This piece on Tor.com about writing female characters is terrific stuff. Go read it.
It also, however, makes a good jumping-off point for something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while: How the boring reality of everyday life is often at odds with progressive goals for creative works.
In my many years of discussions about feminism in creative works, it’s been more or less accepted wisdom that women should be allowed to be heroes, warriors, politicians, business leaders, etc. Women should, in other words, be allowed to have power in the culture/era in which they reside, whatever currency that power comes in. In a society that is ruled by violence, women must be allowed to engage in combat. In a society ruled by money, women must be allowed economic autonomy.
In recent years, however, that’s been countered by a quasi-essentialist perspective insisting that we’ve marginalized or denigrated the importance of more-traditional women’s roles, particularly in the domestic sphere and in conventional performance of gender presentation (adornment, etc.) In giving our most-prominent women characters the power currency of their culture, they argue, we are overvaluing things that are supposedly inherently masculine, and therefore making them become men.
I could write an entire post on why essentialism in itself is sexist hogwash (power does not belong to men and is therefore not inherently masculine, folks!) but instead, I’d rather focus on the less-contentious aspect of this argument: The uncomfortable fact that domestic life is inherently boring unless acted upon by a dramatic outside force, and therefore poor ground in which to sow a story.
I most often see the essentialist argument from younger women–ones who have not yet become parents. Older ones tend to be arguing from a position of privilege: They’re lucky enough to have a partner they trust to pay the bills, and/or to be able to afford paid domestic labor. At the very least, they’re lucky enough to have loads of supportive family and friends to shoulder some of the burden. It’s not “day care” if the kid’s at grandma’s, right?
I’m in such a position of privilege myself. I wouldn’t be able to write and research (among other things) all day if it weren’t for a husband with a lucrative job that allows us to afford day care. (We’re also lucky enough to have a terrific housemate who helps with chores, and pay for regular yard service and monthly professional housekeeping.)
I played primary caregiver for my son’s first year, he did day care part-time from 1-2, and now he’s full time. I kissed him goodbye and sent him off to “school” just a couple of hours ago, in fact. There are reasons other than career for me to have chosen this, primarily my chronic illnesses, which mean I don’t have the physical ability to keep up with a two year old who isn’t yet old enough to reason with verbally. We also have a very limited meatspace social circle. We’re not close to family, and most of our local friends are also working parents, so we don’t have non-pro options for child care, and also don’t have quite enough opportunities for our son to play with kids his own age. Day care was, all around, the best choice for us.
If I didn’t make a point of trying to see the world from other perspectives, I could easily assume that parenting and domestic labor is as easy for everyone as it is for me, and also therefore assume that I could write a character who is supposedly primarily a homemaker and mother, and have her experience all sorts of interesting things–enough to make her a solid character in an entertaining story.
Fortunately, I know better.
It was complicated by my illnesses and lack of social support–and mitigated by the privileges I mention above–but the year I spent at home with my son when he was a baby was one of the hardest years of my life. I can only imagine how much harder it would be for women without my advantages, particularly women who bore their own children and breastfeed (we adopted our son.) And yet of course women have been doing this since the dawn of humanity, usually without any of the comforts that we in the 21st-century developed world take for granted. There’s a reason that the death rate from pregnancy and birth complications, and the infant mortality rate are so high for low-tech eras and cultures. Bearing and raising young children is an incredibly daunting task, especially physically.
It’s also–and this is the elephant in the room no-one talks about–boring as hell.
I absolutely adore my son. He is a bright, shining light in my life, and every hug I get from him is probably adding another day to my lifespan, what with how great they make me feel. I love watching him grow and learn, and each new milestone he reaches is as exciting for me as it is for him. I love getting to know the person he’s becoming, and I look forward to spending many years to come having all sorts of fun adventures with him. I also, however, have to be honest and say that minding him on a day-to-day basis is pretty dang monotonous, and was even more so when he was an infant.
Babies do exactly four things: eat, sleep, poop, and cry. And they do those things constantly. All those adorable moments parents capture in pictures and video? That’s about 5% of the daily experience with a baby. The rest of the time is spent trying to keep them alive, growing, and not screaming while also trying to keep yourself from passing out from lack of sleep, proper nutrition, or contact with someone with a vocabulary that extends beyond “dahhhhh.” As they grow, they become more interactive and fun, and you can tote them around to more places, of course, but that also comes with a price: mobility. The number one cause of death for toddlers? Accidents. They have to be followed around or penned up every waking moment so they don’t crack their little heads open, run out in front of a bus, drink a bottle of dish soap, or set fire to the house.
