Monday, 10 March 2014

Proving yourself

I was watching teenage boys the other day. Don't worry, I'm no cougar, although I was abstractly looking at their just-formed musculature, their flicky hair, their sulky pouts, and thinking how beautiful they were, these young animals, as they hopped and flew on their skateboards.

Our seven-year-old boy was trying to keep up with them on his trick scooter — half their height, without the fuzzy facial hair on his upper lip, and with upper arm muscles that look like tiny chicken dippers.

He tried to zoom up the board they had leant against a block in the skatepark, and didn't have the oomph to leap over its lip, so kept sliding back down, bringing the board with him. They stood in a row, a frieze of beautiful youth silhouetted against the setting Spring afternoon sun, calling to him not to bother, to stop trying.

Boy picked up his scooter and carried it off the piste, through the grass to sit behind a nearby tree. I sauntered casually over, to find him moodily staring into the middle distance. When I put my arm around him, he started to cry. "They don't want me. I'm useless, I can't do what they're doing. I'm hopeless," he sobbed. I whispered in his ear, "You're brilliant, you can do what you want, come back and try again, jump the steps like you did last weekend, don't worry about them."

He wouldn't at first, then little by little edged back onto the circuit, and took his place again among the boy-men, zooming round and round, avoiding, now, the high angled board in favour of a shallower angle, putting in little jumps and flourishing his scooter round when he hit the lip of a slope. He told me he loved me.

In the evenings at the moment, we are reading King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I cannot recommend it highly enough to young men everywhere. The first words are:
After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never at peace. Although so much of it was covered with thick forests, much also was beautiful open country, with little villages and towns, as the Romans had left it not many years before.
Unlikely as it may seem, our son was mesmerised from the words "wicked Vortigern". King Arthur, the true king, valiant knight, and his band of fellow knights, proving themselves through impossible courage, maintaining the highest code of honour and reverence towards women, fighting evil all through the land, contending with magic and sorcery, creating an interval of peace and goodness in an epoch of darkness — it is irresistible.

For a long time I have dismissed chivalric literature as so much sexist claptrap, unbecoming to modern men and women. The roles for women seem laughable — to be either a silent and passive damsel, adored but inactive, or to be an evil temptress, trying to bewitch good knights into breaking their vows… that's not a great set of role models.

But now I'm revising my hardline views, at least as far as the knights go. Actually raising a boy has taught me so much more about masculinity than I had understood before. The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one's action's approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.

I am often infuriated by my husband's deferring to me. I want him to use his initiative to work out where the socks go, or what the timing needs to be for everything to get done. It has taken me years to understand that I am his damsel (in jeggings), and that therefore he is doing me obeisance when he asks if I want the dishwasher emptied, or where his bank card is.

In understanding that boys and men absolutely have to prove themselves worthy to each other, and to the women (or men) they love, in order to feel like men, I have also started to rethink something else.

In the 1990s, I wrote a doctorate on Marcel Proust and self-justification. I wanted to understand how self-justification worked, and saw it as a universal kind of behaviour, gender-neutral. I did not necessarily distinguish between 'justifying yourself' and 'proving yourself'. And I still think those behaviours are linked.

But now I can see much more clearly that there is a powerful gender component to that thinking. In the main, men do not think that they are justifying themselves, even when they are, which causes a lot of problems, say in international relations. They believe that they are engaged in a noble pursuit of proving their worth.

Women are all too aware of justifying themselves because no one cares whether they prove themselves or not. In a man's world, women must resort to fighting, not to prove their worth, but even to be recognised, in an arena in which they are invisible. Men do not look at women except to love them (or be threatened by them). Women have no one to prove themselves to, except themselves. And so much of their energy is dissipated not in proving their worth, since it turns out there is no framework which recognises them, but in justifying themselves to themselves and each other. That's why women apologise. That's why they explain. That's why they feel terrible when they do either. No one is listening, they don't need to do it.  But at the same time, no one is waiting for their deeds, their prowess, their valour.

I'm presenting, deliberately, a cartoon vision of modernity. It's perfectly obvious that this isn't true for everyone now. But I think it goes a long way to explaining many women's frustration with contemporary society, especially after they have children — if no one is expecting them to prove themselves, even though they do prove themselves, relentlessly, and if having a baby is just seen as their 'normal function' (or even worse, a 'lifestyle choice'), and nothing to do with achievement, then of course, when highly educated, career-minded women become mothers, there is bound to be terrible conflict.

I'm not sure I have an answer (yet). All I know is that justifying ourselves is both part of the normal reflective apparatus — it can help stop us going out and killing each other, and instead push us to be kind, respectful and empathetic — and immensely destructive if unleashed against ourselves. It is bound up with guilt and lying to ourselves, and it clouds our clear vision of what we want, undermining us. Proving yourself, on the other hand, is a wonderful thing to do, based on focus, aims, goals, and winning prizes —if there is a level playing field.

I know now, after a decade of combat with myself and society, that, as a working mother, I am unable to prove myself as I once did, in a fair fight. There is nothing fair about being saddled with the responsibility for, and hard labour that comes with, raising the babies that come out of your body and continuing to try to prove your worth through your achievements. It is simply exhausting, depressing, relentless, and unfulfilling. I no longer feel, as I did for many years after starting a family, that I have failed. Now I feel I have brought the fight onto terms I can live with, by working from home. The only code I want to prove myself worthy of is my own.

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