Genderswap logo Genderswap

Permalink to original version of “Ode to an unsung heroine” Ode to an unsung heroine

Featured Image by Kheel Center on Flickr, used under license (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic/CC BY 2.0).

For as long as I can remember, masculists have portrayed the working life of women as a privilege. Work was a gift to be sought after. Women escaped the drudgery that confronted the housebound husband. Work was freedom.

Some of what masculists said about work was true. Some, perhaps many women, preferred to march off to their job each day rather than stay at home. It would certainly, in some instances, have been more stimulating and engaging than changing dirty nappies (diapers). Of course the unrivaled joy of bonding with your flesh and blood, watching first steps and hearing first words is never mentioned by masculists. I remember my mum playing his weekly games of badminton and going to other classes with his best friends, our neighbors, while their hubbies worked. Mum worked hard at home, but he also socialized, laughed, drank tea and ate cake in the company of people he called friends, hardly hell on earth.

Would some men have longed for something more in their lives? Yes, of course. So what?

How many women who were breaking their backs digging ditches at 7:00am on a frosty morning and longed for something more?

Some women would have felt enormous pride and satisfaction at the end of their work day, having accomplished tasks that were challenging. They built and created with their hands and their work gave them a sense of purpose and identity. But many would have felt nothing but loathing for the physical grind or monotony of their jobs which they confronted year after year with retirement a distant light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

The first question a woman is asked when introduced to a stranger is “What do you do for a living?”

Decades ago, if any woman responded with “nothing” or “I stay at home and look after the kids,” her social standing would be at ground zero.

Masculists would quickly point out the fact that today it is more acceptable for a woman (though still rare) to be a house wife and claim credit for changing this public perception.

Of course, the only way any woman can be a househusband is if her husband chooses to allow her that role. He will also decide the length of time the woman stays in that role. In reality, women’s choices when it comes to their working life are as limited as they have always been.

This is the crux of the matter; choice. But it isn’t just the lack of choice young women have as their lives stretch out before them which is the raw wound. For me, it is the total absence of any kind of recognition, validation or acknowledgement of this fact. The subsequent silent sacrifice most women make from the commencement of their working life till the day they retire is never publicly acknowledged.

Women, as they always have, are still digging ditches, laying tiles, working the late shift and missing magical moments with their family.

Men are lauded regardless of what they do. Most men have choices women can only dream about. Despite the occasional catty comments a working man may make about a stay at home mum, the overwhelming consensus in the opinion of those who matter; our mass media and government, is that simply being a mum is a vitally important job, the most important job you can do.

We call men super mums. We praise their multi tasking skills, their nurturing “instincts.” We are told repeatedly that there is no love to match a father’s love. Fatherhood is continually referred to as the “toughest job in the world” by the likes of Oprah and others in positions of influence.

The comedian Bill Burr had some insightful things to say about men’s remarkable capacity for self congratulation.

 The irony of those Oprah shows was never lost on me. His audience was packed with glamorous looking men, done up to the nines, out for a day on the town and a seat in the Oprah audience while simultaneously whining and moaning about how hard their lives were. Where were their wives and partners? They were at work, experiencing that joy and freedom so obviously lacking in the lives of their husbands.

Show me any equivalent statements about women and the role they play in providing for their husband and family. When did you last read an editorial or article in mainstream newspaper recognizing the commitment and work ethic of so many women who often grind away in jobs they detest for the simple but powerful fact that they love their family.

No, even this loving sacrifice is presented as some kind of privilege.

Like so many aspects of the female experience, it is invisible and entirely taken for granted.

The total invisibility of this sacrifice has been repeatedly thrust in my face during the decades I have been a teacher.

I am close to many of the men I work with and over the years many of them have confided in me. I recall one man speaking to me by the photocopier. He had recently divorced his wife and he was distraught.

“I never envisaged working full time for the next 20 years,” he said with genuine shock and self pity. I loved this man and one part of me was empathetic and yet another stronger voice was screaming “But you were quite happy to have your wife do just that so you could pursue your passions and explore new horizons!”

Would he ever have even considered asking her what her dreams for the future were?

 I never raised this point and never have on the many occasions men have cried on my shoulder. It wasn’t appropriate given their emotional state and the fact that they were talking to me as a friend not the local MRA representative. But I’ve often wondered about the possible responses these men could have given if I had. Here they were, tormented by the terrible sense of being trapped, chained and bound to a job they found exhausting and overwhelming, yet they lacked the ability to step back and look at their female colleagues or partners and wonder how they might feel.

