An open letter to my sons following International Women’s Day
Law Squared associate director Catherine Brooks penned an open letter to her sons, Remington and Raymond (three years old and three months respectively), discussing International Women’s Day and the importance of gender equality, both personally and professionally.
I always imagined having girls, so when I found out I was pregnant with Remy I thought that the feminist goddesses were laughing at me from above. Then, when I found out I was pregnant with son number two, Ray, I knew the feminist goddesses were truly trying to tell me something. That something? I think it links to Australia’s IWD 2019 theme, ‘More Powerful Together’, which recognises the important role we all play – as women, men, non-binary and gender diverse people. It takes all of us, “working in collaboration and across that which sometimes divides us, breaking down stereotypes and gendered roles to create a world where women and girls everywhere have equal rights and opportunities.”
You see, as a mother of sons, I felt this awful temptation to feel relief. Relief that my boys wouldn’t suffer pay inequality – because women in Australia are still paid on average 15 per cent less than men performing the same jobs. Relief that my boys wouldn’t be at as great a risk of sexual harassment in the workplace – because women are harassed in Australian workplaces in much greater numbers than men (85 per cent as opposed to 56 per cent for men according to the latest research by the Human Rights Commission). Relief because women – and not men – are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic abuse – indeed women in Australia are almost three times as likely as men to experience violence from their partner and four times as likely to be admitted to hospital with one in three women having experienced physical violence against them since the age of 15.
But then I gave pause for reflection. I should not feel relief that I have boys. Instead, dear sons, I should feel a sense of optimistic responsibility, because you and me boys, we are going to be the change we want to see. Together, as a family, we are going to live, breathe and unite in our bid to raise men that actively work to change the statistics that make me worry for my goddaughter, Sophia and my nieces, Millie and Ev. As a family of (mostly) men, our responsibility is great and our opportunity even greater.
Let’s start first with your father. Often teased growing up as being “gay” due to his soft nature and emotional outlook on life, your dad and I promise to allow you to be who you truly are. Whether that’s gay, pansexual, metrosexual or label-less. We promise to allow you to grow up in a way that nurtures your character and doesn’t try to conform you to any gender stereotypes. If we want to change the statistics when it comes to violent men in our homes, then we believe that men shouldn’t be expected to conform to gender standards of “strength”, “power”, “major breadwinner” or even “leader”. Instead, we will help you to be resilient, kind, gentle, to make a contribution to your community and to always consult with those around you.
Your dad has already demonstrated to you how men can be key contributors in the home. He is my partner in the truest sense. We share the domestic load, the caring load and the financial load. Your dad took substantial time off after both of your births and has an incredible bond with both of you because of that time he was able to spend with you.
Your dad has also broken down the stigma attached with seeking psychological support – when he suffered depression and anxiety, he got the right professional treatment and sought help – a crucial step for healing. What a role model you have in your father. He has shown you that mental illness is not a sign of weakness but rather one of vulnerability – a human condition that is completely acceptable.
And what about me, your mum, am I a role model to you? There are times that I have felt deep pain and angst when I have chosen to leave you to go to work. I have been heartened by the research that shows that girls raised in homes with working mothers are more likely to grow up to have successful careers.
Whereas, the sons of working mothers spent more time as adults caring for family members. Regardless, I think it’s important that you both see me as an independent person, with my own interests outside of you and away from the home. I hope I am demonstrating to you that women, like all people, are multifaceted and exist to do more than serve.
In fact, I’m working every day to help parents work flexibly. I wrote my first book – Let’s Make It Work, Baby! - when I was breastfeeding Remy at night. The words poured out of me because I want so badly for all parents, men and women alike, to have the option to work flexibly and be an integral part of the family. To change perceptions. To build capacity. But we need to do this together.
You may be asking “how is this all relevant to IWD?”. And indeed, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t your day – it’s the day of my women kind who have fought so hard for the freedom and rights of white male privilege. But I’ve been to enough IWD events, where we talk about the depressing statistics of how my gender is treated in our society, and quite frankly I’m sick of hearing of the disparity and discrimination. I’m much more interested in the solutions – the solutions and actions that will lead to change. While women must and will continue to fight for their rightful position in this world, I’m of the school of thought that it will take both genders to see in this ongoing revolution. Hence why I think of you, dear sons, as we celebrate women today and focus our energy and attention on change.
So, what can you do, as white privileged males, to contribute towards our aim for equal standing?
First, you must acknowledge your privilege. You and I, we walk around this country with the knowledge that we will not face racism. The colour of our skin wrongly governs our experience in this way and we move freely in this society without scrutiny. This is a privilege and one that we must not forget. Further, your first 1,000 days of childhood (crucial according to new research about our neurological wiring) has been blissful, free from violence, drugs and full of reading, play and a peaceful (if busy) home life. Again, this puts you in a privileged position.
But you are also privileged because of your gender. There are certain things that I have had to experience as a woman that you won’t. One example is mansplaining. Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words “man” and “explaining”, and refers to situations where a person (typically a man) explains something to someone else (typically a woman), often in a condescending way, without consideration for or regard to the explainee being more experienced with the subject in the first place. As an example, a man who explains to a mother what childbirth is like would be mansplaining. Understand this terminology. Remember it so that you can actively avoid doing it.
And, while we are on this topic, it is worth me telling you about mansplaining’s cousin – the talk over: the tendency for men to speak over a woman or cut her off before she can make her point. Research shows that women only speak for 25 percent of the time in meetings, while men speak for the remaining 75 percent. Men not only share ideas more, they interrupt women more often than they do other men. Again, it’s important that you know these statistics so that you can make sure you don’t promulgate them. Indeed, you can actively ensure these habits are stopped. If you’re in a conversation, make sure everyone is heard. If you see a woman have her platform taken off her prematurely, interject and call out the behaviour. Perhaps you can make other men see their wrongs and support those trying to have their say.
