Archive for November, 2009

Despite the vehement protestations of my formerly nine-year-old self, chances are that I’ll have kids of my own at some point in the future. Even were that not the case, I’m still the kind of gal who routinely plunges her head into the ice-cold waters of the blogsphere, and am therefore reasonably up to date on the current furor vis-a-vis motherhood. Specifically, the fact that nobody seems to know what to make of it. As Lynn Harris points out, a lot of hate for the feminine side of parenting is being bandied about by non-parents; Emma Gilby Keller is making the case for women who haven’t heard the ticking of their biological clocks and refuse to see this as a personal failing; Gen Y mum Nicole Madigan is, not unreasonably, fed up with being treated as though mothers as a demographic are still entrenched in the 1950s; and more than one person is wondering about how children should (or shouldn’t) fit into the public sphere. No matter whose side you’re on, any discussion of modern motherhood seems to imply a certain amount of outrage, anxiety and general handwringing, which, given that the prospect of giving birth is already terrifying, let alone being responsible for a tiny helpless being encoded with an unspecified, potentially lethal mix of yours and your partner’s DNA, is about as close to notions of ‘helpful’ or ‘comforting’ as the Oort Cloud is from Earth. Which is to say, very fucking distant.

I’ll admit to being fascinated by the whole malarkey – not just because I’m an opinionated snark, or because the entire buisness reeks very faintly of rubbernecking, but because it’s something in which my future self is, presumably, invested. Like everyone else, I want to know how to do this right, but despite my historical belief in the idea that moral/social absolutes are arbitrary if necessary human constructs rather than universal fixtures, it is still something of a rank shock to discover that there is no inviolable Way of the Parent, let alone Way of the Responsible Adult. Except for that part about not sticking forks in electrical socks, which, really, is only common sense.

But I digress.

The point being, there’s a lot of parenting turmoil to wade through, most of it directed towards or inflicted upon mothers themselves. And while I’m hardly about to cut in on the stroller-bashing queue, I think I’ve finally pinned down what makes me, personally, uncomfortable about the whole buisness. It’s not the idea of the Yummy Mummy that stings, although I dislike the emphasis it puts on what are frequently unrealistic standards of beauty. It’s not the helicopter, cotton-wool parenting, either, although it makes both my inner sixteen-year-old and my outer twentysomething roll their eyes. It’s not even the obnoxious, ignore-the-kids-as-they-go-on-a-public-rampage non-approach to parenthood, or the designer stroller brigades. I might lament each one in turn, but they’re not trends I feel personally threatened by: call it crazy, madcap optimism, but I’d like to think that whatever neuroses I develop as a consequence of motherhood will have less to do with social ephemera than the quirks and peculiarities of my own offspring. No: what makes me edgy in all of this is the idea that motherhood has once again become a lifestyle.

It’s a thought which simultaneously intrigues and repulses. On the one hand, everyone has the right to choose their own life. Who am I to criticize anyone for wanting the best for their children, or for taking pride in the process? Feminism has failed, and failed roundly, if it says that a woman ceases to be a feminist the moment she decides to be a stay-at-home mother, or if she cares about the type of stroller in which she perambulates her child. But on the other hand, it feels as though the current argument that children should comfortably pervade every facet of adult life – pubs, restaraunts, movies – is a reprimand on the notion that parenthood is something adults might want to take a break from. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be easy for parents to take their children places, but even within the realms of shared public space, some areas – like parks – are more intuitively child-friendly habitats than cramped pubs. Children aren’t a disease or a nuisance, some squalid facet of humanity to be sequestered from polite society until their debutante ball: they are people, they are important, and every adult, no matter how vociferous on the subject of ‘breeders’, was one once. But neither are children accessories, undetachable scions that can’t be left off the parental radar without risk of permanent personality failure.

