What are we trying to atone for?

The idea for this post occurred to me in a roundabout fashion.

It began when I found this article yesterday, which talks about how neuroscientists in Britain have discovered that swearing can help relieve pain. The led me to remember my experience giving birth to my twins (I swore my head off) and that led to an internal rant about the state of maternity care in New Zealand, where Mums are advised to use *aromatherapy* for pain relief in labour; and that led to contemplation of today’s topic – Mummy Martyrs and Diet Deniers.

It may be more prevalent here in NZ due to the way our health system is set up but women here at least are actively encouraged by ‘health professionals’ to give birth with little to no pain relief, preferably at home or in birthing units that are not attached to a hospital. And the sad thing is that women take this quite seriously; rather than embrace the advances in medical knowledge that our Grandmothers would have given their right arms for we throw them away in favour of bragging rights. And that fits in with the wider implications of ‘Mummy culture’ in the West; it’s all about sacrifice, baby. A ‘good’ mother slavishly devotes herself to her offspring and to a lesser extent, her man. She gives birth with no pain relief, breastfeeds even when her nipples are so sore they bleed, she devotes her free time to washing and drying cloth nappies, she exists for months on little sleep and does not need time to herself. She does not lose her temper, her equilibrium or her mind; she is calm and loving and eternally sweet. And of she does not measure up to these standards, she is not a ‘good mother’. She is somehow lesser. And the worst part is that she does this to herself – she both imposes these standards on herself and castigates herself when she doesn’t measure up. She doesn’t see that the other Mums at the coffee morning are lying and she forgets that the celebrity Mum in the magazine has a full time nanny.

While contemplating this is occurred to me that women worship martyrdom in another sphere too – their diets and bodies. A woman who denies herself a steak, bread or dessert is ‘being good’ and looking after herself. We expect women to be denying themselves something and we congratulate them for it; their forbearance in the face of a sweet treat is taken as a sign of moral goodness. Not so for the men, of course – even a white-collar office worker needs a hearty meal each day, just by the virtue of being male. And we cluck indulgently when he goes back for seconds. Kids used to be allowed to eat but that’s changing too – a nice intersection with the Mummy Martyr above. A fat kid means a Bad Mother. Doesn’t matter what the kid eats, really, so long as it’s thin. Unprocessed foods (unless they’re low fat, of course) is best. The occasional treat may be allowed. But a woman who eats with gusto (especially if she is eating ‘bad food’ with gusto) is not ladylike. If she’s bigger than a size 10 she’s downright piggish. And heaven forbid we gain weight – oh the horror!

That begs the question – why? What are we women trying to atone for? Why do we feel the need to martyr ourselves? What do we gain? Is the admiration (and envy) of other women so important to us that we will happily lie for it; lie about our feelings, our home lives, our appetites, even our very selves?

Lets throw off the shackles. Yes, I love my kids but as a SAHM I get bored at times. If I had another child I would definately have an epidural again – and no, I would not breastfeed. No, I don’t want the damn salad – give me meat thank you; I need my protein and I like to eat a *proper meal* at mealtimes. And I prefer to eat when I am hungry; eat until I am full. You can call it a ‘lifestyle change’ all you want but lets face facts – if it has rules, it’s a diet. And I’m not interested in rules. I can’t be bothered.

It’s time to take our freedom back. What are we waiting for?

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4 Responses

  1. I don’t think women do these things because they want to be a martyr. They do it because they are told its right, that if they breast feed their kids will have better IQs that if they have a natural birth their kids will be more emotionally well adjusted, that if they are 20lbs overweight they are projecting an image to the world of being a slovenly – and ironically – self hating person, and that if they project such an image no-one will like them and they’ll never get promoted at work etc.

    I have found that for all it’s vaunted obsession with the concepts of “freedom” and “choice” modern society is in fact significantly less tolerant of diversity in the human person than societies which were decidedly less free.

    It’s an interesting phenomenon. I could rant about it for ages.

    • I think there’s some really interesting group dynamics going on, too. Get most women alone and they’ll say that they don’t believe the hype and yet in groups we all perpetuate it. It both annoys and fascinates me 🙂

  2. I’m sorry this comes so late–only just saw this–but it was so poignant that I had to reply, even if no one ever sees it. We are trying to atone for being women. Bitchy women, big women, strong women, moody women, loud women, the worst part of all that, in our cultural mythology, is being WOMEN. People who were born daughters (“how nice”) instead of sons (Wow! Congratulations!”) People who failed, first and foremost, by not being men. The “best” women are honorary men. Quieter women are better than louder; smaller women are better than larger; it follows that the best thing a woman can really be is not there at all. We can be there if we’re “good” to look at or making life easier for others, but other than that, what’s the point? Why SHOULD we be seen, or heard? In fact, we shouldn’t. It makes me feel like chewing my wrists.

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