This leads me to my second ask. If you have acknowledged your privilege, then I ask you to make sure you use your standing for good.
In the Western world, many men are taught from birth that they have an inherent right to power – that boys are tough and strong and aggressive and have a right to anger. In our house, violence in simply not tolerated. In order to change the prevalence of domestic violence in Australia we need for you, my sons, and all men in our country, to understand that white male privilege does not equal inherent power. Rather, it is my aim that you will appreciate the importance of respect. Respect for all women and respect for yourselves. Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday linked violence to disrespect.
“Because disrespect of women and children, while it won’t always end necessarily in violence towards women and children, that’s certainly where it starts,” he said.
“I look forward to the day when a Prime Minister can stand … and say that a young girl being born today won’t experience this over the course of the first 20 years of their life.” But Jenna Price, founder of Counting Dead Women Australia said, “we need to examine the level of gender inequality here ... around job opportunities, around pay gaps, how women in power are treated, everyday sexism and casual misogyny.”
Do you see my sons? You have an opportunity. You can use your white male privilege to give others a voice. You can ensure that you don’t seek out power for powers sake. You can help us women stamp out everyday sexism and casual misogyny.
Okay, so you’ve acknowledged your privilege, I’ve asked you to consider how to use it for good, now I’m going to tell you about the importance of sharing the domestic and emotional load.
According to a 2016 census, 27 per cent of women perform 15 hours or more of unpaid domestic work a week compared to 8 per cent of men. Further research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that when paid and unpaid work is combined, full-time working women spend 6.4 more hours working per week than men and full-time working women clock up an average of 25 hours of housework each week compared to 15 hours for full-time working men.
This disparity is prohibiting men from living their best lives and it’s limiting women in all sorts of ways too.
Allowing men to engage in emotional labour and step into new domestic roles is a circuit breaker to toxic masculinity, giving them the opportunity to be deeply involved partners, fathers, sons and friends (says journalist Gemma Hartley, author of the book, Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women, and the Way Forward).
But I’m not asking you, dear sons, to “pitch in” and “help out”, this only reinforces the notion that domestic chores are women’s work. Rather, it’s about noticing what needs to be done and not waiting to be told what to do.
Just look at your dad. I don’t ask him to help me to do the laundry. He sees a load that needs washing and he gets it done. Sure, we each have our strengths and weaknesses. Your father is a green thumb in the garden and not so good in the kitchen. That’s fine, I love cooking. But come time to get your injections, or attend open night at kinder, or buy your birthday present – your dad and I equally share the load.
This equal distribution of the domestic and emotional labour enables us as a family to thrive. Indeed, it actually enables me as the mother to work and have a successful career as a lawyer. It means I can be more present when I’m with you. I can get down on the (mostly clean) floor to play with you knowing that the whole running of the household doesn’t just fall on my shoulders. It means knowing that when I’m not with you, food will still be cooked for you, clothes will be washed, books will be read. This, my sons, is liberating and it’s important that we don’t brush this off as a nicety. When parents share the load at home it leads to strong economic and health consequences.
For us, it means that I can work more – and more consistently. I haven’t had to take big stretches of time off away from work, so my superannuation balance hasn’t taken such a hit. I have been able to contribute more to the financials which has meant that we can provide you with a roof over your head and food on the table. I have also been able to afford childcare help which has led to us being able to welcome Caro, our amazing au pair into our home. In turn, Caro has provided your dad and I with the ability to not feel so exhausted all the time. A very important benefit when it comes to mental and physical health and well-being.
So please sons, look around you and reflect on your upbringing. We have attempted to show you that an equal household brings great benefits. We expect that you will contribute in our household and in your future family home in the same way, and we will hold you accountable if you’re not pulling your weight.
I have now discussed privilege, how I expect you to use it, and the importance of sharing the emotional and domestic load. Let me now link this all back to IWD 2019.
Today is a day to highlight the great progress we have made towards gender equality. It is also a day to recognise what still needs to be done and to create awareness about how we can play our part in making change for better.
Today I’m going to celebrate one achievement. It’s a personal achievement. It’s that I’m here today, reading out loud this letter to you, in front of tens upon tens of people at a Westpac event in the professional end of town in Melbourne. I stand in front of business people, school children, leaders (present and future) and feel proud. Because I am a woman. A mother. And a professional in my own right. And three months ago, when I gave birth to my second child, I was not required to choose between my kids and my career. Financial independence or my heart.
For you my sons, are my heart. But without my independence and the ability to work, our lives would be much smaller. So today I celebrate being here. Being able to speak on this important topic.
But I will not forget my own privilege and the fact that not all parents enjoy the flexible working arrangements that I have been afforded by my workplace, Law Squared. For all those parents out there currently struggling – I will keep fighting for your rights for flexibility and independence. For the ability to not have to choose between kids and career.
And to the women that have paved the way, that have fought the good fight, that have made it possible for me to be standing here today – sons you must remember to say thank you. Our family will honour the hard work of these women. We will not forget them. We will make sure they are named in our history books. We will recognise their efforts and pay them justly for their work.
In closing – Remy and Ray – I love you. I’m so proud of you and what your dad and I have created. But do not squander the opportunities you have been given.
Acknowledge your privilege. Use it to help others. Always share in the emotional and domestic load of your household – and you will lead rich and fulfilling lives to the benefit of all of us in this modern-day Australia.
This post originally appeared on Catherine Brooks' LinkedIn page. She is pictured above with her husband and first son, Remington.