My feminism is a small, intimate thing.
Just a moment ago, I helped my sick two-year-old daughter put her doll into her toy pram. What’s feminist about this safe, gendered play?
I’m here, for starters. My wife Ruth and I share the labours and rewards of child-raising, domestic work. I don’t leave at six in the morning, and return after dinner, bath and bed. I don’t vanish on weekends, for ‘boys afternoons’ on the bike or golf course. I can clean, cook, empty the potty, do the school run. Ruth can fix a broken door, mow the lawn, upholster furniture. We can swap jobs, and often do. It’s what Zorba the Greek called the ‘full catastrophe’, and we share it.
We do this, not because of laziness, or a perverse longing for eccentricity. And certainly not for the money, which is less than average wage between us. At the heart of this is a strangely radical idea: Ruth is a human, not simply a woman. As I put it in The Age, “I recognise that she’s an educated, intelligent person with a vocation of her own – and she deserves to cultivate it. She’s a loving mother who wants to see her kids between the hours of seven and seven. And, finally, she’s a grown woman, who likes to spend time with her handsome husband.”
In other words, this is feminism as a relationship; as the character of our bonds, rituals, ambitions. Hopefully this is part of a new movement, irreverently celebrated in the ‘Most Mentally Sexy Dad’ competition: couples who enrich and expand the idea of partnership.
In taking this approach, Ruth and I hope to understand one another a little better. Less of the ‘men’s space’ and ‘woman’s space’, and more of a common battleground, where we struggle against the forces of mess, night terrors and snot. It makes for a more complicated, but hopefully closer, marriage.
We also hope our children learn from this. My son sees me cook and clean. My daughter sees her mother hammer and saw. In years to come, they’ll recognise that these labours aren’t chiselled into some biblical stone; written by God for Essential Man and Essential Woman. We are what we do, and what we do is negotiate, cooperate, debate.
If we’re right, this changes the meaning of my daughter’s doll play: motherhood’s not hers by divine fiat or biological law. It’s freely, carefully and lovingly made – not simply found, fully-formed in the great pink basket of gender.
This is not particularly radical. It’s a very domestic, middle-class life. There are still dolls in the kitchen, trucks in the bedroom, ninjas in the front yard. We live in a little bourgeois citadel of freedom.
But it is still a daily grind. It must be defended amidst the easy gender rules and polished exemplars of our richer neighbours. It must be upheld without a full-time, grown-up wage. And it must be maintained continually with dull chores, continual late-night talk and an often-dry well of goodwill.
Speaking of which, my daughter just vomited on her plush dog. Time to get small and intimate again.
Dr. Damon Young is a philosopher and writer, and the author of Distraction. He writes regularly for newspapers and magazines, and is a frequent radio guest. He has also published fiction and poetry. For more on Damon, visit: www.damonyoung.com.au.