Mothers, daughters and the Grated Cheese Incident
I work with 3 twenty-somethings who manage to shock my 55 year old feminist leanings every day of the week. Apart from their apparent disregard for timekeeping – ‘I’m on flexi innit’ – meaning the ‘elder’ statesmen and women of the office manage to do nearly two hours work before they even arrive and make their instant porridge, I wonder every time they open their perfectly shaped baby like mouths why I bothered to burn my bra during the heady first days of feminism. In fact, their attitudes bewilder me so much I’m starting to think I may no longer be a feminist, just a very angry post-menopausal woman. However, this bewilderment pales into insignificance when I examine the attitudes of their mothers – women of my own generation.
But, back to the younger women for a moment. The Grated Cheese Incident has gone down in my own office mythology as one of those great, heady days when we had a seemingly innocuous discussion over our lunch. Out of the five women who work in the office, one had had a gastric band fitted and consequently picks at food (while gorging in secret in the stationery cupboard on a 6-pack of crisps), and the three twenty-somethings are on diets. Of course they are on a diet, as their weight has ballooned from 7 stone to 7 stone 2lbs. So not only do they eat porridge in the office for breakfast, they eat it for lunch too. Instant porridge, which they make nice and watery so they can drink it out of a mug –‘I can’t be bothered with a spoon’. However, the conversation turned to cheese, grated cheese, in packets, which one of the twenty-somethings was complaining about having to go to the shops to buy. Call me naive, but I didn’t think anyone actually bought grated anything in packets. Oh, I’d seen grated cheese on a shelf in Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, but never believed that anyone was actually that flipping lazy or dumb that they bought it, but my twenty-something colleagues did do. And so we debated the merits of buying grated cheese. In fact, the twenty somethings thought it was absolute madness to grate your own cheese, citing such memorable thoughts as ‘Ive got better things to do with my time’, but couldn’t exactly explain what they did with the ten seconds it saved them. The blue touch paper was well and truly lit when one of them dared to suggest that I actually burned my bra so they didn’t have to grate cheese any longer. What followed was a stiff lecture on the infantilization of women, something along the lines of ‘You have been manipulated by corporate business who have created a very expensive desire in you for supposed freedom from kitchen drudgery. Free yourself from the false notion that buying grated cheese is empowerment. You are not a child. You do not need others to carry out simple tasks for you. You are Woman’. Gales of laughter followed, as did the fall out from the rest of the organisation among whom my rant spread like wildfire. I could no longer enter any other office without someone asking me if I was grating any cheese that night.
But the Grated Cheese Incident forged the foundation for a much deeper consideration of what I had achieved by burning my bra 40 years ago, not only for the future generations, but that of my own. Had we bra-burners really taught our daughters that they were unable to carry out such simple tasks as grating cheese? Or had we somehow subliminally encouraged the attitude that ‘others’ can do everything for them? Or even worse, both? And who were the ‘others’ that would be carrying out the very tasks they didn’t want to do? Why of course, their mothers, the original bra-burning generation.
I’m a mother too, and have sons, aged 26 and 30, and I raised them without their father from their primary school days. Whilst encouraging my sons to recognise that women were not strange creatures from another planet, I ensured they spent time with as many positive male role models as possible, such as football and cricket managers and coaches. At times it became apparent that I was fighting a losing battle to engender a more rounded personality, and prevent the effects of the stereo-typical male attitudes of my youth (and their all too absent father). But I assured myself that in the interests of balance, it was just as important for them to be exposed to male cultural influences and attitudes. After all, they had to survive in a world still dominated by men. Raising boys was hard at times for a feminist. And whilst we continued to work and fought so hard for our little girls, there was still so much more to do. Our little boys could make do with a smattering of women’s rights as a form of education. We would cross our fingers and hope for the best, correcting and illuminating their attitudes as and when they arose; as women, our enormous responsibility lay with our daughters’ futures.
Around 1991, I felt a sea change one night when a little girl rang and asked to speak to my son, aged 11 years old. In those pre-mobile days, children did not simply pick up their parents telephone and make a social call. They said what they had to say at school. And so I brought my son to the telephone, and he promptly yelled at her for five minutes, slammed the phone down and furiously slung himself back upstairs. Upon gentle enquiry, it transpired that this little 10 year old girl had asked him to take her to see a film at a cinema. Her parents would pick him up and drop him off, and leave them alone together watching the film. Whilst a part of me was thinking how far little girls had come since I was 10 years old, (when I was writing letters to a pen-pal in Idaho who I had been introduced to following an appeal in a comic), another part of me wondered a) what the hell her parents thought they were playing at and b) isn’t this all a bit too manipulative?
The element of manipulation was further compounded when the little girl’s mother then rang me, stating she was furious with my son for letting her daughter down, and I should make sure my son went on this ‘date’ to spare her daughter’s tears and social embarrassment. ‘Don’t you think it’s cute?’ implored the mother. Well, frankly, no I didn’t.
