Timothee challenges the feminist ideal of the self-sufficient woman, reflecting on the power of stay-at-home mums and redefining the value of labour.
When I was a young child going to school in Vietnam, they had us write down what our parents' occupations were in a little report notebook. My dad was a "businessman," and my mum was a "housewife." It was the norm back then, or so I was told.
More than ten years have passed since, and I've moved from a small school in small Vietnam to a big university in big Australia. Ever since then, I've been taught, over and over, by academic and media institutions alike, that being a housewife was not a real job. That housewives did not do much besides cooking and cleaning and being pretty for their husbands so they could use up their money for vapid pleasures. That modern women should be strong and independent and build a career of their own if they wanted to be taken seriously and treated equally to men.
Young and impressionable me bought into this false “feminist” narrative, simply because I wanted to be seen as useful and worthy like my male peers.
It didn't help either that my dad, who at this point has had an extremely rough divorce with my mum – I'll save you the details, otherwise it will be a trauma dump – and despised her extremely, fueled me with his so-called care and sense of duty by ridiculing her, minimising our contact and telling me to try harder to not end up like her. My paternal side of the family, who I lived with since moving to Australia, happily chimed in with the same sentiment, repeating constantly how she failed to be a good mum because she was with my dad for money and didn't raise her children right (they supposedly got this idea because my brother and I weren't getting along with them, though on my end it was because they gave me depression).
And yet, as I approach my early twenties, the one sentence I most often hear at family gatherings is, "You should study hard, so you can get a rich husband and a permanent residency here." The same went for my female cousins, who, regardless of their occupation, lifestyle, or whatever else, were expected to settle down with a man one day.
"What. The. Fuck?" I thought to myself every time, but I had to keep a polite smile and nod whenever the same sentence was repeated. The inconsistencies in my family's narratives and actions – the belittling of stay-at-home mums because of their dependency while simultaneously encouraging me to put my future into the hands of a man – caused me anger and humiliation at the same time.
But it wasn't just family. In fact, it's quite easy to find society's ironic narrative on motherhood across the media and politics: on the one hand, we're telling women it's selfish to not marry and have kids, and use morality and religious reasons to drill this point into their head; but on the other hand, our economy, politics, and societal values make it nearly impossible to raise children in a way that's optimal for the kid's growth and balanced for the mum's health.
Slowly, I realised the fact of the matter is that there is no easy winning situation for women regardless of our path. Whether you're devoting life to family or work or trying to balance both, in the end you're bound to lose something – whether that's freedom, respect, dignity, or sanity.
Housewives like my mum don't make a single dime for the sheer labour they put into the household. They sacrifice their entire future – education, career, and social life – to raise the kids and keep the family functioning. Not only do their efforts often go unnoticed, but they're bullied into thinking of themselves as helpless and unworthy compared to the male breadwinners in the household.
My mum married my dad at a young age – she never explicitly stated when, but had my big brother when she was 21 – and from my knowledge, didn’t even finish high school. She was the sixth of nine children of her single mother, and assumed the role of caretaker to some of her siblings. A few of her siblings died for various reasons, and to this date I’ve only met two of her sisters, one of whom recently died due to a stroke. My mum rarely spoke about herself or how she felt about my dad, and while I was there when their relationship hadn’t turned sour, my furthest childhood memory only goes back to when they started fighting, around the time I was seven or eight years old. And ever since then, it had been a nightmare every time they crossed paths.
As I grew up, I finally discerned that my mum was the one who pulled my broken family together and kept us in place for the 15 years she was prominent in my life. Despite the trauma that she had to bear, she did the best she could to provide me a childhood like the other kids. To love and raise a sickly and anxious child in a cold and turbulent marriage ridden with violence and mistrust until the child's teenage years passed was not easy. Her job was a real, gruelling and laborious job, and it was one of the hardest ones out there in the world.
It came to me, now that I’ve grown from child to woman and had a chance to reflect on both our lives, that feminism isn't about measuring against the male standards that I’ve once set my eyes on. It's about living to the fullest despite the odds against being female.
Stay-at-home mum or corporate baddie (and anything in between), all women are valuable women. All are equally worthy of a better life. And to move towards that vision, the first thing we need to do is to shift away from the patriarchal lens through which we look at ourselves. Because if we can't see our own worth, how are we supposed to show it to the rest of the world?