What about the suburbs? Alison Gray

Mum’s the Word: The untold story of motherhood in New Zealand
Sue Kedgley
Random House, $39.95, ISBN 1 86941 292 3

Striking a Balance: New Zealand women talk about career and family
Jillian Stewart and Susan Davis
Penguin Books, $24.95, ISBN 0 140 26400 0

Feeling Fabulous at 40, 50 and Beyond: A handbook for mid-life women
Sandra Coney
Tandem Press, $39.95, ISBN 0 908884 83 4

Ageing is Attitude: The New Zealand experience
Ann Gluckman and Mary Tagg
Tandem Press, $24.95, ISBN 0 90888 457 5

In the 1970s, the trickle of books about ourselves swelled to a tide which shows no sign of retreating. Most of the books have been by and about women as we clamoured to share our stories and develop a sense of shared experience. We were positively bursting to have our say and the publishers were only too happy to oblige. Who were we? Mostly middle-class women able and willing to speak for ourselves.

And on the whole we talked to each other. With the exception of sport, women buy more books than men and, almost by definition, middle-class women buy more books than working-class women. It is hard to imagine many men plunging eagerly into books about childbirth, adoption, childcare, relationships between mothers and daughters or feminism in general, although no doubt some did. There were plenty of us writing and plenty buying as we filled the gaps in our herstory and described what is happening now. We wanted our books to be entertaining and enlightening; we hoped they would be subversive. And cumulatively they have been, giving women courage to press for changes in health care, working conditions and adoption practices among other things. Personal stories have been used to inspire and humanise experience; analytical studies have provided the substance of debate.

Last year, four more books appeared on bookshop tables. Coincidentally, they cover the lifespan, beginning with childbirth and ending with attitudes to ageing.

Sue Kedgley’s Mum’s the Word: The Untold Story of Motherhood in New Zealand was not a good start even though it includes a 20-year-old photograph of me and my children (note the flares). For a start, it is irritatingly mistitled. It is not about motherhood. It is about childbirth, with brief excursions into the preschool years. Those of us who have adolescent or adult children know that motherhood lasts a tad longer than that. Nor does it say in the subtitle that it is about pakeha motherhood. And the story is not untold. The bibliography extends to seven small print columns, mostly of local material, and there’s more where that came from.

Second, it’s a cheerless book. It is definitely not a history of the pleasures of motherhood — the inexpressible passion; the physical comfort, the laughs; the friendship. The chapter titles are a giveaway. They include: “The Medicalisation of Motherhood”; “Mothers on Their Own”; “Motherhood Under Stress” and “The Burden of Motherhood”. I’m surprised there is still a demand for fertility clinics.

One of the reasons for the cheerlessness is that, although childbirth is an intensely personal experience and the author draws on individual women’s stories, Kedgley has written a political book. It is about women as a collective, not about women as individuals. She puts far more emphasis on what has been done to women than on what women do for themselves. While groups such as Parents Centre, Playcentre and the midwives get a good press, the government and the medical profession do not.

It is useful to be reminded just how much the so-called “rational” sciences such as economics, medicine and psychology have contributed to the infantilisation of women. The government has played its part too through regulation, propaganda and expediency. Even now debate rages over how women’s babies should be delivered and by whom. In the 1930s and 1940s women stayed in bed for two weeks after childbirth because the doctors said they should. The country can’t afford that now so they’re out overnight because the doctors and the government say that’s just fine. Who’s a girl to trust? Herself, if she’s got any sense, but that’s not always easy. In order to be treated as intelligent, competent individuals able to make decisions on their own and their children’s behalf, women have had to appear to be self-confident and assertive, both qualities which are easily undermined during pregnancy and childbirth.

In spite of all the advances women have made over the past 20 years in establishing themselves as fully-fledged adult members of the community, the book ends on a depressing note. Unlike Anne Else who consistently refuses in False Economy to take the view that mothers are solely responsible for their children, Kedgley concludes, rather gloomily, that the present imbalance in responsibility will never change. Men get a bad press, childcare is either unavailable or inadequate, work conditions are unsatisfactory, mothers are unappreciated.

