Monday, March 24, 2008

Femininity

This one is something we've been working on and have wanted to post for a while. We're testing out some writing here. If you're commenting, be kind. If you're lurking, please no snarky faces. No eyerolls either! Hopefully this will generate some good discussion about motherhood and what defines us as women. Any men out there should feel free to add their own perspective as well.

Those who know Poker Chick IRL probably use just a handful of adjectives to describe her: Intelligent. Pretty. Sharp. Bitchy. Funny. Clumsy. You know, all the things that make her endearing to loved ones. Now take a moment and think about some adjectives that are absent from this list: Warm. Maternal. Feminine.

Now, Poker Chick has always been all right with this. After all, so what? Who cares if she can't manufacture a case of the fuzzy wuzzies at any given corny moment. She is a businesswoman. She'll trade the house for the boardroom any day. In fact, the whole idea of being responsible for a house is so bizarre she's swapped that notion for a small apartment where one phone call brings dinner. She skipped sororities in college because fraternities seemed like a heck of a lot more fun and she wasn't allowed in those. She'd much rather be at a bachelor party than a shower. And she is, of course, at home playing poker with "the boys". She's always been "one of the guys". And she'd always been able to avoid large gatherings of women so she could continue to enjoy this lie, this pretend world she built around herself where she can do what she's good at and outsource the rest.

But you know how most men "outsource" the stuff Poker Chick sucks at? They get wives. Now, we suppose that's not impossible. Poker Chick has often been known to comment "I need a wife". She even has a friend hand-picked for the role, though for some reason this woman seems genuinely uninterested (I mean, what gives, right?)

Why are wives so desirable? They help make a house a home, which seems to be some kind of necessary step towards the next holy grail of femininity: mothering. Mothers are widely regarded in society. In fact, as Poker Chick wrote this, she was watching the movie Primary Colors, where they all declare "G-d Bless the Mommas!". This rousing statement met with loud approval and it is indeed a common thought. Books talk about mommies who make everything better. When teachers need to resolve an issue, they call the mommy. Children's worlds are surrounded with "mommy" references. It's clear what a mother is supposed to be.

The feminist movement has come and gone, and despite female CEOs in droves these days everyone has neglected to address one irrefutable point: women are biological childbearers. Men can technically do everything else but women still have to go through 9 months of pregnancy, several weeks of recovery, and [for many] months of leaky, saggy lactating boobs. Going through 5 different dress sizes in the course of a year is just one consequence of this fact; one that means women will always fall behind in the workplace at least a little if they desire to bear children. And let's face it, as much as men are doing these days, as long as we women get to pull the "if I'm giving birth to this thing then it's my call!" card, we are the primary child-rearers, whether it's fair or not. It's biology. And who is Poker Chick to argue with biology?

The problem with biology is that it is not fool-proof. Typically, the universe prepares women for life by giving them mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins. Women surrounding them throughout childhood to passively educate them about what it means to be feminine. Not just the big things, but the little things one needs to know. How to brush your hair. How to iron a shirt. How to cook a roast. How to wear a scarf. Poker Chick is convinced that the combined knowledge is filled in some hidden encyclopedia called "how to be a woman." She fantasizes about a secret hazing ritual where you mix the perfect martini and then the encyclopedia is handed to you by the next-of-kin woman. Most people get this encyclopedia. There are many different versions, but everyone has the one that works for them. Surely, tomorrow, she will wake up and have some form of the book magically appear by now.

Nope. Poker Chick, it would appear, got royally screwed by the universe. Her mother was pretty much out of commission at an early age. She had no sisters. No aunts, female cousins or grandmothers close by. Not surprisingly, most of her friends weren't female either. Hers was (for the most part) an alpha-male family with women relegated to the role of wife or ex-wife. So the only way to survive and get any respect was to become one of the men. So Poker Chick learned business skills. How to negotiate deals. Use foul language (decidedly 'un-feminine'!) How to "raise a stink" when someone tries to take advantage of you and your money. And, of course, how to play poker!

You know where this is going.

Yep, biology bit her in the @ss. Enter motherhood and the whole facade was exposed. She was clueless. In the past, she had been able to avoid large gatherings of women; she felt uncomfortable with so much estrogen in one room. But with a newborn, she was forced to confront her insecurity. The reality was that she needed these large groups of women. She didn't have a clue and the poor screaming kid in her arms demanded their knowledge. But it felt like she had failed entry-level womanhood and was now in a PhD program. She was clearly out of her league. And of course, as luck would have it, she was given a daughter to somehow teach.