It’s a mess, in short, one we all have to sort through in accordance with our individual beliefs and intuitions, which goes some way towards accounting for all the different types of motherhood on offer. Sometimes, in the absence of absolute moral certainty, you just have to agree to disagree. But it’s the lifestyle element of modern mothering I baulk at: because lifestyles are all about appearances, and if there’s one thing I think childhood and parenting – and life in general, for that matter – shouldn’t boil down to, it’s an emphasis on how things look to other people, as opposed to how they actually work. And yet, this is exactly what I end up doing: looking at other mothers, who are after all the only rubric available, and judging, via their appearance, how likely they are to be engaged in the persuit of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle as opposed to motherhood-in-general. If I mistrust designer prams, Yummy Mummies and kids on parade, it’s because I worry that these are the trappings of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle, and while they certainly can be, particularly in conjunction, they are not definitive indicators. They are the accessories of stereotype, not its core. But with mothers and motherhood now so visible in public – which is a different part of the debate in and of itself –Β  it is frequently the case that these external signs are all we have to go by.

We are, in short, trying to find a definition for modern motherhood that suits. Women are juggling children and careers, personal lives and dedicated play schedules, the desire to spend time in adult company vs the practical difficulties of foisting one’s offspring off onto anyone else, even for an afternoon, in a climate where childcare costs approximately nine zillion squared to the power of sod off. We are having children at older ages, where an increased amount of disposable income to spend on the trappings of childhood – clothes, strollers, toys – often equates to time poverty, resulting in guilt and the desire to take the kids out wherever possible, even where that means sandwiching adult social time into a playdate at the local pub. And, as was ever the case, there is no easy answer. Society has changed, and mothers, intentionally or not, are changing with it. There is value in trying to stick up for what we think parenting should be, but if all that means is talking about the Good Old Days and judging by appearances, it won’t get us very far.

There has been some concern this week about sexism in Australian university colleges; specifically, at St Paul’s College, Sydney University, after it came to light that a group of male students had created a pro-rape/anti-consent group on Facebook called ‘Define Statutory’. Not without reason, this has sparked outrage in various quarters.

Allow me to add to it.

Prior to commencing my time as an undergraduate at Sydney University, I interviewed for a place in two of its co-educational colleges: St Andrews and Wesley. From all the reading I’d done beforehand, St Andrews had been my first choice. Ironically, given that it was where I ended up living in 2004 and 2005, Wesley was something of an afterthought; what swayed me was being introduced to the resident turtles, a trio of doleful chelonians camped in the courtyard pond. During my interview, I distinctly remember joking to the now outgoing master, Reverend David Russell, that any college with turtles couldn’t be all bad. He laughed, and as much as anything else, I suspect it was this which saw me accepted as one of his students.

I was also offered a place at St Andrews. I turned it down. Arriving for the interview, I was already nervous, and when the petite female student giving me a tour of the college mentioned having been stuffed into one of the dryers by a group of male yearmates, my trepidation was not improved. She waved off the incident as a prank, but with a sort of wry, wary eyeroll that wasn’t entirely reassuring. Her anecdote followed me into the interview room. I don’t recall whether I mentioned it explicitly or voiced instead a general anxiety about the behaviour of male collegians, but whatever my words, they caused the master to straighten in his chair, his voice to change. He admitted, seriously and with a mix of shame and anger, that there was still a ‘rugger bugger’ culture in the upper forms, but that I could rest assured that both he and the college as a whole were doing their best to stamp it out. Perhaps he assumed my knowledge of campus sexual politics to be greater than it was, or maybe my concern was more obvious than I remember. Either way, he went so far as to say that, though there had been ‘incidents’ even in recent times, he deplored them. Because of these assurances, he said, I could feel safe at St Andrews.

I appreciated his honesty, his forthrightness and his clear willingness to fix an entrenched culture, but I did not feel safe. On that basis, as much as for the turtles, I chose Wesley, where my chances of being bundled into a cramped metal box seemed smaller. Certainly, I never had to fight free of any laundry equipment in my two years as a resident. I did, however, have fun: I got drunk, I made friends, played copious amounts of MarioKart in lieu of attending morning lectures, went to parties at the surrounding colleges, and acted in most respects like the undergraduate I was. I was never sexually abused at college, nor did I know of anyone during my tenure, male or female, who was. But that is not to say that nothing ever happened.

