A Women’s Identity is her Children
I am from Canada. Canada is an amazing country. Amongst the many great things about Canada, we have equal rights for all people regardless of gender – women and men can vote, women and men can achieve higher education, etc.; and we have paternity leave which is available to both parents for a total of 35 weeks (15 additional weeks of maternity leave is reserved for women specifically due to the medical nature of having the child). According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom:
15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
Someone I know recently stated that a women’s identity is based on her children. How many children she has; what activities said children are involved in during adolescents; how respectful the children are; how successful the children become, etc. Needless to say, I just about had a heart attack when I heard this comment and I thought the topic deserved some more of my attention.
Now, my bachelor’s degree is in Sociology and Political Science. I have taken a few sociology of gender courses. But, I have to admit I only made it through one lecture in Women Studies 101 before I switched out of the class. The women professor seemed like she hated men and I got the impression that her hate for men would be the focus of the course. I like men, so it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I am not an expert in gender relations or women’s studies from an academic perspective. Most of what I know about gender is from the school of hard knocks.
What I do know is that throughout history and across cultures, women have been valued for their ability to produce children. Most cultures have preferred the production of a male heir, but not all. Matriarchal societies do exist. Regardless of societal gender preferences, the purpose of the women throughout history has been to produce children. Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father does a great job of discussing a women’s identity in modern day Pakistan based on the gender of the child she produces, and the immediate consequences of having a girl vs a boy. You can check out his TED Talk to hear his opinions:
I was brought up believing in equal rights. I viewed my parents as equal, and it didn’t matter which parent said what, we were expected to be respectful of both parents. My Dad may not have cleaned a toilet, but he definitely cooked just as much as my mom. I had 2 older siblings – 1 brother and 1 sister. We were all treated equally. We all cooked; my brother probably cleaned better than either of the girls; I played sports with the boys and hated “girly” crafts; my sister and I despised dresses and skirts; we all did yard work and shoveled the sidewalk. There simply was no gender differences in our house, until one day as adults when my brother brought his new girlfriend home and they slept in the same room. While at the same time, my long term boyfriend (now husband) and I were directly told we were not allowed to share a room. For a few years we respected that rule until my Dad’s overt sexism which favoured my brother. This is the one and only time, I recall any sort of sexism from my dad.
Through 7 years of university, I never noticed a gender difference. I achieved top grades in my chosen program and my brother achieved good grades in his chosen program. We both chose programs that interested us and that we were good at. Our successes had to do with being good at what we studied, not being a girl or a boy.
I am an educated women. I am most definitely not a typical “women” by the archaic definitions of weak, submissive, quite, obedient, wife (wife is actually listed as the 4th definition of a women according to dictionary.com), etc. Rather I am fiercely independent. I can be strong willed and stubborn. I have opinions and I like to voice them. I can be courageous in my willingness to speak up. I am the first person to help push a car out of the snow; or to do a reno project in the house. I am respectful, but I am most definitely not submissive. I strongly believe in equal rights and advocate for them when necessary. I am a wife, but in defining myself as a wife, I would use terms such as equal partner, friend, and companion, as opposed to being my husband’s property and following his decisions.
In graduate school, I was definitely treated differently. This difference was due to my age, and had absolutely nothing to do with my gender. The average age of students in the faculty was in the mid-thirties. I was 22. I was so young! People often called me “kid” and many times I heard that I had no idea what I was talking about because I was so young. (Interestingly, I still got top grades and did better than most of those who were criticizing me based on my age). Anyways, I am still young to be where I am, and I still get called “kid”. It drives me crazy, but not in a negative way. I’ve decided to take it as a compliment – yes, I am young, and yes, I have worked very hard to be this accomplished by such a young age. Anyways, I digress.