The older the mini gets, the more she realizes she missed from not having a role model in girl flavor. She thought she didn't need those xx genes, but suddenly every maternal encounter is an opportunity for someone to point out her fraud. Every time the MIL gently "offers" to do something domestic, say wash the mini's clothes, it's a subtle suggestion that Poker Chick should not be raising the child herself. She is not qualified. She does not know how it's done. She doesn't know how to be a woman.

What reminds her that she really is a woman? Besides hormone-driven emotional outbursts? For Poker Chick, it's stupid little things. A big powder brush. Sitting there putting makeup slowly brushing some big powder brush around your face feels female. High heels. Those are feminine. Painted toenails. Real women clearly always must have colored feet tips. Eight different kinds of wrinkle cream in her medicine cabinet. That's right, count 'em. Eight. And she can tell you the difference between each and every one. That'll make you a girlie girl. But it's not all looks, is it? (though keeping up appearances is certainly a big part of the facade). No, Poker Chick learned a few non-superficial lady tricks too. Buying the perfect present for someone. That feels feminine. Nursing. Nursing was awesome. Not only is it undoubtedly female, it's not something every woman can do. And Poker Chick rocked it. So as long as she kept nursing, she was entitled to that female title. But that's where it seems to end. Plenty of people see cooking and cleaning as "women's work" and therefore feminine. But Poker Chick sucks at that. Women know things. How to sew a button. How to take out stains. How to tie a tie. Poker Chick knows none of these things. No one taught her. Does that make her un-feminine? And if not, what does?

What makes you feel "feminine"?

4 comments:

ALM said...

First off, read this article:

http://www.ncsu.edu/awf/What%20a%20Working%20Woman%20Needs-%20A%20Wife%20-%20New%20York%20Times.html

It's from the New York Times, June 2005 - "Every Working Woman Needs A Wife." (If you can't get it let me know & I'll email it to you.)

That article gives me great comfort.

Secondly - I had a very "womanly" mom & still do not know any of the Hints from Heloise.

I don't feel "feminine" very often & I'm not even 100% sure what it is... I feel sexy. I feel maternal. I feel hormonal. I have body image issues. But feminine... Guess I never really thought about it.

Anonymous said...

Feminine, according to Merriam-Webster is 1: female 2: characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women (feminine beauty) (a feminine perspective).
That being said, I don't know that I know what feminine means. Uniquely woman - that would be breast feeding, giving birth, etc. You've done that.
I know many men, and women, who don't know how to tie a tie. I know many men and women who know how to cook, and just as many that don't (or would simply rather order in).
There's no secret book. Mini is being herself - not masculine or feminine - just herself - and that's all one can hope for. Wouldn't you rather she not be labeled?
Some would say ballet is feminine. Some would say imaginary castles is feminine - but neither is done by females only.
Just think - June Cleaver was feminine - but so is being a DIVA :)

wheelsonthebus said...

Hmmm. Not sure what this says about those of us who don't clean, don't wear makeup or nail polish, don't have wrinkle cream (not even one), and don't have board rooms.

Other than breastfeeding, does this mean there is nothing feminine about me?

I don't think so. I think motherhood has given me a new femininity. It is my own brand, and it involves cuddling the children, feeding them, and disappearing for hours at a time to write. It involves a feminism that has NOT come and gone, thank you very much, a solidarity with other women (like you!!) who find themselves in precisely the same boat, trying to balance it all without falling into the water.

jamilee said...

I think we all need our own interpretation of what we make of ourselves. Like, me, I'm a full-time working mom of 2. And I hate the prescribed gender roles you talk of - the thought of a wedding, shower (wedding or baby), etc makes my toes (pretty in red) curl. My chosen field is one that's horribly (or luckily and I like) male centered (engineering) and my own mother even described me as a geek that followed her dad's footpath rather than her own wifely path. Why, because we find what speaks to us.

As for your own comfort in your shoes - well, we do what makes us happy. I found myself a partner that cuts his days short (in early) to pick up the kids and have dinner ready. And he likes it that way. What does that say about him? Looking at him, he'd never appear the 'type'.

I guess I would like to prescribe to the feminine view as we were all raised with the view as you CAN have it all, but realistically, with children, you choose what you desire. My children are amazing little creatures and I hope my son and daughter both understand there are no rules as to how they must turn our or prescribed life path that I would argue was the only option not so long ago. It's the option that's most important.