these awful #MeToo days

A few months ago, something came to mind I hadn’t thought about much in a good while. A Not Nice Thing. A thing that happened to me when I was a girl, about the age my little girl is now. And I realised something then, something that had never occurred to me before.

It wasn’t my fault.

This was a pretty big realisation for me. And I was helped immensely by an acquaintance who posted on his facebook wall, at the height of the #MeToo movement, ‘I believe you.’ I cried when I saw that post, relieved and grateful.

But now I sometimes wish the whole world hadn’t risen up in support of sexual assault survivors. Not because it isn’t a good thing for men to believe women. That is a good thing. It’s just that it would be a lot better thing if I weren’t one of Those Women.

I had those Bad Experiences (three very bad experiences) all packaged up in the box labelled, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ My fault, I have to live with the consequences: hurt and shame. Somehow that was easier. It was painful, sure, but it was tidy. I did stupid things, and I suffered as a result. Very, very neat.

Now the news, twitter, and facebook all keep throwing things at me, things that take my little snow-globe of a life and shake it. Hard. And all that hurt and I-don’t-know-what starts swirling around again, and I am in a blizzard. A white-out of anger and pain and feelings I can’t put a name to.

This was 30 years ago, I think to myself. And here it feels like it was only yesterday. I see images of Dr Blasey Ford, and I wonder what I would do if Tony Bell or Brian Kehe were nominated to the Supreme Court. Yes, those are real names, and Brian did want to be a lawyer. I don’t know if he did…we sort of lost touch after That Night. I can’t even imagine how I would feel, much less what I would do. I doubt I would have the courage to come forward, even though I was stone cold sober on both occasions and remember exactly where and about when these awful incidents took place.

After long weeks of wandering in decades-old memory, I finally came to a realisation. Although these things happened all those years ago, I didn’t know what to call them. I didn’t know, really, what had happened to me. Now, I interpret those experiences differently: I was in the wrong place, yes. I chose to be with the wrong guys at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. But that doesn’t mean I deserved what happened to me.

And that is not as easy a realisation to come to as you might think. Because years ago I was stupid, and I let those things happen to me. I was asking for it, and I got what was coming to me. It was all my own fault. Nice, self-enclosed system. Calling those experiences ‘sexual assault’ blows the idyllic snow-globe picture to smithereens. I have to accept a new identity, in a way. Although I was assaulted a long, long time ago, I have only just become ‘a survivor of sexual assault’. So, in a sense, it is like it just happened.

But there isn’t anyone to tell, really. No justice will be done. It’s all just been stirred up again to no particularly good effect. Actually, it’s been stirred up to a bad effect: my family are all watching a film, and I’m sitting here, because of the white-out. I can’t see the TV.

I’ll tell you what, though. I finally understand why nobody who was around when I was a small girl wanted to tell my father. (He had been two states away at the time.) I thought it was to protect me–after all, I was told I ought to be ashamed of myself. My father would have been angry, true. But I lived for 40 years under the false impression that he would have been angry at ME. No. I realize the truth now, as the parent of a small girl. Nobody wanted to tell my dad because they were afraid he might shoot the guy. But because I thought I’d be in big trouble, I didn’t say anything. Not when I was a child, and not when I was a teenager.

And I grieve, because I wonder how things might have been different for me if I had been comforted rather than blamed. At the end of the day, I have to be grateful for #MeToo, no matter how much it hurts to have all my memories shaken up and set down in a different light. It’s too late for me: I’ll never know how things might have been.

Sorry, no happy ending this time. Sometimes there just isn’t one.

 

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Becoming a ‘motherist’

The new academic year is underway, and today I am introducing a group of second year students to Christian ethics. What on earth do I mean by that? I am hoping to persuade them that one of the most important things that ‘Christian’ does in modifying ‘ethics’ is locating practitioners. We cannot pretend we have a view from nowhere.