In 2005, I went, alone, to a party at St Paul’s. I was feeling adventurous, rebellious, flush with the need to meet new people and enjoy my youth. Being an unaccompanied, slender blonde in a short blue dress and rainbow knee-socks, I soon found myself a group of new acquaintances – friendly lads, all of them, and not the least bit menacing. We drank together for most of the night, and at some point, the ringleader of our particular group suggested we retire inside, where the drinking continued in his room. There were about fourteen of us, I think – not a small number – and from hazy memory, I was the only girl. This was not an unfamiliar dynamic to me: the vast bulk of my school friends were male, and I’d often been the lone female presence at various teenaged gatherings. I was confident, if drunk; I laughed with everyone else when the guy whose room it was stripped down to his underpants and tackled a mate, and did not object to his occasional hugs. I did not feel threatened, or preyed upon, or vulnerable, but whether this would be true for every girl in that situation is a different question.

Twice during that night, I wandered into the hallway – not alone, but as part of the general overflow of bodies. There was a boy I didn’t know whose room was across the hall; I’d seen him throughout the night, and he seemed to have noticed me, too. The first time we met, he beckoned me over to his doorway. I went, wondering drunkenly what he wanted to talk to me about, only to find I was being quite unexpectedly kissed and pulled into a room. I disentangled myself as graciously as possible; he grinned as if to say ‘oh, well’,Β  and let me go. The second time, I was warier, but still lacking in sober judgement: it took several attempts for him to coax me over, proffering apologies and saying that, in all seriousness, he needed to tell me something. It turned out to be a case of fool me twice: I escaped again and left the party soon after, having been jolted back into my senses. Once outside, the cold air woke me up further. Had I drunk just a little bit more, been a little less in control of myself, I might have done something I later came to regret. The guy hadn’t been forceful, or aggressive: just hopeful. That’s not a defence, of course – or at least, it wouldn’t have been, had my decisions been less intelligent. He was soused to the nines, and so was I. We were both stupid, but we were also lucky. There are worse combinations.

On another occasion in 2004, I failed to lock the door to my room at Wesley. I went to bed after a party, fell asleep, and was woken up about half an hour later when one of my male yearmates climbed in next to me. He’d blundered into the wrong room, but after I pointed this out to him, he professed himself too drunk and too weary to correct the mistake: could he sleep on my floor, please? I was tired, he was persistent. After a minute of arguing, I took the path of least resistance and agreed. Inside of three minutes, he had climbed back into my bed, at which point I lost my patience and ordered him out. After some complaints and several futile promises to mend his behaviour, he finally staggered to the door and left. I locked it after him and went back to sleep with little more than a muttered complaint and a weary eyeroll. Really, college men. What else could you do?

Both times, I emerged unscathed. To say that alcohol was a key factor in either incident is an understatement: arguably, it was the only factor. I was never assailed, per se, nor was the behaviour predatory: rather, I chalk it up to drunken male optimism. But the fact remains that it was male, and it was drunken, and it took place at college. Does that make it a consequence of chauvinist culture? Arguably, yes. Had my resolve been less firm, or either male more insistant, this would be a much darker narrative. Physically, I was at every disadvantage. The boys I encountered were undeniably opportunistic, but they didn’t press the issue once my feelings were made clear. That being said, they both made more than one sally; a more tired, more hesitant, less stubborn girl might have made worse choices, or had the possibility of choice taken away from her altogether. Not having spoken to either male in a state of sobriety, I am no fit judge of their daylight personalities. Were they sexist? Did they take pride in their college culture? Were they rugger buggers? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, but there are those who would contend, not unreasonably, that it shouldn’t matter either way: sober, they might never have climbed into my bed or tried to pull me into theirs, but sobriety didn’t enter into it.

When I read about the St Paul’s Facebook group, I feel angry, outraged on behalf of men and women alike. Rape is not funny, and it is not simple. Throw alcohol into the picture, and a college environment, and it is even less so. Being too drunk to remember forcing yourself on someone is not a defence, no matter how out of character it is. The act of rape does not fall into a moral grey area, even if the circumstances surrounding it might conceivably, hypothetically, be said to do so. No matter how wonderful a time I had at college, it would be naive and inaccurate to say that there weren’t problems, and that these problems did not sometimes involve a combination of sex and alcohol. The fact that there is a documented history of such incidents is undeniable, which in turn suggests a pattern of behaviour within a particular context. Of itself, this does not invalidate the good times I had at Wesley, nor does it lay a shadow over my undergraduate years. But I will not pretend, for the sake of a rosy-tinted memory, that nothing happened at all, or contend that what did happen was insignificant. In my personal recollection, what matters most is that I was neither harmed nor threatened. I joked about it the next day. I was not the only girl to do so. But there will be others who couldn’t, and still can’t, and never will. In the end, I was lucky, and though it served to help me twice, it is not something I would encourage anyone – man, woman or college authority – to bank on.