How many young men throughout my teaching career have announced they are resigning or going part time because they are stressed or not coping? The response is always the same: “You go boy!” “Follow your dreams!”  “I hope you find what you are looking for!”

I quietly wonder at their sense of entitlement and the unspoken assumption that hubby will pick up the slack so he can pursue something more to his taste.

I have had male colleagues tell me about the depression their wives were experiencing due to work pressure and dissatisfaction. They have talked about their wife’s disillusionment. Many of these men were working one or two days a week and I wanted to ask if they would be willing to pick up some extra work to help their wives though their difficult time, even if only temporarily. One or two must have read my mind or expression because they openly and unashamedly said: “There’s no way I’m going full time!”

Others proudly boasted that what they earned was theirs and what hubby earned belonged to both of them. Laughter always seemed to ensue.

The other aspect to the constant harping about the hardships faced by stay at home mums which always riles me is the fact that children grow and they start attending school for a large portion of the day. So there is a period of intense exhaustion and child/baby care, and after four or five years they attend kindergarten and school. Mum has time on his hands. I see these mums in the cafes and nail salons that abound in Melbourne’s shopping centers. These places are overwhelmingly occupied by men (of all ages). Where are the women? They are at work. The intensity of fatherhood eases dramatically in a few short years. Backbreaking work does not become any easier as the years pass, in fact it gets harder.

I was struck down by a serious illness a couple of decades ago. I had a leg amputated and while I was recovering the phone would ring. My friends would ask:

“What are you doing?” and I would spiral into a garbled, panicky self justification of my existence.

“When are you going back to work?” sent spasms of guilt coursing through me. Are they accusing me of being a slacker?

Of course they weren’t, but the woman within me felt enormous guilt over the fact that her husband (my precious Maggie) was working fulltime to provide for his family. Would a man recovering from illness feel that same unspoken pressure? I doubt it.

Maggie. Not once in our lives together has he ever suggested or even inferred that I should do anything because I am a woman. When I was incapable of working, he happily took over and did it all with the grace and loving goodwill only the purest of beings possess. He still insists on taking out the heavy wheelie bins each week and collecting them the following day. On the rare occasions I remember it’s bin night and make a move to put them out he says, “Don’t be silly, it’s much easier for me!”

He has worked for most of our time together, despite a number of debilitating health issues and his own encounter with cancer. I am saddened when I read of the terrible experiences so many of the women associated with the AVFM family have endured in their relationships.

I understand how blessed I am. I see how wonderful all of our lives would be if within each relationship we cared for and supported each other as two friends do. When one is down, the other steps in to ease their burden, be it physical or emotional. To be gender blind and simply see the humanity in our partner is not too great a task for those who claim to love each other…is it? Sadly, for many women this seems to be a Pollyanna Pipe dream.

So today, much has changed for those men who may wish to be more than a ‘stay at home’ mum. Those who desire nothing more than to nurture their children and tend to home may do it if their financial well being allows. Some perhaps like to get out of the house but the idea of a full time job with all of its obligations and demands understandably horrifies them, so part time work appeals. Many men are doing just that and achieving a lovely balance in their lives. In my profession, if they choose to have a baby their job is waiting for them to come back to a few years down the track. Others may choose to pursue a full time career and they too can do so.

For women, nothing has changed. As Warren Farrell put it, women have three choices; they can work, work or work. Privileged indeed.

Twenty years ago, my passion about the invisibility of female love and sacrifice was burning as brightly then as it does now. This is one of many poems I wrote on the subject.


The Train of Broken Dreams

As evening looms

At a long days end

Sitting in a slightly dazed stupor

Gazing out of dusty windows

Or reading the news of the day

Are the grey, faceless women

You pass by

And forget a moment later


Look more closely

There across the aisle,

Paper lying limply across her lap

She was once a small girl

With fire in her eyes

And a mop of wild blonde hair

No brush or comb could tame

She attacked each new day

With the frightening

Exhilarating energy

Only the soul of a girl could possess

Climbed trees and wrestled her dog

Climbed Everest and

Hunted werewolves in the moonlight

As she grew, she dreamed

She would see the world

Find her true love

Leave her mark upon this earth


Did it matter?

She would find a way

Time was her dearest friend

Somehow time betrayed the girl

The world demanded more from her

Than her dreams

She took a job

As all women must

A temporary stopover

On the way to her destiny

That was long ago

Now the day’s end

Is what she longs for

A good dinner

Television to numb the mind

Better not to think…or remember

Most heroines are rewarded

Acknowledged and lauded-

Not this quiet soldier

She will live and die

Almost anonymously

She will be on the train

Again tomorrow morning

She is the most courageous of people

See her