logo_viragoAn abridged version of this blog post first appeared as an essay in  a collection published by one of my publishers, Virago,  “Virago is forty”.  Download your free e-book here or from Amazon.com:

In the geography of a woman’s life, forty is a fault-line – that divides the oppressive age before, from the one that comes after. It was shortly after my big four-oh, in a car park somewhere in the arid wastes of suburbia, when I was Tazered with the realisation that I would never again have to go on a crash diet. Gripping the steering wheel to suppress the palsy produced by the caffeine in the metabolic accelerator on steroids I had ingested, the heretical thought; “I’d rather be fat”, popped into my head, like a giddy bubble fizzing up the neck of a soda bottle. I went home and flushed the rest of the pills down the toilet, taking the time to split them one by one from the skin of the blister pack and plop them into the bowl.

It gave me a head-rush, like I’d taken a long drag on my first menthol, thinking about how I would never again pay someone at the “colonic hydrotherapy clinic” to sodomise me with a pipe in order to induce diarrhoea; or pay off my guilty conscience with a membership to a gym whose doorway I would never darken; that I had flossed my buttocks with a g-string for the last time, when I could instead ruche them in the whipped egg-white frothiness of tulle; had hobbled across my last dance-floor in stilettoes, crying inside from the pain; would never again submit to a bikini wax branded the “Hollywood” – the pain of which paled next to the humiliation of being instructed to “pull the right cheek aside, please”.

I am not claiming that these things are banned, that there’s a rule against Vajazzling your mons Venus with Swarovskii crystals after forty – or should be. It is just that after forty, you are finally relieved of the compulsion to do such things, if you don’t want to. It takes about forty years to grow immune to the pressure. And for me, the orgy of things I was forever liberated from included having YouPorn dictate that I pay some unfortunate to rip out my nice fanny-fro, while I bite down on a wax strip to stop myself from screaming, “My God, what have I become?”

At forty, I confidently laugh in the face of raunch culture – going to strip clubs and buying your man a lapdance, taking endless shin-bruising pole dancing classes – sold to us in the perverted name of emancipation. I snort at the magazines preying on the insecurities of the over-thirty woman to “make sure the spark doesn’t go out of your marriage” by dressing up in a school girl costume. It wasn’t that I decided that there was something demeaning about a woman my age in a tartan mini-skirt, chewing a fingernail and simpering, “Oh headmaster, I’ve been a naughty girl”, or that post-forty, I stopped apologizing for my libido; for being low on hormonal Jungleberry Juice or sexually repressed. Okay, I did, but beyond that, I finally grasped that resentment will sabbotage your steely resolve to have sex a minimum of twice a week. I had to gratify my own needs, stop performing like the porn star jiggling her super-sized jugs and squealing, being a sex toy for someone else’s pleasure. By forty, I stopped faking it.

After four decades, most of us are past the soft-focus sentamentalising of motherhood, one way or the other, and it is a relief knowing that I will never again endure the unparalleled indignity of having my mammaries milked in the presence of formula, a victim of the madness of perfect motherhood. I have sloughed the mogoloid jolliness of the brand new wonder-mom. The infatuation with my babies has given way to a deep love for my children and a powerful disillusionment with society’s idealisation of motherhood and its plastic childcentric Disneyfication, jam packed with relentless fun outings to Legoland.

I no longer feel guilty for not loving every snot-stained minute of being life-support to another human who bleeds me and rages against me with equal ferocity; no longer justify being stuck at home, weepy, leaky and saggy as my “choice” – because nothing is more important than my children – indulging in a spot of working-mum bashing if I feel a bit resentful.

If someone had tapped me on my shoulder pad at my matric dance back in 1989 and shouted over the Banana Rama that I’d end up a housewife, I’d have snorted spiked punch through my nostrils, so after dumping the traditional burden of provider on my husband and exiling myself to 1950 – which is what middle-class suburbia is a facsimile of – it took me years to work out why, for a generation raised to believe that we were the rightful heirs to the hairy-pitted women’s libbers, who’d fought so we didn’t have to, so many of us led lives barely souped up from our grandmothers’.

Universities have been pumping out fifty-fifty ratios of graduates for decades and yet boardroom tables are about as diverse as the men’s toilets, because the system, (which, let’s face it, is controlled by men) still discriminates against anyone wanting to balance the demands of children – and it’s motherhood that precipitates the mass desertion by women from the workforce, or their voluntary relegation to the “mummy track”, at the upper end of the income and skill spectrum, not fatherhood. Is that because men love their children less or because women lack ambition? I’d hope neither, but faced with the prospect of rent-a-mommy or institutionalised child-care, whatever the cost, women tend to downgrade from a career to a part-time job, or quit.

And the truth is also that motherhood gives us an honorable discharge, when our careers don’t live up to our Hollywoodised expectations. The absence of overt discrimination doesn’t completely unshackle women from ten thousand years of subservience to the patriarchy, and I have a hunch that too much playing nice and serving tea in the meetings also contributes to women running away from their grey little cubes in the cube farm, to the nobility of motherhood.

In reality, there’s no way back – there aren’t any “on-ramps” to careers for women in their forties. The catchy little rider to “You can have it all” of “just not at the same time” conveniently airbrushes over the fact that I would be competing against my younger self for a spot on the internship programme – in a world where time is still too cheap.

Disempowered economic dependants, no wonder we become pathologically over-invested in our children, a captive breed of hyper-competitive control freakish super-mommies patrolling the school car park, or the cricket pitch.

It took ripping up my honorary pass to the men’s club for me to realise that as a society, we need to start taking account of the hidden costs of all those long hours, and not only in terms of low productivity – all that time at the arse end of the diminishing marginal returns curve spent trawling TripAdvisor – I’m talking about the real social and economic costs of draining half the skilled labour pool, or their relegation, which is the direct consequence of the whole my-car-was-in-the-basement-longer-than-yours corporate cult, replete with boozy rah-rah revival tent weekends.

We need a seismic shift in our concept of a work-life balance, from the current imbalance of traditional roles; for less and more flexible working hours to be the norm, to go unpunished; for the revolutionary advances in technology to be leveraged to shift the locus of work away from offices to reduce commuting time; for performance-based pay systems that actually measure performance not hours clocked – woo! – and, yes, for child-care to be shared equally between parents. Right now, leaving time to spend time with your family is still code for getting fired.

Since we’ve proven that women can work and that men can parent, and given that the vast majority of breeding age adults will eventually insist upon breeding, it shouldn’t be such a leap for society to decide it’s in its collective interest to free up more of the workforce’s time – half of which wasn’t all that productively spent anyway – to invest in the next generation, so that it didn’t lose half the skilled drones. And if after-school child-care was shared equally between both parents, the time off work would be damn side less.

But we’re never going to get there until women start bitching. We need to think in terms larger than our own petty ambitions, start setting fire to some more bras, especially the maternity ones, with those cute little press-stud thingies.
Raised to think that it was a dirty word, an insult, it took me almost forty years in a world where money and power is still massively skewed by sex to finally congratulate myself on what the absence of a penis in my panties made me; a feminist. Maybe it wasn’t a propaganda conspiracy waged by the right-wing in its backlash against Jane Fonda, but feminism has suffered from an image problem, so I decided to juice up its x-factor: I’m a lipstick feminist. It’s chilli pepper hot, like champagne and mardi gras. And people listen when you start talking about sexual politics. Maybe that’s because they think the conversation is going to be about vaginas, or sex at any rate, which disarms them right before you point with a finger that isn’t polite and shout; ‘That’s right, assholes, this shit is over.’