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How the post-feminists turned mothering into a competition

He said, she said

  How the post-feminists turned mothering into a competition
The stay-at-home perfect mother is a myth created by this ambitious generation. POOR old 1970s feminists. In my book, they’re to be chastised only for unleashing the boilersuit as a fashion item. But they’re also guilty, according to Joanna Murray-Smith (‘Feminism’s booby trap’), of failing to change society’s attitude to mothering, and neglecting to prepare today’s women for the impossibility of being ‘master of parallel lives’ (as both mother and successful professional).

Before I get to the middle-class obsession with being ‘the perfect mother’, let me ask a few quick questions.

Why is it feminism’s fault that the rest of society has failed to truly recognise women’s changed role? Shouldn’t it be regarded as governments’, employers’ and fathers’ fault if working mothers are so hopelessly overburdened that they fear their work might be damaging their children?

Why isn’t Murray-Smith asking fathers to march in the streets for the right to do serious jobs part-time, or as job-shares, so they can better carry out that other role so important in children’s lives: fathering? And why confine the solution to middle-class women, who could, Murray-Smith suggests, put careers on hold for a few years while children are young? Why isn’t she urging that all women of all classes give up work, and the government support them?

But now to that mythical creature: the stay-at-home ‘perfect mother’. Her idealised image hovers behind Murray-Smith’s lament for the lost ‘long hours of ordinary unhurried togetherness that defeats the sense in our children that they are managed and the sense in ourselves that we are managers rather than mothers’.

Newsflash: the traditional role of the stay-at-home mother has always been ‘manager’. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and still on farms all over the world), women spent their days doing arduous physical work, undoubtedly giving their children exactly the impression they were ‘one small part of a parent’s busy life’. This image of the ‘perfect mother’, in the form one sees it expressed in the deluge of books and articles on parenting published over the past 15 years or so, is the modern middle-class urban professional mother’s porn — and just as unrealistic as her fantasy twin, Nigella Lawson’s ‘domestic goddess’. A recurrent figure in the lifestyle pages, she spends hours doing educational and creative play-dough with the kids, or taking them for beach walks, pointing out starfish.

It is only this post-feminist, educated middle-class generation, now in their 30s and 40s, who have embraced the notion of perfect mothering and turned it into a job, a competition and a set of aspirations. In the past, most women were happy to muddle along, leaving the notion of perfection to a neurotic minority. Even in the pre-feminist ’50s, magazine articles were pushing women to be the ‘perfect homemaker’, rather than the ideal mother. In those days, women who didn’t have professions or even jobs still found loads of ways to avoid spending time with their kids.

Golf, tennis, cocktails, housework. Plenty of non-working mothers still couldn’t make it to the sports days and school concerts that are now obligatory for the modern parent. Murray-Smith worries that by pursuing careers and thereby dividing their time between mothering and work, mothers are short-changing their children and compromising their ‘ability to be good mothers’. It’s all about time, she says. Our children are ‘not better off in long day care’, she argues, ‘not better off seeing their parents for a couple of hours at the end of the day’, not better off ‘being force-fed the humility of being one small part of a parent’s busy life’.

Well, let’s set the record straight here. Only a minority of children in Australia are in long day care every day. Most Australian working women work part-time or casually when their children are small — especially middle-class women with choices. And what about that enforced ‘humility of being one part of a parent’s busy life’? It’s a salutary and necessary experience for children to learn that it is not a law of the universe that their immediate needs come first. They do, of course, when children are ill or unhappy. But not when ‘Batman’s scuba equipment’ needs to be found and the mother in question is, as Murray-Smith puts it, on the computer trying to write a few sentences. There are a few handy replies for this situation, used by mothers of all classes.

Depending on the age of the child, they are: ‘wait’, ‘you are able to get it yourself’, or ‘what did your last slave die of?’ Murray-Smith says she resents ‘the dishonesty’ of pretending that the kids of working mothers are not ‘guinea pigs in an experiment that is, in many ways, a failure’. The move of mothers into the workforce is not an experiment.

I am proud to be the daughter of a biochemist who didn’t feel that ‘to excel as a (professional) is to be diminished, in certain respects, as a mother’. Mothers like her have been working for generations, even in the middle class. The experiment that may be failing, however, is the comparatively recent obsession with producing the perfect child. Today’s over-involved, overambitious middle-class parents may be breeding a generation of helpless, dependent and demanding children — kids so hot-housed with parental attention that they can’t do anything for themselves.
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  He said, she said
Rape is a notoriously difficult crime to prove, as the recent allegations of sexual offences against rugby league and AFL players have shown. Liz Porter finds out why.

