Obama has talked a lot about service. Cynics say he’s trying to align himself with JFK (presumably minus the brains-being-blown-out part) and others say he’s just being practical – the mess is so big that it just can’t be cleaned without everyone mucking in. My money’s on a little of both.
I’ve talked about service a lot lately too. Well, I’ve talked to myself about it. I’ve been thinking about the difference between service and submission, and the different levels of respect we give to various types of service.
Being a mother (and to a lesser degree, being a wife) is all about service. A mother – especially an attachment-parenting type mother – is available to serve her offspring twenty-four hours a day. I read something recently that described breastfeeding as the most selfless act of all and I’m not sure if it is entirely selfless but it is certainly all about the giving.
Personally, I have a great deal of ambivalence towards the level of service involved in mothering. It brings joy and untold rewards, that is true. And perhaps more than that: it’s necessary. In my mind, choosing to have a child means choosing to look after that child in the best possible way – and that means a little selflessness. But without making the required sacrifices that parenthood brings, what would be the point? You won’t hear me talking along those lines after a 4am wake-up-call. If I say anything at all beyond ‘arrrrggggnnngggffffthhhh’ it’ll be something with four letters. But still – I get up. Not responding when I’m needed is unthinkable. A non-0ption.
As a society we have a truckload of ambivalence about this service stuff too. Anyone pregnant with her first child knows this first-hand – all of a sudden, her needs are subjugated to those of her foetus. And should she dare to drink a glass or wine or eat a rare steak in a restaurant she’s likely to draw everything from furtive whispers to open criticism to flat refusal from wait staff. And all this after spending an afternoon having all and sundry either touch her abdomen without asking, comment on her size, tell her eye-watering tales of their own episiotomy scar or offer parenting advice: invariably along the lines of ‘don’t ever let your baby cry, it will get brain damage’ or ‘don’t spoil it – crying is good exercise for babies’. She is expected to take all of this with serene grace because she’s just so lucky to be a host organism and no longer requires a brain of her own.
But she better not get too complacent. Because when that baby is outta there, being a host organism is no longer good enough. Oh no. She needs ‘me time’! Preferably at the gym or the beautician so that she can return to her ‘pre-baby’ self as soon as possible. And she’d better learn how to avoid letting her baby manipulate her – because babies need to be trained not to cry, since their crying is inconvenient and interrupts mummy and daddy time. Or, perhaps she needs to learn how to respond to every sound her baby makes and prevent any crying at all – which means holding her infant 24 hours a day. Which shouldn’t be a problem, since she can use a sling to help her do laundry and make dinner.
In reality what most of us strive for is a happy medium between disappearing into baby-service altogether and not spending enough time loving our children because we’re distracted by our own adult lives. But of course there is no such thing as a happy medium – just a host of compromises which usually require one person in the family to have their needs put aside at any given time. And a Darwinian battle for ascendency to avoid being the family member in that default position.
Anyway, all of this is not really what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say is that our valuing of individuality, ambition, and power detracts from the value of service. As a mother and a feminist, I believe – I need to believe – that spending this time in service of my family is not subjugation because although it is not paid work, it is vital and valuable work. It is work I can be proud of.
I remember a conversation with a fellow feminist and mother, back when I was pregnant, about cloth nappies.** My friend had said that the very thought of having to wash and dry nappies on top of all the other work involved in raising her two wonderfully active boys was enough to scare the bejeezus out of her and I totally sympathised. In a writing class I went to that afternoon, I scribbled ‘will drudgery make me a drudge?’ It was a real fear and one that still grips me sometimes.
But I resist it. Because I know that being the mother my daughter needs, the mother I never had, is as important to me as it is to her.
I think that when we conflate service of this kind with submission – to the patriarchy, to a stereotype, whatever – we devalue the work that so many women do.
And what is so wrong with service anyway? Serving one’s country in war is considered one of the most honourable and noble tasks. Serving the community as a volunteer – aid worker, tuck shop lady, firefighter – is seen at the least as a worthy contribution, if not some kind of higher calling. And the word doula comes from the Greek word for servant. Many women who do birthwork talk of themselves as birth servants – and so they are. Their role is to support the mother: no more and certainly no less. To give such support is an honour and it requires skill and the ability to put one’s own needs and opinions aside.
It’s refreshing to hear the leader of a country known for individualism and greed talk about the value of community service. I hope his words have some impact and encourage a new spirit of volunteerism. I also hope that those of us who care for others in our family every single day without economic reward, will start to feel as though that work – that service – is precious, skilled, valuable and worthy of acknowledgement by other feminists. And everyone.
** Incidentally, I did go ahead with the cloth nappies. But it’s my husband who usually washes and dries and folds them, after he’s gotten home from his paid work and played with our daughter for a while. Because serving a child and a family and a household is men’s work too. Of course.