Until entering the professional workforce, I did not really appreciate the gender differences in society. I am now working in a male dominated field. In an office of 75 people, there are less than 14 women. These numbers mean that in my office men make up over 80% of the staff. At the age of 31, I have achieved higher education than any of the other women in the office. I am one of the only professionals in the office, the majority of the women are in administrative positions. I would venture the guess that less then 5% of the women in the office are in professional positions. I even had one senior project manager in the office say to me one day when I was discussing my master thesis, “I didn’t realize you had anything more than a high school diploma, let alone a master degree”. I was stunned at his ignorance, that a young women would be educated and skilled.
So, the point of all this is that through the last few years, I’ve really started to understand that even in a modernized society such as Canada, we still have engrained gender biases. We, as women, still have societal pressure to produce children. Many women still define themselves by their children, and many others still accept that society defines them by their children.
I have really struggled being a professional women trying to have a family. Due to the amount of work I was missing, I felt forced to admit that we were trying to have children. Admitting this was necessary to make it difficult to fire me for missing too much work (here it’s very hard to fire a women here for being pregnant). I knew this admission would change my career trajectory within the company – no longer would I be chosen for promotions; to attend conferences; or for advanced training opportunities. These would go to “dedicated” employees who were more guaranteed to be around long term – i.e. men, and women who either had not admitted there family plans or who already had grown children who would not get in the way. Admitting our family planning was like letting out a big secrete. I have been judged for taking time off due to miscarriages. But, even worse, was admitting that I needed more time to recover from our 4th miscarriage. This meant that I had to explain that our choice to have children matters more to me right now, then my career. Because, apparently, I could not have both my career and my desire to be a mother be priorities. They apparently cannot occur in conjunction with each other. Being that I work with mainly men, I suspect this paradox is foreign to them, because at the end of the day, they may father children, but they do not go through pregnancy and miscarriage in the same physical and emotional way.
So, I use myself here as an example. An example, both of how it is to work in a male dominated industry wanting children and how it is at the same time a societal faux pas to not have children at the age of 31.
It is fascinating that from a career perspective, I was judged for taking time away to have children. Apparently, this is somehow unacceptable. To the point, where one of my friends at a different firm, only took 3 months off with her new baby – she was unable to take her allotted paternity leave because of the pressure to return to work both financially and corporately. Apparently, women should not be taking time away from their careers to have kids. This time is viewed as being damaging to my career. Based on this, I’ve ascertained that somehow the fact that I want children, means that I am less of a professional.
Yet, at the exact same time, the larger view from society is that at 31 I should have a few children by now. I am too old to not have kids. Society isn’t accepting of the fact that I actually wanted them a few years ago, but so far we have been unable to produce a living child. I’ve heard things like: you waited too long to try and now your just too old to have kids. So, because of my old age, of 31, I cannot carry the child and am now too old. Excuse me?! (FYI, medically, 31 is still considered young to have children and I am medically able to carry a child and I have been tested to prove it.) And, what if we should chose not to adopt, but to live childfree? Somehow, if I cannot have biological children, it is expected by most that we will adopt, because god forbid we chose to live our lives without children. We’ve been told that to not adopt and open our lives up to all the risks that go along with adoption, will make us selfish. Or, what about all of those who just choose not to have children? What if I were one of the courageous few to stand up and say, I choose not to have children. The fact that women either chose not to have children or cannot have children, somehow makes us less of a women. Somehow, even in this modern society we are expected to have children and to spend our lives dedicated to raising them. And to go against this results in a social stigma
Even though I am personally adamant, that a women’s identity should not be defined by her children, any more than a man’s identity should be, what the modern Canadian society has taught in over the last few years is in complete contradiction to this. A women must choose their careers or children. There is not room for both to co-exist in peaceful harmony. And if you choose your career, you will always be judged by society for not spending your days cooking, cleaning and raising kids. Choosing to do both is admirable, but something always suffers. And regardless of what you choose, whether it be that you cannot have children or simply chose not to have children, then be prepared to suffer society’s judgement against you for not raising children. For not being a mother. For not defining your identity by your children.
And this is the year 2014!