Each child that gets added to this of course ups the complication. As the kids get older, they can help mind the little ones to some degree, but they all need close supervision. Getting anything done other than the absolute basics of domestic necessity–providing food, clean dishes and clothes, and keeping the house at least short of a health-code violation–is next to impossible. If you’re a sole or primary caregiver for multiple young children, that’s all you do. It’s all you can do.
I don’t at all mean to imply that this work–and it most definitely is that–is not important or essential to a functioning society. Of course it is. Let’s sing “The Circle of Life,” shall we? What it is not, however, is interesting, and interesting is what’s required for compelling stories. Children are all unique people, of course, but on a general level, they’re all the same. Trying to tell an interesting story about someone whose daily life is the exact same cycle of activities–especially when those activities are identical to the same ones going on in every other household with small children–is going to be impossible. This is why almost all stories that are about or include stay-at-home mothers focus on how bleak their lives are. Some people like the sameness and routine, of course–and I think many people with stressful careers overestimate how much they’d enjoy a comparatively monotonous life–but I’d argue that most of the people who do like such predictability aren’t going to be picking up a book to read about the interesting lives of other people. Stories for people doing this work are going to be about escapism. They’re going to be about living vicariously through people who have a daily life that goes beyond sticking a boob in a tiny mouth and coping with hazmat ejections from a tiny ass.
Additionally, let’s also talk about the lack of power and autonomy that people who do this work often have, particularly in sexist cultures. When you don’t have the ability to earn whatever currency you need to keep your kids in food and diapers, you’re utterly dependent on anyone else who does have that ability. This means that you have next to no freedom to leave those people if they ever mistreat you or even if you just don’t want to be with them. This is most commonly about spouses, but it’s also about other support systems. One of the ways that parents of young children traditionally cope is with the support of the “village”: an extended family, tribe, or community that all works together for the support of children and the necessities of daily life. What happens when your village is no longer supportive of you? What happens if they’re abusive? Where do you turn when you have no other options for support?
This lack of control alone is why people in these situations often seek escapism in stories. They’re not going to find stories about the lives they already have at all comforting. Other people may find stories about such terrible lives interesting, but generally only as tragedy porn, the staple diet of pampered white folks who fancy themselves understanding because they watched a movie about Rwanda.
No, the people who fetishize and demand women characters who are playing traditional roles are the ones who have never truly experienced that kind of life themselves. To them, stay-at-home parenthood is a matter of choice, and something that doesn’t actually burden them all that much because they have so much other support. They mistake their not having paid work outside the home for being a full-time parent and homemaker when actually, there are plenty of other people in their lives doing at least some of that work for them. They see the relatively cushy life they have, and don’t understand why their choice isn’t being honored by being represented by more stay-at-home mothers in popular media. They somehow think it’s possible to translate their middle-class playground mommy experience to a peasant woman in 9th-century Denmark. Yeah . . . not so much.
None of this, of course, is to say that parents cannot have interesting lives or be interesting characters. Fathers, of course, are portrayed this way all the time. But they have the freedom to have those interesting lives because their children’s basic needs are being provided for by someone else. Also, the older the kids get, and the less they need 24/7 care, the more their caregivers can do other things, but that starts drifting away from the full-time parent thing. Don’t get me started on people who still call themselves stay-at-home parents after all their kids have at least hit kindergarten. If you have the time and energy to make fancy shamrock cookies for your kid’s third-grade class, your primary job title is no longer “mom.”
Absolutely, parents–even parents of young children–can be and are interesting people with lives that may lend themselves to compelling stories. But virtually all of the interesting aspects to those lives and stories happen outside of the primary work they do. Otherwise, the story of every single one of these characters would read like a boilerplate mommy blog, and let’s be honest: that’s not interesting to anyone who isn’t personally invested in the lives of the children being showcased thus, or seeking interactive support for their own lives as parents. Parenting communities, online or off, are important ways for people to connect and tell the stories of how they’re raising their children, but they’re not exactly a source of compelling plot. There are only so many stories one can tell about an epic poopernova or the time the kid thought the cat box was full of candy. Inevitably, stories about full-time parents become stories about children, and that means you’re not telling their stories anyway. Skip over the baby-and-toddler years unless something truly dramatic happens, like a natural disaster, and go straight to what people do when they’re no longer wiping snotty noses and singing the ABC song for the 40th time that day. I guarantee that actual parents of young children will appreciate this–in the 10 minutes a day they get to themselves that they don’t spend catching up on sleep.