Some names are big. The shadows they cast are long and deep, so that even people with only the barest grasp of that particular field of endeavour will have heard of them. After all, you can’t talk about tennis without mentioning Roger Federer. But there is a phenomenon I’m coming to loathe with a fiery, stabby vengeance – the dark side of such overwhelming notoriety in the literary world. It is the use, over and over and over, of a single speculative phrase. It consists of five little words. They are:

The Next J. K. Rowling.

Sweet merciful donkey-gods, I am sick of it. On hearing that I’m a writer, or a writer of fantasy/young adult books, the first hopeful-teasing reaction of far too many strangers is, ‘So, you’re planning to be the next J. K. Rowling?’ In that context, it’s not a compliment or a vote of confidence: it’s a grasping-after-relevance on behalf of the speaker, clutching at the most famous name they can think of to try and reverse-orient their perception of what it is I actually do, and whether or not I’m likely to succeed at it. Depending on my mood, this is either amusingly unoriginal or a source of withering despair, but at least, when it does occur, there’s a good Goddam reason: 99% of the time, I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t read much, or who doesn’t read fantasy/young adult titles, and the name-drop represents an effort on their behalf, however misguided, at finding some conversational middle-ground.

But literary reviewers have no such defence. Google the above phrase, and you’ll see what I mean: G. P. Taylor, Catherine Banner, Stephenie Meyer, Maggie Stiefvater, F. E. Higgins and Michelle Paver have all been described thusly at one time or another; puzzlingly, so has Philip Pullman, despite the fact that the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy was published in 1995, two years prior to the advent of Potter, with the final two books appearing in 1997 and 2000. It is a phrase currently in danger of being abused to the point of ritual castigation, and worse, it seems to be employed more out of hopes for hype and the preemptive desire to create yet another worldwide marketing phenomenon than as an admission that the book in question is brilliantly written. The public yearneth for another Cinderella story – which Rowling, with her initial poverty, blonde hair and squillions of rejection letters, personified – and journalists are eager to provide. There is a tendency to forget that she also wrote an incredible series of seven books, the popularity of which stemmed, not from her underdog status, but from the creation of a fabulous world, brilliant characters and a well-plotted story arc.

The latest candidate for the TNJKR mantle is an Australian mother of four, Rebecca James, whose teeange thriller, Beautiful Malice, has earned an advance of more than $1 million from Allen & Unwin and started a bidding war over the international publication rights after being rejected by the Australian market. More, the windfall came just as James’s business folded, effectively saving the family. Regardless of whether the book lives up to expectations, there is warmth in the story on those grounds alone: underdog victories are always emotionally satisfying. As for the book itself, I’ll certainly read it, if only because the application of the Rowling moniker will make me remember the author. There you go, Marketing Guys – viral publicity strikes again! Thank the writers at the Wall Street Journal. After all, they started it.

I wish Rebecca James every success, and I’m extremely happy that she’s managed to achieve her goal. But in future, can we please have a moratorium on calling each new writer to earn a big advance, publish in the YA fantasy genre and/or write their book as a teenager the next JK? It’s like hailing each new addition to the Australian cricket team as the next Don Bradman: unnecessary and, ultimately, inaccurate. Because what made the Potter phenomenon so powerful was that no one predicted it. Rowling didn’t earn a $1 million advance for the first volume. The series was seven books long, and they were published over an entire decade – that’s a long time to work up a fanbase, infiltrate the market and create hype for each successive instalment. Chances are, when the Next Big Thing comes knocking, most of the world will be two rooms over with their music turned up loud, and will have to hear about it on the evening news. So until then, let’s just keep our eyes peeled and defer judgement to the delivery of an actual product, shall we?