The Friday evening started like any other for Jane, a 32-year-old public servant. After work she met a group of friends in a nearby city bar for a few drinks to celebrate the week’s end. Later, along with a girlfriend, she accepted a lift home with a male 'friend of a friend' — a man she had spoken to before on several similar occasions. He dropped her girlfriend off first — and it was then that things started to go badly wrong. Her acquaintance pulled the car over and raped her. 'I was fumbling around trying to find the door handle and he grabbed my arms. Then he grabbed me and jumped on top of me,' she says.

When Jane begged him to stop, she says, he told her to “shut the f--- up”. Afterwards, he dropped her at home, distressed and shocked. Jane’s flatmate called the local police, who arrived promptly, followed by two police officers from the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Unit, one male and one female. These officers took her to the Royal Women’s Hospital, where the Centres Against Sexual Assault (a government-funded support and advocacy group for victims of sexual assault) have one of their four metropolitan crisis care units. There she was seen by a counsellor, examined by a doctor and interviewed by the specialist anti sexual-assault unit officers. 'In the context it was a ‘positive’ experience, which was substantially different to the contact I had with the local CIU (Criminal Investigation Unit) detective (who took over the investigation on the following Monday),' says Jane.

'With CASA, the doctor and SOCA, I had felt believed and supported. Naively it hadn’t crossed my mind that someone wouldn’t believe me. He’d ask the same question five different ways, as if he was testing me for holes in my story.' At the time the detective agreed to tell Jane before he interviewed her alleged attacker — because she feared his revenge. But a week later, when Jane had heard nothing from the detective, her CASA centre counsellor called him, discovering that the man had already been interviewed — and his version of events was that the sex had been consensual.

Lack of contact from the police was a constant theme over the next 12 months, with Jane’s many phone messages unreturned. Last January, a year after the alleged offence, the detective told Jane that there was insufficient evidence to charge the man. 'That was a decision made by the police. My counsellor told me I had the right to request a review of the decision but I decided not to. I just felt 'What’s the point?' I can’t imagine what that detective would have needed to be prepared to go through with it — I think he would have liked to have had a videotape.' Although shocked and intensely distressed, Jane had no injuries except for a sore back — a fact, she believes, that eventually sank the chances of her complaint being pursued by police. 'If I had been covered in bumps and bruises that would have been a ‘real’ rape,' she says.

Jane’s case is typical of the difficulty in proving sex charges that involve one person’s word against the other’s. But most incidents — an estimated 85 per cent aren’t even reported. There has never been such public interest in the difficulties involved in first reporting and then proving an allegation of sexual assault. The reason, typically for AFL-mad Melbourne, has everything to do with football. The past three months have seen a series of sex allegations against both AFL and rugby league players all come to nothing due to lack of evidence.

First came the highly publicised gang-rape allegations against members of Sydney’s Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league team. That eight week investigation closed without charges due to insufficient evidence. Then sexual-assault allegations were made against two St Kilda players, prompting a seven-week investigation that reached the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, the public debate continues. Victim advocacy groups point out that fewer than five per cent of Victorian sexual-assault victims will ever see their assailants in court and say the lack of charges in high-profile cases will discourage women from speaking out even more. At the same time, the public perception, as expressed by the many talkback callers and newspaper letter writers on the subject, seems unanimous that there is little chance of a victim getting to face her assailant in court when the case boils down to 'one person’s word against another'. 'I would like to ask just what exactly constitutes sufficient evidence for the Director of Public Prosecutions to allow a rape trial to go ahead,' writes one letters-page correspondent. 'What do we have to provide if we are raped? A video?'

On a cool, showery Monday morning in May, a nervous teenager steps into a Melbourne County Court witness box and begins her long-dreaded ordeal of standing in front of a judge, several lawyers and a jury of 12 strangers and giving a detailed description of being sexually assaulted. 'Footy rape claim' trumpets a banner across the front page of one newspaper on sale outside the court. It’s referring to a preview of that evening’s Four Corners, an expose of two separate episodes, in Adelaide and London, involving rape allegations against AFL footballers.

In both cases the alleged victims didn’t get to court because prosecuting authorities deemed there was 'no reasonable prospect of a conviction on any criminal charge'. But back in the sleek modern Lonsdale Street headquarters of the Victorian County Court, a jury has just been empanelled to hear a case where the prosecution has no video, no medical evidence and no other witnesses. This case is no more or no less than a matter of 'her word against his'. The 'court closed' notice goes up on the courtroom door as the prosecution barrister begins taking the young woman through her evidence.