On Ireland and gender quotas

From the usual rotation crop of controversial issues, it was the return of gender quotas for petri dish analysis last night on Prime Time. When I heard the topic advertised, I turned to my fella who was already wondering how he could delicately extricate himself from the room without making it too obvious. That’s what the bathroom in our house is for: a safe passageway from another debate on wimmin. Or rather my participation in the debate with comments audible to no-one other than myself. I made him wait to see if I was right in my predictions that the panel would likely comprise a fairly homogeneous group of women in terms of class, ethnicity, and success. Guess what? He went to the kitchen. I don’t always get it right.

The host was joined by two business women, one barrister, and a politician. Presumably they represented not just the divided views on the merits of quotas, or the savvy articulate Irish woman, but the broad interests and experiences of women in terms of the barriers encountered and the rounded view their respective positions as well as life experience affords them. So far, so run-of-the-mill.

Consideration was given to the need for interventionist gender quotas to re-boot the political system and encourage participation from women in politics and the board room. Those in favour (the politician and one business owner) cited the successes in Scandinavia and the political imperative to build a government reflective of the people it represents. Counter arguments from the other two panelists (the barrister and another business owner) challenged the assumed successes in Scandinavia, and pointed to the risk of undermining women by accelerating them into positions and systems for which they are not adequately experienced, and so on. All were unanimous in recognising the need for better childcare to create and sustain the family conditions necessary to help women overcome the barriers to participation in the boardroom and the ballot paper.

Like the elusive representative government that will unlikely exist in my life time, it would be impossible for a discussion panel to be wholly representative of the gender group being discussed. But at some point during the discussion, it was not unreasonable to expect someone to pick up on the mention of qualifications strewn throughout like conversational confetti. Ireland may have an impressive number of women with a third level qualification, but its record in supporting women in working class and low-income families into third level education is abysmal, and they are still heavily disadvantaged and excluded from getting on a rung on the ladder where the issues of childcare and family supports are the only issues that matter. If we’re serious about mobilising a diversity of women into the boardroom, then that must include commitment to paving their way into the higher education classroom, whether as young students or mature return learners. ‘Career’ and choice can’t be the preserve of those with letters already trailing their name.

Additionally, the near obsessional over-emphasis on those qualifications in Ireland as a benchmark for ability and experience further compounds the status quo for women on the margins, and for those whose qualifications have gone past their sell-by date through participation in the home. Talk of women’s qualifications speaking for themselves is all very laudable, but it is not representative of the reality of a vast majority of women. The higher educational and class biases within these debates often serves to erode the quality of them. And the neat equation of qualification equaling the right to – and the demand for – employment, with little value placed on education for its own sake is worryingly Tory.

In highlighting the risks of appointing women beyond their capability, the barrister panelist pointed to the new Arts Minister, Heather Humphries, as someone inexperienced who came into office on the back of preferential treatment based on apparent gender and geographical factors. And it shows. I couldn’t help but feel Humphries must have surely been hanging her head in defeat knowing that the only person present to defend her appointment was her colleague, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. An elected representative who proves that irrespective of quotas, the electorate are not to be trusted.

Perhaps Ivana Bacik was already booked last night, but given she has been driving legislation on gender quotas, her input would’ve been timely. Whether or not the audience agreed with her, at least she would’ve been relied on to broaden the discussion to highlight the need for other critical supports necessary for the participation of women in politics as well as childcare etc. Because politics is not the preserve of ballot seekers or political parties, it belongs to all citizens in common. Jump-starting women’s politicisation begins in schools, where politics and philosophy occupies minimal curriculum time, if at all. Another missed opportunity to cite the inarguable strides made in Scandinavia. Political reforms don’t happen in a vacuum. It is no accident that gender equality there is head and shoulders above its European neighbours. They have a systematic approach to citizen engagement with the inclusion of critical thinking from a young age upwards.  Building maturity takes investment and effort. Ireland lags embarrassingly behind on many fronts.

Pathways to politics no longer rely exclusively on higher education, though those in office have traditionally emerged from places of privilege. In drawing gasps at the mere suggestion of quotas, the amnesia concerning our long tradition of tinkering with democracy through political family dynasties never fails to amuse.  Perhaps it informs the resistance towards them from some.