And so if girls had started practising their demands at primary school, they had them more than finely honed by high school. My sons stood no chance warding off the voracious appetites of leggy, Barbie doll look-alikes, and concentrated even more on manly pursuits, such as football, and drinking lager in the park. But always, always, they were with their male friends. Gradually, the girls grew into young women, and were getting into night clubs aged 15 years and looking all of six years older. Bizzarely, their mothers encouraged them, taking them shopping and paying for their outfits, and dropping them off and picking them up at 3am. One of my friends had the unenviable task of sitting in A&E all night as her school-age daughter had had her drink ‘spiked’. Said daughter was out clubbing again the next week. Soon the 15 year old girls discovered young men with cars, jobs, and money, and left the 15 year old boys to their football and beer. In short, the girls were on a highly charged mission into high heels, short skirts, fake tan, false nails and back-combing. The boys could only retreat. In fact, my son retreated so far that aged 17, he joined the army. My younger son, aged 14, would endure the same fate at the hands of young women, and within the next few years his retreat became a house share with some male friends – a lifestyle he continued for the next 10 years.
Instead of bringing together the sexes, the new brand of feminism, now called ‘Girl Power’, served only to separate the sexes even further. Girls were now outshining boys in educational achievements, appeared to know exactly what they wanted out of life and more importantly, how to get it. Boys like my sons were aghast and adrift. Not only had large numbers of them been raised without a father or decent role model, they were influenced by the cultural change that they had to be ‘softer’, ‘less aggressive’ and ‘in touch with their emotions’. Girls on the other hand, were overtly more visible than my generation, more vocal and apparently, more independent. They made it very loud and very clear what they wanted, and seemed oblivious as to who would continue to provide it. Like Violet Elizabeth in the Just William stories, they would ‘thscreem and thscreem and thscreem’ until they were sick. And they could, you know.
This is no more obvious than in the case of a young woman announcing she is pregnant whilst living at home with her parents. Invariably, she returns to work, and her own mother will bend over backwards to raise her child. Said young woman continues with fake tan, fake nails, sequinned frock, nights out, good job and nice car. Mum and dad continue to provide a home not only for their daughter but for their grandchild too. Where is the child’s father in all of this? He can pay Child Support and see his child maybe one or two days a week, if he’s lucky. If I sound bitter, I am; I’m speaking from experience. As my son has a daughter of his own in exactly that scenario, I have no place as a paternal grandparent. He was not even allowed to be present at the birth of his daughter – she chose her mother, sister and best friend to be her birthing partners. Birth became an exclusively female event, as did the baby shower, with no place for a mere man.
Said young woman still drives her 4×4, looks like a WAG, has a horse and two dogs, goes on several holidays a year and has a wide circle of girlfriends, all clones of herself. She lives with her doting parents in a decent area, and is utterly spoilt by them, as she has been all her life. She would describe herself as an ‘independent woman’, and yet her parents still provide her home, her car and all its costs, pay for the horse and dogs, and raise their grandchild so said young woman can work and play. She is 28 years old.
In short, I feel as if some of my generation in their role as a mother, have taken the easy way out. They have provided everything for their daughters except the word ‘No’. The daughters make demands and are supplied. The young women I work with are intelligent 20 somethings, and live with their partners, but are out looking a million dollars with their gaggle of girlfriends every Friday and Saturday night. Their male partners are left to sit in the pub with their mates, having a game of darts but not drinking ‘too much’ as they ‘have’ to pick up their girlfriends at 2am. This happens every weekend. Saturday afternoons are taken up with shopping and the sport of ‘seeing how much I can get out of him’. The Monday morning office banter includes such hits as ‘I told him if you don’t buy me that bag/shoes/frock I’m leaving’, and ‘I told him I need another holiday so you’d better book one or you’re dead’. The gender gap has been forged even wider. Girls are appearing to have one direction, the acquisition of ‘goods and services’. Boys definitely know they haven’t any direction at all, except providing a never-ending stream of instantly replaceable, inordinately expensive ‘stuff’ in order to keep a relationship going. And if he won’t provide, her mother will.
Even when their all consuming daughters have left home, their mothers are letting themselves into their daughters flats and are cleaning, shopping, cooking and generally behaving like a Filipino handmaiden for them. They pay their bills, pay for ludicrously expensive weddings and give up what should be some of the finest years of their lives. Never mind that mother is going through a difficult menopause, may also have to care for elderly parents, has a relationship and desires of her own. Never mind that mother has forged herself a decent career. Never mind that women of my generation fought so hard for something as simple as equal pay. Hell, when I started work, boys started on £550 a year, girls on £500.
Sisters, we have raised our daughters, put them through University, paid for every pink thing ever hand crafted in a Chinese sweat-shop and yet failed to prepared them for life. Your daughter is now a woman, force her to be one. Let her falter, let her cry, let her cook food, let her get her hands dirty, let her pay for something with her own money, not yours. Please let her raise her own children. It is my generation’s women who have let their daughters, themselves, and my sons down. Remember, we burned our bra’s for all of us.
Now where did I put that cheese grater.