When I was a little girl, my mother would bake. She’d have what she called baking day, and make cupcakes, jam tarts and often a chocolate cake or sponge cake. Her life was organized into various days. There was washing day, baking day and shopping day. And in the middle of all this, she raised my brother and I. When we were little, she worked nights so she could be at home during the day; as we got older, she went back to work, and the days of being in the kitchen, if not over, changed.
It was only when I had my own children I realized exactly what this had meant. My own motherhood followed virtually the same pattern, only without the working nights. I had my own years of in the kitchen where I was cooking Italian food. My kids would stand on chairs stirring and mixing things. I could never do the whole building-brick-towers thing that I always felt I should be doing, so I cooked with them and read to them instead. I told them of Boewulf and other stories, yet at the time it was Grendel that was winning.
My mother started to ask me when I was going back to work, at this point going back to teach. It was complicated. Childcare for two babies was more than I would earn. I’d started writing instead—a half-finished novel about a woman who was gradually losing it amidst all the domesticity. I would sit outside the pediatrician’s with the army of grandmothers mixed amongst the mothers, as two toddlers tried to run off in different directions. I was told if I didn’t have a grandmother, I should just stay at home. I wanted to scream—yet instead, I complied.
Take away a woman’s social and economic identity and you will be left with a shell. Some women will fill this shell. They know their children’s timetables to every last detail, feed themselves with play dates and meetings outside school gates. Others won’t. Here I was, a so-called post-modern woman living my very own version of the problem that had no name. Only it had a name, and I knew it had a name, and it felt like I was living the wrong life—the one where you wake up and every detail tells you it’s yours but however hard you try, you cannot make it fit.
I was a mother. What more did I want? “Me” wasn’t considered an acceptable answer.
In my twenties, I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, struck by the women at the end, those who live hidden lives in unvisited graves. They haunted me, these women. They came back when I entered the world of motherhood. I lived amongst women like that, and it was nothing to do with contributing to the growing good. It was because of a culture and system that kept them there.
At times, as I was growing up, it all fell into conflict. I lived in a house of strong women where you were trained to get on with it, and don’t you dare complain. My mother’s lack of education (as she felt) was the reason for my education. It was a “you can do anything you want, and don’t let them tell you anything different” mixed with an “empty the dishwasher” or “do the ironing,” whereas my brother was asked to do very little, as she tried to work it all out within the frame of her own life. As I grew up, she was faced with this fiercely independently daughter that she had helped to create but didn’t know how to deal with. And so we argued, a lot. My search for independence went too far, and it wasn’t just the late nights and pushing boundaries at all costs. She’d brought me up to the sounds of her saying “don’t stay around here, get away, move to France.” So I moved to Italy, and she hated it. Yet when I found myself in a small village in Northern Italy years later, it was a script I would draw upon as I began to look for answers. First you are a woman, and above all you are a woman. Of course I knew that, but somehow it had been forgotten.
The priest told me the woman is the angel of the house. Good mothers sacrifice all within the competition that is motherhood. The good mother reigns, closely followed by the good wife. Of course, any woman is free to make a choice—yet, for the women who do make it, there are many others who don’t. There are those who find a voice and there are those who never do, often displaced in some way, sometimes far from home. There were women who left countries in the middle of the night. There were women who could make change, yet turned their backs and closed ranks.
When my mother was dying, she wanted to be remembered by a photograph. It was the one where she was in her nurse’s uniform, the one where she’d started her training. She’d had to battle with her family to get there. Her final message was clear as she returned to the girl that she was in her last days: I am a nurse, and I am also a mother. The order was deliberate. Then my mother died—and I found I was not only mourning her, but also mourning myself.
At one point I deeply resented being a woman. I just wanted to be a human being and be equal. Being a woman was a disadvantage, a mother more so. To quote Gloria Steinem: “The truth will piss you off. And then it will set you free.” Oh, it will really piss you off. It will piss you off to the point that it will have you fighting with every fiber in your body against every injustice you see around you. Then you get active.
I went back into my kitchen on my own terms. It’s where I write, it’s where I cook and it’s also where I bring up my children. My mother was a nurse and I am a writer. She was and I am also a mother.
Some would say you shouldn’t turn your home into a feminist battleground, but the only place this movement can ever and must always begin is within the home. We are the women who make those first impressions. I loved my sons, but hated what motherhood took away from me—now, I educate my sons to understand the differences. “Mum, women can protest all they like,” my son told me, “but it’s a society where men have all the power and until men start to do something, nothing will ever change.” My other son told his father that my staying at home and working from home saves and has saved his father a fortune in babysitting. When their school textbooks present traditional role models, and, as a result, educate boys and girls in two parallel worlds, I consider that progress. They both ask questions, difficult questions.
My mother didn’t burn her bra, but she knew how crucial her independence was—and she wasn’t prepared to give it up. Like her, I refuse to be limited by a society that says because I am a woman I’m a second-class citizen. I will be a woman and take my place nonetheless. I may not have daughters, but I can still encourage good men. (As my son pointed out, we need those.) Where a system works against me, I will still fight for a way. And I will do it for myself.
In the same way that my own mother left me the legacy of her life, this is the message I want to leave for my sons: Nevertheless, she persisted.