My mother taught me never to depend on a man, and here's why that failed me
When my daughter arrived, it was magnificent and terrible.
Many times I crumpled in a wretched heap of salty tears, stale milk, bitter frustration and hopeless, angry loneliness. The baby howled. I sobbed. The pre-dawn, black and heavy, closed in. And my husband crouched beside me, brow knotted in anguish.
"Let me help you!" He was so worried. "How can I help? What do you need? I love you, talk to me. Let me in."
But I couldn't. I couldn't answer him. I couldn't explain because fear and confusion were lodged in my throat.
"It's fine. Go away. I'm fine. I can do it. Go away, leave me alone. I can do it myself."
And sure, I could do it myself. I gave up my sleep to give the baby hers. I wiped up vomit with one hand while holding a writhing, wet, sneezing body with the other, having not properly washed myself since yesterday. I carried an aching back and the bewildering burden. But I didn't have to.
There he was, the man I married, the father of our child, ready, able, willing to be exactly what he should be; my partner. And there I was, stopping him. Preventing him. Pushing him away.
Because accepting his help would be like admitting defeat.
"Never depend on a man."
My mother's mantra. The foundation of a philosophy that had brought me a lot of success, but now threatened to destroy me, and my marriage, and the beauty I wanted to give to my child.
I am the daughter of an incredible feminist woman. She was there as the second-wave washed over Aussie uni campuses. She marched, she wrote, she helped see unedited, uncensored photographs of female genitals published for the sake of sexual health and equality. She was an affirmative action officer in the mining sector and stripped nudie-calendars from the tea-rooms of far-flung coal pits.
Equality was at the heart of my mum's philosophy, not female supremacy. But so much of feminism then was filtered through the prism of war. The patriarchy needed to be crushed. Some believed the men supporting it needed crushing too. Indeed, as in war, some engaged in the pursuit of revenge. My mum, though, was not, and is not, anti-men. Not intellectually in any case.
However there were times when emotion coloured her view (she's human – we all are). And certain personal experiences perhaps added an unspoken addendum to that most influential message.
"Never depend on a man." (Because they will only let you down).
This message seeded deep in my psyche. It took root, and grew into a defining aspect of my character. I grew up believing, as a good third-wave feminist should, that girls can do anything. And, thanks to mum, I knew I didn't need a man to achieve my goals. And I didn't want a man who'd frustrate them. And my goals were simple: Finish school, establish a career, conquer the professional world, have many lovers, be bound to no-one, and wind-up knocking about an extraordinary house cackling over cocktails with my endearingly eccentric, similarly single girlfriends.
A husband and children wasn't part of the picture. Partly because I saw marriage as a battle and I didn't want to lose. And partly because I believed it would mean giving up my freedom. But then I met my husband, and I realised marriage can be a partnership, and love can be liberating too. And then we decided to have a baby, and I thought of it as a happy addition to our lives, not a subtraction from our happiness.
And she is. And she will be. But we've given up so much. I've given up so much. My body, my job, given over to her. And while I'm close to ending breastfeeding, and reclaiming my body, my primary job remains my daughter. And it's a job that isn't remunerated. So here I am, depending on my husband to pay our mortgage. A dependence I find hard to bear now, but even harder during those early, wearing months.
Months made a great deal worse for not letting myself depend on my husband for all of the other, vital help he was offering. Emotional support, physical support – taking care of the baby so I could take care of myself – these were all the things women had been crying out in need of well before women's liberation. And I had them. So I should have enjoyed them. Not rejected them to the point of ruin.
I won't say that feminism is wrong because it absolutely isn't. I won't say my feminist mother is wrong because she absolutely isn't.
What I will say, is this: The "never depend on a man" brand of feminism that thrust me into strong, independent womanhood also failed me savagely.
Now, I realise we must learn dependence to understand independence. Not knowing how and when to depend on a man, or anyone else for that matter reflects an injurious shameful selfishness. It's a selfishness that will destroy you.
It's the selflessness that we need.