Fulfil and Destroy

There is a notion on which floats a raft of flotsam and jetsam thick enough to support a woman of above-average size. It is a notion of contradictory currents.

Mothering fulfils femininity. Mothering destroys femininity.

In either case, there is a lot of money to be made. A minor parade of tired women reaches out its arms to reality television, with its promises of dressing to retrospectively confer elegance, energy, fungible sexuality. A neighbourhood network of beauty salons offers care and conversation at a price, exfoliation and depilation sold by women with families of their own to mother. Corsetry and hot wax as ways back to a former physical freedom, which itself was a time of self-and-other critique sold back to one daily (how to please your lover; why are women so mean to other women?).

I went yesterday to the hairdresser for the first time this year, to cut away the growth from a Christmas haircut that was itself the first haircut in twelve months. My family came with me so that my elder daughter could get the bleached ends of summer cut off her long hair in turn. I sat in the salon chair with my glasses off, unable to see the work of the stylist, while, at the opposite wall of the small room, my daughter accepted a biscuit in exchange for the brief scissor work that left her tidy, curious and cheerful.

I keep my daughter’s hair long because it stops inquiries into her gendered interests. It is assumed she is a little girl of conventional commercial-femininity. I want to keep a wall round her own choices for as long as I can, before she starts to takes to heart what boys do and what girls do. At the moment, she is interested in everything: building, drawing, nurturing play. There is a moment of pause for a delicate-looking long-haired little girl. Somehow these facts of her appearance distract from the fact she is wearing gumboots and driving toy trains into toy racing cars.

My own gendered interests are of a different kind of wider commercial circulation. I am of a certain demographic: the middle-aged mother with young children, the selfish careerist who did not put her biological imperative first. (There is a price, no dream, but it is not a simple one.) To phrase it in this way is of itself performance, play, since now more than ever I see little truth in such simple circulating narratives, even as a whole industry arises with their making. Fulfil; destroy.

Where am I now? A long way from the 1990s and the early 2000s, the strict time of my youth. I did not have the gendered coming-up that the present-day accounts of the mother lost to herself assume that I did. At eighteen I thought, in all sincerity, that second-wave feminism had done, permanently, the work of dismantling traditional markers of femininity, that high heels, make-up, skirts even, were finished as simple expressions of class and culture. My clothes were a carefully-selected series of statements to disrupt the old femininity, which was how we looked cool: synthetic florals and heavy boots, lace and polypropylene. It did not occur, as perhaps it never does, that this was a moment of tenuous brevity and that all the care we put into our presentation – the dun lipsticks, the hair alternately heavy and straight or short in assymetric cuts, the frowns, the ironic turn – would cycle away not just to something else but to the undoing of all this, while we were still young and in our heavy-tread boots.

If mothering has cut me off from style it is not in the manner presupposed by the social story, since I never occupied uncomplicated ground in the first place. What it has made impossible is the extended, considered cultivation of a relationship to current fashion. The most achievable goal I can set in leaving the house is to look tidy and not have any significant stains of food or fluids on me. For many, this is a fact to generate minor, complicated grief at what was possible before. Small wonder that the industries that profit so comprehensively from the willingness of women to curate and perform their own presentation, and to take these acts deep into themselves as choice and self-love, then invest in turn in the extended attempt to retrieve some of this across the financial, temporal barriers of family life. Treat yourself; spoil yourself; pamper yourself. It isn’t simple.

My husband and I perform a sort of personal theatre, not daily but regularly, in which we laugh about where we used to spend our money in ways that we now cannot: clothes and holidays, mainly, but also expensive liquor and, for me, professional grooming. My elder daughter was born early, the appointments I had made for final eyebrow shapings, leg waxings unkept as a result. In early labour I told my midwife my concern at my fuzzy eyebrows, my hairy legs, on a day when surely I should have made all effort to look tidy, committed, ready for a serious event. Very shortly afterwards such considerations would mean nothing at all, but at the time they were the closest approximations I had to a poetics of the working body.

While middle-class women continue to start families later, the narrative streams converge in yet another manner: the socio-sexual invisibility of the middle-aged woman running with the expectation that mothers will do everything in public discreetly (feed their infants, shepherd their children, occupy space, talk with others), leaving space for the imaginary subjects to whom public space theoretically belongs. The recourse available is neither logical nor straightforward, in that manner that detaching, being grunge and angry, seemed in the 1990s to be. The years in between have delivered a particular social stratum that demands both the yummy mummy – mothers reflected to themselves – and the MILF – mothers reflected to others – as its ideal, crude youthful stereotypes in a demographic in which there are fewer young parents anyway.

It is work, to ride the raft, but it is all work regardless. Mothering as work, gender as work, thinking and writing as work, professional life as work. Work binds us to these tasks but gives us also some critical distance. Women work on their appearance, they work on their relationships, they work at their jobs. I work to get some perspective on this work; I work to keep a critical distance. I work to make my gender a little distant from my thoughts, out there near the playground’s edge, still where I can see it but not so close as to hold me fast, idling, toying, waiting.

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  • Robyn July 28, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    I always had short hair when I was a child, as mandated by my mother for its easy care qualities. As a result, when I was very young, I was often mistaken for a boy. I remember my mum’s aunt exclaiming, “Oh, two little boys!” to me and my bro. It bothered me, but not a whole lot. As soon as I was old enough to stand up for the haircut I wanted, I went for longer styles. As a grown-up, I’d actually go for a haircut over new clothes. It’s one of those things that just feels nice.

    The issue of motherly clothing style is interesting. I have a friend who is skilled at picking good outfits. She shops at the Warehouse and other budget stores and is probably about a size 16, but she always manages to look styley. She used to say that other mothers in her coffee group would show up in tracksuit pants and baggy polar fleece tops, moaning about how they didn’t have time to look good. But she didn’t have the time either. She just spent that same amount of time buying a fitted polar fleece top, rather than a baggy one. But I suspect that her talent for picking the right stuff is something that other mothers would have to work at.

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  • Megan Clayton July 29, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    I have wondered if the widely-reported feeling that style has abandoned the new mother tethers not only to general exhaustion but also to the way in which no-longer-pregnant bodies often don’t return to what they were before, but something else. A person used to being toned and slender might find this very hard – being slim again, but squidgy with it. It sounds like your friend already has a formal appreciation of how to dress for all circumstances that I suspect a lot of people don’t.

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