Dignity, Defeat, Motherhood and Feminism
by Celine Semaan Vernon
Originally wrote this a few months ago, but never felt the courage to post it. I was finally motivated to share this piece after reading Lena Dunham recent post. So, voilà!
“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” Madeleine Albright said recently at the Glamour Women of the Year celebration at Carnegie Hall. I wish I could have been there, but with my eight and half pregnant self [at the time], all I could do was lay down and watch it unveil on my phone.
I am in my early thirties and one of the rare women among my group of friends who already has a child and is expecting another. When I was living in Beirut, Lebanon, in the 90's, I made a very conscious decision at the age of fifteen: to never have any children, because I thought that to be considered an equal to men and have a career, a woman should be childless - for lack of role models, that was my belief. Fast forward a little bit over a decade later, I got pregnant not even trying yet, with my first child, which was both a surprise and a nightmare.
How was I to reconcile myself with the reality of a woman’s career sacrifice if she decides to bear children? How could I change this paradigm? How would I address the patronizing opinions of the world around me as it decided for me that I had “given up” on my career.
The amount of times I have heard: “Relax, you are pregnant, you don’t want to stress your baby, don’t worry about your business now,” or “Your career is not as important as nurturing the baby you have in you,” has deeply affected my self-esteem. I know people mean well, but I still felt what my fifteen year-old self felt at the time: rage! Why? The comments people make presuppose that we can only be one thing, or do one thing. But we are infinite beings and amazing multitaskers!
No one noticed I was pregnant until I was seven months into it, and I never really announced it either, fearing my peers’ reaction. During my first pregnancy, I lost several very career opportunities after potential partners and employers found out I was pregnant. Even from my female peers, support was scarce. How could I have not controlled and designed my life more carefully?
I then began a never-ending soul-searching journey that mostly consisted of arguing with my inner fifteen year old self. She would try to make me feel terrible on both sides of a paradox: on the one hand, I was a bad Feminist for “giving up” my equality and career goals by becoming a mother; on the other hand, I was a bad Traditional Mother for not “giving in” to withdrawing from my career to focus on my pregnancy and family goals. Therein lies the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation that recurs so frequently in women’s lives around ideas of motherhood, sexuality, assertiveness, independence and feminism itself.
Despite being seen as a walking talking cocoon that couldn’t be given any more opportunities since she was already at full capacity carrying a child, I did run my own business, and moved it from Montreal to New York. I’ve been growing an ethical fashion-activism studio based in Brooklyn. We’re three years into our business of creating silk scarves with prints of NASA Satellite images that raise awareness and financial support for the World Wild Life and international NGO’s. And yes, I have a young child, and yes, I have a business. It is possible.
When I found out I was pregnant again this time, I was in the midst of preparing to raise our first round of funding. Trusted advisors I had brought on my board (men and women I admire, but who don’t have kids) told me to try not to show that I was pregnant, that investors won’t invest in a pregnant woman’s company. So I dressed accordingly until it was getting pretty hard to cover up. I felt ashamed. Meanwhile Kim Kardashian was showing off her belly and fighting all of her haters one perfect Instagram post at a time, not hiding who she is to her 20+ million followers. I found her inspiring and courageous not to take their judgement personally. Haters gonna hate, right?
The project of raising my first round of investment fell through as my peers began to discourage me that I should drop the idea of raising capital while I was pregnant. Again, I was encouraged instead to focus only on my baby. My fifteen year-old self wanted to smash everything. I didn’t know what to tell her. I dove deep into a depression, I found myself having very little energy to move and to think; all I could do was feel terrible about myself.
My three-year-old caught me looking out the window one day, with an empty look in my eyes, thinking about how much I had failed. She put her sweet little hand on me and said “Mommy, why are you sad?” Her question broke my heart open. “Why am I sad?” I asked out loud, and, on the verge of crying, “I don’t know baby! You are right, why am I sad even?” She climbed on my lap, this beautiful soul, and hugged me tight. At that moment I felt the super-power we have as mothers: we are here, we exist. And we made all of you!
Few examples in the mainstream media portray mothers as inspiring heroes to look up to. There are however, lots of these women out there, and we are given a chance everyday to become either loud or quiet heroes. We are the heroes our daughters and sons look up to everyday, the quiet heroes of our little growing family.
I want to be a loud hero. No, I will NOT feel ashamed for bringing life into this world. I will NOT feel guilty for running a successful business even a few weeks from my due date. I will work whenever I am inspired to and I know that my children will grow confident and happy to be raised by a happy and thriving mother. Yes, I know we can do more than one thing at a time, I am a proof of it and so are many women I met who run successful businesses and raise amazing children at the same time. As a woman, friend, peer and mentor to other women, I will always be there to support, help and guide them especially when they will be expecting mothers. I will not feel guilty for thinking that people might think my work is going to be less good now that I am a mother. Because that’s not even the truth.
I read Amanda Palmer’s Medium post justifying herself to her entire fans that her work will not suffer by her pregnancy, and again my fifteen year old self felt like smashing everything. I wanted to tell Amanda: “Of course not, girl! Your work will blossom! It will be different and will mature! And so will you!”
My ultimate message to mothers: we need to keep representing our diverse and inspiring selves without shame or guilt. Being a mom and the notion of a mom will be valued again in a matrilineal society — and women will not guilt trip each other — they will help one another.