Saturday, August 22, 2009

Opping on

Damon Young alerted me to this article by Helen Razer suggesting that "comfortable parents" can all tut-tut about Cotton On because as a brand it's a bit cheap and nasty, but that a "crass t-shirt is no less offensive than a tot in head-to-toe Prada".

(Although, funnily enough, I think Cotton On had earned itself a bit of cred lately -- at least, before this saga shot it down in flames. It's a weirdly nuanced thing the way these kinds of "High Street" brands (as the Brits call 'em) can redeem themselves from time to time.)

Anyway, as I said in my comment, I agree with Razer that parading babies around as billboards or status symbols of any kind is pretty off -- and that, yes, we're all prone to this kind of consumer hypocrisy to lesser or greater degrees. Though a pretty minuscule percentage of parents (even those in the comfortable category) could afford to dress their kids in Prada, even if they wanted to.

But this brought us to the issue of op-shops, Damon linking us to this story by sociologist and blogger Ruth Quibell, who reminds us to look beyond our bargain-hunting instincts and remember why and how op shops exist.

When it comes to the very fraught ethical questions of how, where and why to shop nowadays, op-shops have long been my get out of jail free card, or so I thought. (Though I've never bought fur, even second-hand, and never bartered either, I promise.)

I was just talking to someone last night about how you now have to expect to pay pretty much the same amount at oppies as you would for new gear -- but that you're hopefully paying for better quality stuff, especially when it come to kids (well, mine anyway) who seem to trash their clothes faster than I can stuff the little would-be nudists into them, as well as buying a bit more ethically, just by the nature of the wares being second-hand, and hopefully putting your money somewhere useful.

That said -- though (as Ruth points out) I know people who shop at op shops aren't just the very poor (there are even those running op shop tours now!) -- I would struggle to dress my kids in similar quality clothes bought new. The choice would be op-shop or the likes of Target, where I do admittedly shop from time to time, but always means wrestling with that ethical problem of whether to buy cheap imports made in China that fall apart in the wash and were probably made by a kid about the same age as your own.

The other issue is the way op-shops now get trawled through by some funky vintage outfit across the road who then on-sells for three times as much -- for profit, not charity. Where does everyone sit on that one? All part of keeping the whole thing ticking along, or just ripping off the everyone involved -- the charities, the poor, and the bargain-hunters alike?

... Oh dear...

Sorry, this post was started half an hour ago but was interrupted by my daughter stepping into the study looking like she'd spent too long on a horse. Yep, pooed her pants. Sorry, I know, that's a bit gross, but in the interests of truth and honesty about this parenting caper... Phew -- lucky the pants weren't Prada!

Friday, August 14, 2009

My my... (and cotton off)...

The lovely Mia Freedman has posted about The Divided Heart on her massively popular blog, mamamia. She has described it as a “book that changed her life”, which has made me feel quite overwhelmed. Thank you Mia!

But equally overwhelming (for very different reasons) was her next post about clothing label Cotton On's tasteless new line of kidswear sporting 'slogans' like "I'm a tits man", "I like big boobs and i cannot lie", "I'm living proof my mum is easy" and - no, I'm not joking (though they think they are) - "They shake me"!

There is no excuse (not even "we're just being funny") for turning children into platforms for sick adult jokes and sexual innuendo.

So, so not on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stay-at-home versus working mum--how has it come to this?!

Divided Heart artist Sarah Tomasetti once told me that when she became pregnant for the first time, one friend’s response was: “Congratulations! From here on in, everything you do will be wrong!”

We all know that motherhood and guilt may as well be interchangeable terms, but this seems to be doubly true when it comes to the issue of work.

A while ago I was chatting to Charlotte Young, co-editor of Barefoot Magazine, who admitted to me that she used to be pretty hard-line on the issue of whether or not women with young children should work. She wouldn’t be alone, among the educated middle-class women I know, in feeling that babies and toddlers should be at home with their parents and not in childcare. More than that, I would say there’s a largely unspoken but palpable disapproval of preschool-aged kids being in full-time care at all.

Like breastfeeding, the modern ethic says that thinking, conscientious parents will stay home with their babies — and with good cause. I too have felt the terrible pang when seeing tiny babies at childcare centres and the sense that it is just not right. But I also understand that it’s highly likely they are there because their parents feel they have no choice.

This absence of choice, though, is something I think we tend to reserve for the battling working class.

What of the woman who is on a strong career trajectory and feels she can't drop the ball? Or one who simply finds she's climbing the walls at home with small children? In my experience, this is often treated not only as short-sighted and un-evolved, but a definite moral failing.

When talking to Charlotte, she seemed a bit surprised by the fact that I, as a middle-class woman, might not have a choice about whether or not to work. Which got me thinking about whether I would still work, given the choice.

I held off going back to work for as long as my family could afford it (basically, until my kids were in turn at least two), and then have worked part time. But, within my immediate circles, I have found myself to be in a minority of women whose families actually rely on their income (in my case, it would be that or sell the house).

Since my son has started school, I have become increasingly conscious of the gap between those mothers who are in the paid workforce and those who are at home full-time. (And believe me, I know that caring for children and running a household is a huge workload in itself — one which unfortunately doesn’t go away whether you are also in the paid workforce or not.)

