Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The swing of the pendulum

Do you think these girls worried about getting likes to their Facebook updates?

 I can hardly read anything about women and social media, without seeing somebody complain about the peer pressure on over-performing housewives through social media. Psychologists talk about tripple pressure (norwegian link) - where women are not just responsible for a perfect home and a perfect career, but also are supposed to entertain and engage the children in their free time. This leads to women being 60% more on sick leave than men.

Normally, I just look past this issue, and shrug. I can bake when I want to, and leave it be when I want that. I played with the kids, but also yelled at them until they cleaned their own rooms and helped making dinner. And while I did finish a Ph D, I went a bit over on the time, and I guess there were a few typos in the script. "Good enough" has been one of my refrains, the other is "better luck next time."

But today I read an article in a Danish newspaper about "saying pyt" - which means "don't worry." Scandinavian has a few good words. English speakers know about "uff" or "uff uff" - which means "oh no, that is bad" - to varying degrees of badness. Now I want to point towards "pytt" or "pytt pytt", which means "it's nothing to worry about, it's not really important, just let it go."


I am old enough that digitally communicated peer pressure was never a problem. I never worried about seeing somebody else's cupcakes online, just to realise that mine looked like a lump of dusty coal in comparison. I did however not grow up without pressure on behaviour, performance, display and manners. Everything I did became a source of careful scrutiny and commentary, no, not online, but from the neighbours, or from the imaginary neighbours in my mother's mind. What "they" would say ran most of my childhood, and kept haunting me whenever I spoke with my mother until she died.

The sixties and seventies in a suburban neighbourhood was all about performance. The houses were showcases for the success of the families living in them, outside and inside. The size of the cars, the size of the garage, the price of the new tile on the roof, the quality of the lawn. Children's parties were a competition of cakes and entertainment, not to mention dress and manners. We were ruthlessly drilled in how to greet the hosts and how to say goodbye, carefully reciting the correct litany. We were always representatives of the family, constantly judged. And we, the kids, got off easy.

The women would host "clubs" - social meetings at each others' places, where it was all about dressing up, serving something fashionable and delicious, and then talking about what was going on. This was as much a display of perfection as any mommy blog. My mother said carefully thank you, and went out to spend the afternoon in the greenhouse. She knew very well that she could never match their fashionable clothing nor the elegant interior design. That didn't mean she didn't care. Every contact with the world outside the garden fence was scrutinised with the aim to decipher the one thing important to her: "What would the neighbours say."

Growing up in the seventies was a great way to learn to say "I don't care." The norms of society were blasted wide open by women entering new areas of society. The elegant housewives who kept the houses spotless and refused us entrance to most of the building if we wanted to play (mostly they ordered us to play outside, no matter the weather), were replaced by hippies with ecological gardens and busy working women. Divorces ceased being disasters we read about in the papers, and children born out of wedlock were no longer "uekte" - bastards born to eternal shame. My mother's "what will the neighbours say" could be fended off with a reference to how oldfashioned and intolerant that was. Who cared about a gaggle of old women anyway, life was here, now, rapidly changing and unfolding before our eyes!

And then I am suddenly older than those housewives were, and I realise that the pendulum has swung back. It may look different, because the acceptance today's young women seek is from an online circle, not from a knitting club organised every week in a new home. The perfect cupcake (which, I just want to mention, my mother would have baked in the late hours of the night, to have them waiting to tempt us into thoughtless indulgence in the morning with their perfect texture and intense tastes - my mother could bake the aprons off any online perfectionist, if we managed to drag her in from the garden) is just the same as the perfect snack for the club, and the pictures of the lovely garden are just a new mediation of the garden which used to be the showcase. It has swung back to the point that we again actually care about what the neighbours may say.

A few points in favour of today though:
  • It's ok to be queer. Actually, in many of those neighbourhoods it's now fashionable.
  • It's ok to be divorced, single mother, or just living together.
  • It's ok to have a job, and send the kids in daycare, kindergarden or pre-school.
  • It's ok to not have a car.
  • And kids get to come inside when it's raining or snowing. I like that part.
As for the rest: Try to learn something from the seventies. Perhaps you don't need to emulate all the ideas about drugs, sex, spitting in public, innovative use of safety pins and pretty bad social realist provocative literature and film, but learn to say: "It's a trap the system has constructed, and it's more important to find my own path than to satisfy the system." That should take care of most situations where you feel like you are about to drown in "what the neighbours might say." Or in concerns about Facebook likes. If needed, substitute that cute button you were about to take a picture of with a safety pin or some duct tape.

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