The message seems to be: have children if you must but don’t expect any help or thanks. Children must be their own reward and if women want to work that’s their business.

Or is it? Jillian Stewart and Susan Davis’s Striking a Balance looks at how some women have tried to balance work and family responsibilities. Twelve women describe their experiences, putting the book firmly at the personal end of the personal/political continuum. Most of the women are well-known — the ubiquitous Karroll Brent-Edmondson, the redoubtable Jacqueline Fahey, Ruth Harley, formerly of New Zealand on Air, and Susan Devoy, for example. Most are extremely well-educated, way above the national average. Their qualifications include a PhD and bachelor or masters degrees in the arts, law, medicine, teaching, fine arts and commerce. We are talking careers here, not jobs.

The focus on middle-class women is interesting. This is not a book about women struggling with the exigencies of seasonal work or working in factories and workplaces that operate unsociable hours or pay barely enough to live on, let alone enough for childcare. All the women in this book have excellent personal resources, most are highly and expensively trained; most have commanded or could command good incomes and most live or have lived with partners in similar circumstances. If they can’t manage, who can?

In fact, the way they have managed their work and family responsibilities has varied. Some found the emotional aspect of having children so unexpectedly powerful that they decided to take time out of the workforce. Some persevered with full-time work in spite of the difficulties. Others tried to balance the two. None of the choices was easy and most were made at considerable cost to the women and their relationships and at unknown cost to their children. In some cases employers were unhelpful, if not obstructive. Given the cost of appointing and training such staff, you would think employers would move heaven and earth to retain them. Employers are suspicious of part-time work arrangements and anticipate problems with childcare and illness that may or may not occur and are simply too much trouble to deal with.

The women who went back to full- or part-time work tried a variety of child care arrangements. Nannies feature prominently. At around $400-$800 a week, this is really only an option for high-earners. And even highly-paid nannies aren’t always satisfactory. One woman running a large business from a building on the family property described a situation that changed her child care practice: “I watched one of the nannies hear the homework one day and it just blew me away. She was doing the breakfast and packing the lunches and she didn’t even look at what Sam was reading … We wondered how much more was going on that could eventually be detrimental to the children. So we decided to have a trial of John and me being the nannies. Initially we thought, ‘Let’s try and do it together. We’ll see how we go.’ ” She obviously hasn’t watched many other mothers in full flight — it is perfectly normal to do three or four jobs at once. It is less normal to think of becoming a nanny in order to be a parent.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the extent to which the women failed to anticipate problems. Some underestimated the emotional pull of having children, others thought their employers would accommodate them better, their partners would do more, childcare would be more freely available and reliable and above all their children would fit in with whatever they decided. The stories are a reminder of how little anything can prepare people for having children and that children cannot be sent back once they have arrived. I would like to have known more about why the women had children at all.

The stories are frank, the problems are real. Like others, these women have a huge amount to offer society — at least as much as the men who fathered their children. Somehow we have to make it easier for families to use their talents and contribute fully to society, which includes both working and bringing up children.

Which brings me to the fathers. I hope this is the last book which talks only to mothers about their children. Children have two parents. Both parents need to be interviewed, separately and together, about the ways in which they balance their careers and families. Male and female employers need to be asked the same questions. How do you do it? How do you expect your employees to do it? What more can you do for your staff? The pressure needs to come on both sexes and until it does nothing will change. We need to come back to Else’s point — child-rearing is an important and time-consuming job, not just in the preschool years. It is socially valuable — how many of your jobs depend on there being another generation? — someone has to do it and both parents are responsible. Until we do that, we are in serious danger of asking the wrong questions.

It was with some relief that I turned to Sandra Coney’s book Feeling Fabulous at 40, 50 and Beyond, a handbook for mid-life women “who want to take control of their lives”. Not, of course, that I’ve ever been out of control. It is also, surprise, surprise, about “the matter of balance”. Do I detect a theme emerging here?