Something I have noticed myself doing, when talking to mums in the playground, is to play down the fact that I actually enjoy my work — as if this is some terrible admission that I don’t value mothering enough, or that I have taken a selfish path. Sometimes I wonder whether, in the (generally positive) push to reassert the value of mothering as the very important thing that it is, we haven’t lost sight of the fact that work is also meaningful in women's lives — and that that’s ok.

We still seem to be on a bit of a pendulum swing away from the (equally important) feminist push for women’s right to work, which had the unfortunate fallout of leaving some women feeling ignored or shamed for wanting to stay home. I don’t know that we’ve got the balance right yet.

Surely it’s a great thing that most women now feel they can make a genuine and active choice about whether or not to work when their kids are very small. And that those women who need or want to work have access to meaningful jobs.

So why are we still in this place where women feel so guilty, no matter what they do? Who do they perceive to be judging them — their partners, friends, children, society as a whole?

Women are beset with such an avalanche of mixed messages — from the media, politicians, our mothers, our workmates and friends — that it can be almost impossible to dig our way back to our own intuition on things, or to feel solidly confident in our decisions.

A shame, when there’s so much to celebrate — like the fact that I can sit here musing on this subject while my washing machine chugs away, a pot of soup is bubbling away on the stove, my daughter will soon return from a playgroup which is today being hosted by a dad, and my son is down the road at the great local school where his teachers last year got a big fat pay rise in recognition that what they do is not “just women’s work”.

Friday, August 7, 2009

It's 3.30...

It’s 3.30, and I'm imagining my son leaving his classroom and making his way out into the schoolyard. He will find his way to after school care, or they will find him. He is an autonomous being. His own person, with his own life to live.

I know that. So why am I so frequently struck by this notion and so destabilised by it — the thought that my children are at this moment out there in the world where I can’t see them?

It makes me feel like a constantly unravelling ball of string — the further the kids roam, the more diminished I am, but the more liberated also. I find the levels of trust and faith I have to employ as a mother overwhelming sometimes. If only freedom — mine and theirs — didn’t seem to come at such a price!

Yesterday my daughter’s kinder teacher told me she was being targeted for bullying by a little boy she’s known her whole life. That day he had tipped a vase of flowers over her head, and when he was told that it was now his responsibility to clean it up, my daughter offered to help him.

This broke my heart — even more so, somehow, after a full morning of such appalling tantrums that I was driven to think: ‘Jeez, you’re lucky I love you so much, because this is the kind of thing that drives less adoring people to murder children!’ (Can anyone describe those unbearable hours when a child won’t stop whinging and screaming and throwing things at you? At those times, some part of me is forced to shut down, just in order to cope.)

I still worry that I haven’t got the guts for it. That I don’t have what it takes to override my own desperate fears in order to give my kids the space and trust they need to grow. That I haven’t got the discipline to avoid succumbing to lazy strategies — or rivalling my children’s behaviour with equally juvenile behaviour of my own.

Nothing rang more true for me than the wonderful Mindy Sotiri’s notion that parenting requires “a superhuman effort. Sometimes a more than superhuman effort.” Oh, how I agree with that! Superhuman effort — on a daily basis. And I have the great luck of having children without significant problems.

This is a very sentimental post, isn’t it? Must be the afternoon light…

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who's in Control?

I re-watched Control recently, the biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis.

I've watched a lot of films about male artists, and it is always fascinating to look at the impact of their obsessiveness — and their fame — on their family. This one is no exception.

In Control, which tracks the short life of cult figure Ian Curtis, there is a party scene where a woman talking to Curtis's wife enviously acknowledges how famous he has become. “Not to me,” Deborah Curtis smiles. “I still have to wash his underpants.”

Here, the music scene is a masculine world; Deborah is the long-suffering, marginalised wife, bearing the brunt of her husband’s creative talent, while he winds up the tragic hero, despite his domineering behaviour towards his wife and almost total negligence as a father.

Although the teenaged Deborah was also writing poetry when she met her future husband, he was always the focus of the relationship, she has said. “I don’t remember him ever asking to see what I was writing. That’s partly my own fault — I stopped writing after we got married. But I think he was so powerful that our lives were sort of centred around his art, and what he was going to do.”

In her response to the film, British novelist and art critic Bidisha argued that: “Great men attract subservient women and are forgiven for their unkindness because of the marvellous gifts they present to the world”.

She accuses recent artist biopics, such as those celebrating Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock and Ian Curtis, of passing off acts of rebellion, arrogance and cruelty as reflections of greatness in men, while female artists are “neurotic nut-jobs … called by their first names” — think Sylvia, Iris, Frida — almost always in thrall to some more famous (though, history shows, not necessarily more talented) man.

Do you agree with this? Can anyone recommend some positive biopics about artists who wove their art into full lives as partners and parents?

One wonderful antidote is The Beaches of Agnes, French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda's film-memoir (currently showing at the Melbourne Film Festival) about her very full life as an artist and mother.

Placing herself amongst extracts from her films, and images and interviews recalling her past, the unstoppable Varda offers a fascinating and playful account of her creative work, her feminism and her family life.