Whatever one’s view on quotas, meaningful civic democratic politics are built from the ground up through effective community development programmes and empowering leadership opportunities that seek to inform and support the participation of people from all backgrounds in politics. Funnily enough, an area of work with women at its core; an insecure, underpaid, form of employment in a sector subject to the most catastrophic funding cuts.  Severing commitment to this sector guarantees the further exclusion of swathes of women from having their voices heard and assuming their rightful place at the high table of decision-making. Whether that is as an elected representative, or not.

Gender quotas – always worthy of debate, but a more rounded discussion would be worthy of refraining from shouting at the TV for. There’s only so many times my fella can read the paper.


Where have all the teaspoons gone?

I get asked this at least once a week. Usually in a high octane voice accompanied by outstretched arms brandishing cupped hands to emphasise the gravity of the situation. The same way an average person would respond if they were to return home from work one day to find their house wasn’t where they left it that morning and/or had been replaced by a gigantic billboard advertising sausages. Any situation that would have your hands on standby next to your head in case you needed to bury it.

That this outbreak of apoplexy comes from one of the most unflappable, calm, men on Earth makes it even funnier. Christ knows he would need to be considering he’s married to me.

It all started back in the early days after I moved in. He would politely inquire about the possibility of me returning the teaspoons I casually exported from the cutlery drawer to work under the auspices of a packed lunch. Who the fuck notices teaspoons going missing? How…cute. Yes, we were at that early stage when the other person’s barely concealed neurosis is mistaken for an endearing idiosyncrasy, which is probably why I didn’t make every effort to prevent it from getting out of hand.

Over the years the teaspoons have taken on the life-cycle of socks, and dreams for the future. No sooner have new ones crossed the threshold than they’re swiftly sucked up by that great domestic vortex we call The Kitchen. Consequently, his voice began to veer close to the Joe Pasquale end of the scale when six went missing in one week. I know. What the fuck? *buries head* It turned out our toddler was dumping them in the bin after polishing off a yoghurt. I know what you’re thinking – that’s a lot of yoghurts, but this is not the time for any of your sneering judgements on my parenting. Actually go ahead, I don’t care.

So now, we’re back to an average loss of three or four a month. Stop looking at me like that. It’s not me. Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t curtailed the outbreaks of panic, or the intensity of them, but most times I nonchalantly avert the crisis by pointing out they’re on the draining board. Smugness moves in mysterious ways.


The secret to a happy marriage

My guess is he couldn’t give a monkeys about the teaspoons either. Deep-down we both know if he did, a psychiatric assessment would not be an unreasonable suggestion. Unflappable and calm on the surface, but he stills needs a valve to release the odd bout of pent-up of steam one adult accumulates from living with – and enduring the habits of – another. I positively encourage it, and might even accidentally hide a teaspoon occasionally. These outbursts are preferable to being challenged on any of the following:

“Why are you such a disaster at cleaning the house?”

“Why do you procrastinate so much?”

“Have you seen the phone bill lately?”

“What are you in a bad mood about now?”

“Do you want to get a divorce?”

“Did you eat all the cheese?”

“Where’s my other sock?”

Long may the teaspoon anxiety continue because “Well, you always put the empties back in the fridge” wouldn’t be a great line of defense against any of the above. And it would inevitably inspire him to ask “what do you mean?”

Uh oh.


Yesterday, it lashed rain for most of the day so I was condemned to the local soft-play centre for a few hours with our one to run off some energy (her) and try to hide behind the Sunday papers (me). No sooner had I opened a supplement to partake in some mildly bitter lifestyle envy, when the first of three parents landed in with a brood, shortly followed by the other two.

It quickly transpired they all knew each other and their collision was a random surprise. The chat about their children took off as they were waved off; each of them taking it in turn to spring up momentarily to warn one of their off-spring to refrain from inflicting pain on another.

Each politely and engagingly inquired how each other’s children were doing. They spoke about the challenges of getting them to focus on doing their homework. Confidence levels between girls and boys were sized up with two registering worry that their girls exhibit greater reluctance to assert themselves in contrast to their boys. After-school programme options at their respective schools were listed and enthusiastically reconciled with the interests and talents of the little folk attending.

It was a familiar scene no doubt cascaded across the nation on a hostile Sunday morning; when one parent is relieved of getting up while the other shepherds their children out of the house to leave it in peace. Unremarkable in many ways.

