issue is that I didn’t have a happy family life — my life was fractured and dark and lonely — and it never occurred to me that I could have a family life and so my dreams focused on other things– and so happening upon one (as a stepmother and then five years of IF treatments to add to it with Z) has been a surprise and constant joy — and yet its the very thing that keeps me from my own work — the tangible thing that reminds me of what I do or don’t want to become? My mother. My mother is a study in unlived dreams.

24 a { 01.25.12 at 10:58 pm }

This is timely for me in some ways. My aunt, one of two who were unmarried with no children and major influences in my life, passed away 2 weeks ago. My MIL has made clear some very negative judgements she has made about my husband. I don’t think she realizes that they also carry over to me, as I was equally involved in the decision making process that she’s judging. But things don’t work that way in her family, so she is unaware how horribly offended I am. And my husband returned to work after 6 months off, because he thinks it stresses me out to be the wage earner in our family. His convoluted ideas about the person he is and being a man are making me crazy. I believe I’m making it clear (via conversations conducted in shouting!) that life is more stressful when he’s not here.

All of this is to say that I’ve never had an idea of what sort of woman I would be – I’m one of those people who just rolls along and takes things as they come. I don’t have a plan or a philosophy. I was of the opinion that my life could be anything I wanted to be. Now, I’m pretty content (for the most part) with what I have. I occasionally worry over past behavior, but I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything. But my husband? He worries about his role as man/husband/provider/father. If he would just take my advice, things would be much easier for him.

Things about being a man that I’m glad not to know: Having your balls stick to your leg because things get hot up in there. Then having to peel them off. Having a sperm backlog.

25 jjiraffe { 01.26.12 at 1:04 am }

What a post. Whew! I’ve been thinking about it all day.

I have NO idea how we should define womanhood in this age when we have so many different paths and choices, and I wish the judging was not so prevalent. I am just as guilty of judging myself.

I get my back up when someone talks about how breezy and easy their life is or their career is or their kids are. That’s my bad, really: it’s healthy when someone doesn’t complain. Not every woman has had to carry iron on their backs through journeys of hell. Even those who do sometimes have an excellent disposition to carry them through it. Some women (especially in the late 70s/early 80s) had to turn into iron ladies to gain the respect they needed from their peers.

In terms of a tangible item which represents me, it would be my grand other’s brooch. She raised 7 brothers and sisters while her parents ran a rodeo. She married late, raised my mom and aunt to be strong-minded career-focused women in a a small town in Montana where ambition was considered foolish. They both traveled the world, went to college and lived a life she could barely dream. She supported civil rights and women’s rights and wanted me to be the first President of the United States. Her brooch is a pretty thing, not valuable, made of paste, but made to endure and stay shiny and it makes me hope for the best, just like my grandmother did, for my daughter and her daughters. Because we have gained so much since the year she was born (1915) but we still have so far to go.

26 Justine { 01.26.12 at 2:16 pm }

I’ve been trying to think about how I’d respond to this all day …

Since my daughter was born, I have been giving a lot of thought to how I define what it means to be a woman. My ideas about what it *doesn’t* mean are the reason I left my former job (I will not be talked down to, and I will not kiss boots at Sherry Hour), and the reason I’m in job and career limbo right now … but that is also, ironically, a place that is making me question my self-worth. I wanted to be a woman my daughter could look up to (i.e. not taking crap from a male because he thinks he can boss a woman around), but for me, womanhood is also the ability to balance a career and family. That’s certainly not an original definition, but it’s one that fits me.

One tangible item that defines who I *don’t* want to be is the washing machine. Though I know there will always be dirty clothes to wash, I don’t want to spend my life in the laundry room. And on the flip side, one thing that defines me, perhaps sadly and perhaps not, is my laptop … I like having information at my fingertips, being able to offer information, being connected, and being able to bring the world with me wherever I go.

I feel like my thoughts are still all jumbled about this, though … more to chew on later.

27 unaffected { 01.26.12 at 2:57 pm }

Wonderful post!

The definition of womanhood that I’m currently living doesn’t feel like it falls into any category. I’m not trying to juggle family (kids) and a career, because I have no kids. I want kids, but not because I’m supposed to. I don’t know what my life will be like when/if I do ever have kids.

But I do know that I refuse to cook dinner every night. I work 40 hours a week, and don’t feel a need to shower my husband with homemade meals every night. But, I do often wonder when doing the laundry how I got stuck being the only one to do that… and I know it’s because I’m the woman. Unfortunately, the alternative to doing his laundry is listening to him whine and bitch when he can’t find clean socks.


28 Erica { 01.26.12 at 4:16 pm }

I move back and forth between my own definition and pre-existing ones. Sadly, being true to my own ideals is often really hard and very, very tiring. So, I pick my battles, and sometimes give into exhaustion and play a role – the good faculty wife, the mommy whose time all belongs to her family.

One very tangible area where this is showing up in my life right now is how jealous I am of my friends who get “me time.” At the same time, I’m afraid to talk about not having any time for myself because I worry that I’ll come off as ungrateful, or weak, or needy. Which is crap, isn’t it? I mean, I would never tell N he was being needy for wanting to watch a football game or have a weekend lunch meeting, or even take a nap. And yet…

29 Esperanza { 01.26.12 at 7:35 pm }

I finally got up my post. Thanks for the inspiration. http://esperanzasays.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/womanhood-an-unattainable-ideal/

30 slowmamma { 01.26.12 at 9:40 pm }

This post is BRILLIANT! I hope that we don’t stop this discussion here because it feels so much more like a beginning than an ending. I can identify very closely with several of the comments here. I was also someone who saw the limitations of mother and housewife as totally unworthy of a life’s dream. I focused entirely on other aspects of life until it hit me, almost out of the blue, that motherhood was important to me. The IF/loss journey adds another layer of complication to the mix.

The struggles that you mention here seem to be so amazingly persistent – myself, my friends, my blog-sters (blogging sisters?). Right now my own focus is on not being so terribly judgmental of the way any of us copes with these struggles. In most of our day to day realities, we are all generally doing our best to just get by.

31 jjiraffe { 01.26.12 at 10:05 pm }

OK, I have thought and thought about your post. Here’s my response: http://jjiraffe.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/what-is-womanhood-now/

32 Harini { 01.27.12 at 1:53 am }

An amazing and very thoughtful post, Mel. I love the fact that you can make all of us relate so much to what you write, that even though I live half a world away from you, you can make me feel so much of what you feel and see. Your writing rocks! 🙂

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