My undergraduate degree was in modern languages. What else would an incorrigible reader study? The more languages available to you, the greater the range of books to devour. Deeper still, there was a genuine interest in words and the fascinating, impossibly complex way in which we use them to communicate. I regret now that the study was so shallow, so short and so very long ago. I’m left with, rather than any expertise, a smattering of understanding; a fleeting impression of a huge richness beyond my ken. That, and the ability to guesstimate the meaning of a menu pretty much anywhere in Europe.
Words matter. Words don’t reflect what we see, they refract and reframe it. This isn’t the subject of a blogpost, of course, it’s the subject of a life’s work. But I have been thinking more and more, about the words we use around motherhood and the way in which language itself distorts our perceptions and colours – poisons, even – the debates about stuff which really matters.
I’ve thought about writing this – and the way in which media coverage and discussion always seems intent on driving mothers into two opposing camps – for a while. There’s too much to put into one post, really, but one tiny, apparently innocuous phrase, struck me tonight.
Taking part in a Twitter conversation about motherhood and feminism, I found myself hesitating before typing “I gave up work”. “Giving up” is such a negative phrase. My dictionary defines it as “cease making an effort; admit defeat”. It is so passive. I wasn’t “defeated” by anything when I decided that my career, at that time, wasn’t making me happy, wasn’t giving my children the start in life I wanted and wasn’t, on balance, providing adequate (non-monetary) compensation for the things it was costing me. Nor did I cease making an effort. Women like me who leave the workforce are, almost literally, air-brushed out. Our motives and, often, our lives too are dismissed as superficial, cosmetic, lacking in seriousness. I was incredibly lucky to have a choice. I don’t perceive myself as a victim in this. But nor will I concede that I have, in any way, somehow stopped trying. I didn’t “give up” working. I chose to stop.
The same is true with the endless battles over breastfeeding. How much of a sting there is in the simple phrase “she gave up”. Again, it smacks of defeat, of lack of effort, even while the woman involved may know how hard she tried and feel bitterly let down by lack of support. Or, conversely, may have taken the decision for the most sensible, practical and compelling of reasons. “Giving up”, with its connotations of weakness and lack of commitment, casts over every discussion, at whatever level, semi-conscious shadows of accusation and defensiveness and causes a huge amount of hurt to many women.
Do we talk like this about men? Not about breastfeeding, of course; not really about employment, since so few men’s working lives are outwardly changed when they become fathers. I think in general, though (and I know that this is a fairly generalising post) we assume an active decision making, a positive and rational approach to problem solving with which we fail to credit women.
I’m never again going to slip into the easy, barbed trope of saying that I gave up work. I stopped. After all, in the absence of a detailed conversation and valid interest in my circumstances, that is all that anyone else needs to know.