It shouldn’t be remarkable that these parents were in fact fathers, but I’m rarely in their company so it was both a novelty and an affirmation of what we already know about the centrality of fathers in contemporary child-rearing. I wasn’t watching them while wearing rose-tinted glasses. We know the economic imbalances that characterise the roles and responsibilities in the home and workplace of women and men with children. It’s fair to generalise that the brunt of financial loss and decision-making gain is borne by women. That’s a given. But that doesn’t negate from the evolution of child-rearing as a joint task compared with our parents’ generation. In the main.

Women shouldn’t have to perpetually gender check themselves when relaying their own parental experiences; but men don’t need to be stay-at-home-dads to scratch their heads over many of the same anxieties that have women exchanging furrowed-brows. It may not be the cultural norm for men to take to the keyboard to tease these things out; but in taking to the keyboard many of us are not doing so as single parents. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. That’s not to suggest the existence of domestic utopia, but just an acknowledgement of child-rearing as a predominantly shared crusade.

For all the overlaps in the chat from yesterday’s ear-wigged on men with the worries of women, it’s impossible to imagine fathers being characterised in over-generalised terms in the same way mothers tend to be. There are probably competing answers to that from every academic discipline imaginable. But it doesn’t make it any easier to square with family life as it is. In the main.

On becoming a parent

My dodgy pelvic floor serves as a reminder of my status as a woman who has given birth. All genuflect. There’s also a child knocking about somewhere. Last time I saw her, she was gazing up at imaginary stars through the net windows in her little circus tent from the discomfort of a bed of Lego, explaining her version of the solar system to Ernie.

My version of this form of relaxation is to hide under the bed covers and gaze up at the light-shade wondering what possessed me to buy one that resembles a tumble-weed. Then throw my eyes up at its aptness. Next time, I’m buying one in the shape of planet Earth.  A safer distance all round.


Probably the most apt image for this post

In the invisible space that is my heart, I feel privileged to be her mother in the classic definition of the term.  And frequently hope I won’t spectacularly fuck it up.  Last count, I had a list of 563 potential ways this could happen.  A future blog post draft perhaps.

At home, I am known mostly as Mammy, or Mama, when she’s indulging in a bit of regression to wrangle something out of me that’s on the list with the other 562 not-to-dos. Her Dad will refer her to her Mum when chickening out of saying no.  Lately, she has taken to addressing me by my first name.  At four syllables, this was one of her more impressive feats of speech until it was overtaken this week by Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.  She learned this at her childminders, where I am known as the colloquially hard-vowelled Mummy.  My own Ma refers to me as her Mam, while my best mate will order her into the frame with her Mom so she can snap a photo of us both.

To the rest of the world, I am known simply as A Mother™. In the modern media definition of the term. A word that has come to be hyper invested with the overbearing weight of responsibility and sacrifice. Imbued with guilt and heartbreak.  Burdened with agonising decision-making, and persistent re-shaping of a sense of self. Subject of ninth degree scrutiny. Growth topic within the comment and publishing industry. Heart of the fall-out of social and fiscal policies. Line in the game of tug o’war between feminists. Guardian of the supreme human bond. Secular saint. Unpaid hero. Doer of her best. Battler for choice.  Holding-it-togetherer. Journeywoman. Protagonist in the mummy wars. Judged. Juror. High-fiving keeper of the flame of camaraderie.

It’s so exhausting; it’d nearly have me reaching for a bottle of wine. Oops.  A mother self-medicating. Quick, Morag! Shoulders up against the flood-gates.

It’s not that I can’t relate to much of it, or have any desire to deny the common experiences of many. In reality, the common denominator of sharing similar genitalia is the first and last time women who have children are at one. The rest of childrearing and the experience of being a mother is beyond consensus, but not camaraderie. Camaraderie still allows for difference of opinion, and difference of opinion isn’t tantamount to judgement of another.  A clash of views doesn’t constitute a mammy war. Not all contested terrains can be classified as bloody battlegrounds. Grounds for having a different point of view doesn’t equate to a betrayal. When views are relative to individual experience, there’s going to be a few curled lips among the thumbs up.

So, I’ve decided to stop passively letting the enormity of such a word define me. To unmoor myself from its double-edged function of acknowledging my role while ascribing all sorts of assumptions, many of which I’m not altogether sure about. Instead I’ve decided to stick with being a…. parent. It works for her Da.