Where do I stand, I wondered. How can I explain to them what it is that shapes the person before them and guides my own practice of this academic discipline? I describe myself as a Catholic moral theologian, but that has to be qualified. I used to qualify it by saying that I was a feminist. That no longer seems to fit, for a variety of reasons.

The most important reason, especially for the purpose of teaching an ethics class, is that the word ‘feminist’ generally conjures up the notion of ‘women’s rights’. I’ve nothing against women having equal rights. Access to the same legal protections as men is essential for women. It is especially so now, when women suffer sexual violence routinely in spite of broad public support for the #MeToo movement.

My concern with rights-language, in this context, is two-fold. The first concern is that it is insufficient. Necessary, but not up to the task of reforming relations between men and women. And that is what is required: not more laws, but a conversion of more hearts.

The other concern is more complex and more controversial. I have long had a niggling sense that something wasn’t right about the way we women got our rights. Something had to give–something always does in order for such radical change to happen.

What gave? Something intangible, and something that cannot be recovered. I am not ever going to be one to advise turning back the clock: the young Sean Connery as James Bond convinced me there was no going back. The cultural milieu that made his interactions with women ‘normal’ had to change (and hasn’t yet changed enough).

I agree with early feminists about the ‘problem with no name’. I’m just not certain that the diagnosis and treatment of the problem was thorough enough. On the one hand, women who wanted (or needed) to work outside the home should have had equal access to the training and positions. On that score, I think we have not done too badly. I’m sitting in an office in an academic building, about to go and lecture in a university that admits at least as many women as men each year. The women now studying will have the same career opportunities, legally, as their male colleagues.

On the other hand, though, there is still ‘women’s work’ to be done. And, though some may find it unimaginable, there are still women (and not only women, I hope) who want to do that work. The problem is that that work does not have equal status in the eyes of our achievement-oriented culture. The equal rights taken up by women in the workplace ought to be matched by an equal respect for those who (whether women or men, mothers or not) who take up the hard and thankless work of mother-craft.

By mother-craft, I simply mean the kind of work that more than 50 years ago would have been thought of as stuff women did. Not just doing housework, but teaching children to tie their shoes, cross roads safely, and take their responsibilities seriously at home and school. Parenting requires attention and discipline. More than that, the hardest part is the constant self-giving involved.

The essence of mother-craft, as I see it, is teaching our young that life is not only meant to be lived, it is meant to be given. We all live our lives, and we are careful about how we do that (at least that’s what I’ll be insisting in my ethics class). But also, and perhaps more importantly, we all give our lives. That is worth repeating: we all give our lives. Not only mothers and heroes die. We all spend our lives. We give them away in projects and various pursuits.

Motherhood, the biological kind, makes a nice figure for this. The body is given in pregnancy. Ask anyone who has carried a child. The mother’s body is no longer just her own; it is given for the needs of the child. Mother-craft is the art of co-operating with the body’s work of giving. It continues through the whole of life, as the mother (as was) spends her life for those in her care. The most important moment in my life as a mother and as a scholar came one day when, completely spent and frustrated at my inability to be the mother I wanted to be and have the career I wanted to have, I sat down and wondered what life was for. ‘It’s for giving away,’ I thought.

It hasn’t made me a great mother. And it certainly hasn’t helped my career. But it has made me something beyond a feminist. It has made me a ‘motherist’: someone who believes the equal rights of women should include equal respect for what used to be regarded as ‘women’s work’. The work involved in mother-craft deserves our respect. No matter who did it for us, and no matter whether they did it brilliantly or not-so-well, we wouldn’t be here without it.

Thanks, Mom.

the other front

This morning I was struck, looking out at the children during Mass at my kids’ primary school: my future is in their hands. Oh, I know, it’s the sort of thing we say. Like we know we are mortal. But it doesn’t really sink in until something presses it on us. (For me, it was the death of my mother that did it.) In fact, it is such a banal thing to say that Whitney Houston recorded a song about it. Today, though, that ‘banal truth’ (as David Foster Wallace might describe it) hit me in a different place. A deeper place.