The book is a mixture of the personal and political. On one level it is unashamedly about women putting themselves first. At another it offers practical advice to help women manage society better and operate systems to their advantage. Like Stewart and Davis, Sandra Coney uses personal stories to inform and “inspire”. But again, most of the women have high profiles, big money and lots of confidence. Five of the 15 are politicians; others are artists, sportspeople and businesswomen. Sue Kedgley and Jacqueline Fahey reappear in another guise, leaving me with the disturbing impression that there is a cosy elite of successful women who spend a lot of time talking to each other in cafes, in between swimming and playing tennis, riding horses, doing yoga, travelling and running successful businesses. I am not at all sure how inspiring their stories will be for women in the suburbs, working at mundane jobs, still struggling with mortgages or the rent, caring for children with disabilities, looking out for ageing parents and wondering how to pay for their offspring’s tertiary education. Then again, these women are unlikely to spend $40 on a book  — they are more likely to use the money for doctor’s bills — so they are unlikely to be daunted by a raft of women who have done better.

The book, then, is consciously or unconsciously aimed at women who are in a position to pay themselves some serious attention. What do they get for their money? Some information and a list of resources on various aspects of mid-life including health, work, money, retirement and the law, finishing with a quick burst on relationships, caregiving and staying sane (the balance bit).

The health chapters begin with a discussion of menopause and osteoporosis (with a strong bias against HRT), followed by a run through other health issues, including tips on diet, sleep and skin care and the value of exercise. All of the information is available elsewhere and regularly appears in newspapers, magazines and on radio programmes as well as in book form. I suspect that the women who read this book will be well-informed already or at least well-equipped to follow up any concerns. If they have a serious problem they are likely to need more information than is available here; if they don’t they may find the chapters a useful reminder to eat well and exercise more.

The chapters on work, retirement and the law also offer little new information. There are plenty of publications on women and work covering much the same ground and the Retirement Commissioner has been working overtime encouraging us to save and publicising sources of advice. The material on the law is useful and so is the information on resources for help for caregivers but again it’s not new.

So do we need this book? Probably not unless we’ve been living in a cave, with no radio or television, no newspapers and no magazines. I’m glad I didn’t pay for mine and if you’ll just excuse me for a moment, I’m off for a swim.

Ageing is Attitude: The New Zealand Experience by Ann Gluckman and Mary Tagg, one of the first in what is likely to be a growing stream of books on ageing as the population ages and writers now in their 40s and 50s contemplate their later years. I can already see Sandra Coney lining up a package deal — she won’t even need to change publishers.

It is practical and down-to earth. Two journalists invited a variety of men and women to send stories on how they have coped with the challenges of retirement. They include a selection with a text that is both of matter of fact and cheerful, with no signs of self-pity or resentment and no complaints about the government or the medical profession. They tackle similar topics to Sandra Coney’s, including health, money, sex, leisure, housing and education. They talk frankly about the need for getting good medical advice and taking advantage of technological improvements in various aids or “spare parts”. They discuss the pressures of togetherness in retirement as well as its pleasures and are both realistic and cautious about money. Older people are encouraged to further their education and to be flexible about how and where they spend their time.

All round it is brisk and enjoyable and interestingly.  Unlike the Sandra Coney production, it has no photos and no acres of white paper, has a plain font and is a standard paperback size. It is also about half the price.

So what do these four books tell us? First, that authors still choose to write about issues that concern them personally. This is hardly surprising. It’s no easy task to write a book and a bit of passion helps the work along. Second, middle-class women still write for other middle-class women. I sense that the gulf between middle- and working-class women has widened and fear that the trickle-down theory may work as badly on women’s issues as it does in the economy. Third, the issue for the nineties is balance. How do people of all ages and both genders balance the demands of work with other demands in their lives? The most stressful of these other demands is the need to produce and raise the next generation. This is no longer seen as a job in itself. It has become a kind of non-job to be done by whomever is available to whatever standard they can manage.

For all my gripes, both the books that deal with the unsolved questions of parenting are valuable. The debate has to continue till the pendulum is pushed back from seeing children as an indulgence to seeing parenting as a community priority. And I welcome books about ageing creeping on to the market. I’ll know they’ve run their course when they start coming out in glossy packages for a big price.

Alison Gray is a writer and researcher and author of several books about women including Mothers and Daughters and Springs in My Heels.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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