I’ve long worried about the evaporation of childhood. Academic work starts earlier. And homework, and stress about school. Kids watch more TV and are protected from the dangers of tree-climbing. My generation thinks that childhood in the 1970’s may not have been as safe, but we survived it–and thrived. So I am not alone in the concern for childhood. Nor am I alone in the concern that part of what shapes childhood for our kids has little to do with safety and everything to do with what’s convenient for us. Screens keep kids occupied as easily and certainly as Mary Poppins. I know (#guilty).

And I wonder whether, at least for me, a part of the desire to keep my kids safe and healthy is a desire to keep things in order. Nothing disrupts my work like a kid off school. Yesterday, I let my 11-year-old stay home because he was so stressed out by school, knowing that I’d be sacrificing a day of work. We had a great walk in the woods and more time alone together than we have had in years. We both enjoyed it–and a funny thing happened. I slipped in the mud, and realised suddenly that he was fully my equal in terms of agility and speed. And he thought he was looking after me as much as I was looking after him. We have changed. I’ll miss the deadline I thought I would meet, though I judge the loss to be worth it. The unexpected sick days, though, can inspire grumbling and worse. Who thinks that missing work because a child is off school ill, or because of bad weather, is worth it? Maybe I’m just selfish that way.

That experience yesterday probably set me up for the awakening I had this morning, that conviction that my future is in the hands of all those children at Mass in the school hall. We worry about what sort of future we are creating for them. But we should be equally concerned about what sort of future they will create for us. God willing, I will still be around when they are running the world. And I will be vulnerable, as they are vulnerable now. I hope they don’t just give me a screen and hope I’ll leave them alone for a bit to get on with their work. If they do, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.

Work, work, work. I love my work, actually, and am grateful for the opportunity to do it. As a moral theologian, I work in a space cleared for me by feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I’ve expressed my gratitude for them in previous posts. And there is still work to in that space. Part of the reason I do not jump on the ‘it was all better in the 1970’s’ bandwagon is that it wasn’t. Not for women, anyway. I don’t mean not being welcomed into the workplace, either, though that is part of it. I mean the sick feeling I got when I watched an old James Bond film (with the young Sean Connery). The portrayal and treatment of women in those films horrified me. Never mind that there isn’t the graphic and grisly presentation of fighting: those films are deeply violent, unconsciously so…which makes it worse. I’m not going back to that, and I am deeply grateful to the women in Hollywood who have led the #MeToo movement. I dream of a future in which my daughter will never, ever use that hashtag.

There is, however, another front in this war we women have been fighting. A less glamorous and more dangerous front. One of the things that we have lost in the fighting is the value of childhood, of home, of motherhood–by which I mean the form of radically available parenting that doesn’t regard a sick child as an interruption in the work. In ‘mothering’, tending to the sick child is the work. (Obviously this form of family life was never the universal that some of us like to think. But it is still true that growing up with parents who were still married to each other is a privilege. So it is worth considering as a desirable form of life, even if it isn’t for everybody.)

The ‘other front’ is the battle for the honorable craft of caring for children. To fight for it doesn’t mean asking for a regression to the 1970’s, but for a true recognition that those who are children now are creating their future and ours. Teachers cannot raise our kids for us, though my kids’ primary school does a smashing job of making kind and generous-hearted young people. We are losing childhood and motherhood together, and it is a terrible loss. Not because we should all return to a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ society, but because losing childhood and motherhood means losing a space in which we used to do a lot of growing together. I remembered that space yesterday: every day my children change, and I change. I want to help guide that change, and I want them to guide my changing self, too.

So I fight the battle for being a mom. (Or, I guess, a mum, since that’s what my kids call me.) When the world says, let him watch TV and finish that review, I have to say, no thank you. I’m going for a walk. I know there are mothers out there who do this every day and never think twice about giving their entire lives for their children. Their CV will never, ever reflect the world-changing work they do. And I thank them, because my future is in their kids’ hands, too.

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