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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why Am I Not Danish?

It’s not that I long to talk about TV shows, but this one has been so interesting that I can’t resist. I’m
Maybe on a good day.....
speaking of a Danish drama called “Borgen,” which is about the Prime Minister (PM) of Denmark, who happens to be a woman. We watched the last episode of the second season of Borgen yesterday and I dreamed about the PM, Birgitte Nyborg, off and on all night.

Spoiler alert! But, as my Shakespeare professor once said, if you’re upset to discover that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play, you’ve lost the point of literature. Okay, maybe I’ve lost the point of it, by now, eons later, Professor Finkelpearl long retired; but his message was that knowing the ending of the story doesn’t lessen its impact, it makes the story richer. So, I am performing due diligence in warning you of spoilers; but I’m telling you, Readers, a spoiler doesn’t matter in this case.

This season found Birgitte pinioned by the demands of her job and her desire to be available to her children. One of her children had an acute mental health crisis, and following the shrink’s injunction that her recovery would require big changes in the family, the PM decided she had to take a leave from work. Naturally, this made big news. Other (male) politicians, of course, took advantage of her absence to build themselves up while running her down. Predictably, they turned her gender into an issue. Questions about her mothering, and whether a mother could handle the job of PM dominated the press. She was a bad mother, because her daughter was struggling; and she was a bad politician, because she was distracted by her child. Eventually, even though she wasn’t quite ready to return to work, she did return, because her advisors suggested the situation was getting out of hand, and policy implementation was foundering in a perceived power vacuum.

The PM’s instinct was to ignore the press. She refused to respond to the insinuations that her gender affected her ability to lead. She told her aides that responding was beneath her. She was happy to talk politics, she said, not gender. It would have been easy to get on the TV and angrily ask if journalists would be asking these questions of a man. And of course it would have been easy to say that a man would probably not take a leave to be there for a child - because men assume the women will do it. Women have to shoulder more roles. That doesn’t mean they do inferior work, by any means. But Birgitte didn’t go that route.

The PM had been struggling all season as a single mom, by the way. After her first year in office, her husband Philip left, feeling frustrated, neglected, and probably emasculated when she took on the demanding job of PM.


Finally, in the last episode, she told him off – thank goodness – and said he’d given up too fast and hadn’t been understanding enough of the demands of her new job and how long it would take to adjust to them. When a former male PM got on the news and talked about how hard it had been on his wife, how neglected she had felt, and how inevitable that neglect had been when he was PM, it seemed to strike a new chord with Philip. While he didn’t say so, one can hope the realization had begun to penetrate that he’d been an ass. I believe that’s the technical term. He’d applied a double standard to Birgitte. I thought it was a nice touch to show Philip getting driven around by his new girlfriend, a busy pediatrician, another strong woman; the suggestion being that he was entirely too passive about his life choices and didn’t know how to fight. Also, that he both enjoyed and was immobilized by the powerful women in his life.

When the PM returned, she gave a short speech to the legislature. It was marvelous. She pointed out that the first four women in Danish politics were elected in 1918, therefore, the debate about gender was about a hundred years too late. That ship has sailed, she said, in different words. Danish words. Her point was, here I am, I am PM, and I am doing what I have to do, so shut up about my gender and get back to work. It was great.

This was all entirely diverting and engrossing, and there was added pleasure, too, that the husband said the actress who plays the PM looks like me. But it was an uncomfortable feeling, too, when I consider how mired and stuck I sometimes feel in my own life, and how unfledged I am professionally, and when I see how much she does in her life. In fact all the women in the show are professionals, and it makes me feel like I haven’t done enough.

There’s been a whispered, provocative question circulating among feminists and sociologists that it’s awfully interesting that our society discovered, just at the time when women were getting into the professions seriously and moving out of the home, that mothering is a fulltime job requiring 100% attendance at home to provide a solid base for the children. Mom can go back to work, the suggestion is, but her kids may turn out sociopaths. So go ahead and take away some deserving man’s job, but watch what you reap.

The implication, I suppose, is that my generation grew up to be a bunch of miserable degenerates (slackers, anyone?), because a lot of us had parents who worked - and who, by the way, practiced a more hands-off style of parenting. Therefore, we try to give our children what we think we missed.

Yet now there’s a move away from “helicopter parenting” and a yearning for the freedom kids experienced in the latchkey kid days. Or was it the fifties and sixties when kids were outside all day long, roaming freely, while their moms were home suffering from the problem with no name? It’s all so confusing. What’s a feminist mother to do?

I can’t help wondering if I’ve been hooked by some line cast by the feminist backlash. Because I surely felt my attendance at home was preferred. I felt that my kids needed me home, at least when they were little. However, now that they are older, and feminism has moved back into the mainstream, I want to earn money and show them a “productive” role model. Unfortunately, now it’s much harder to build a meaningful career because I’m, well, older. So I flop around on the deck, regretting my choice.

After all, I am not a degenerate, even though my parents worked. My stepmother stayed home with my sister for a while, but the honest truth is that I was happier when she wasn’t there. We had a housekeeper, so I was not a latchkey kid, though several of my friends were – and it was fun to go to their houses after school. But I did manage to grow up and attend college and graduate school and get married, have children, and become the neurotic, anxiety-riven overthinker that I am today, without winning a lot of ribbons for participation in soccer, without Mom being There for me. On the other hand, the minute my first child was born, I was all in. I wanted to be there for all of it. I don’t regret that.

Ah, the pendulum. Back and forth, back and forth. We are all getting sleepy. I relate to Birgitte Nyborg in this: the push-pull conflict over women’s roles needs to end. Cease the discussion about qualifications. We need to move to a new understanding of women’s needs, of children’s needs, and of men’s needs, too. The line between working at paid work and caring for family needs porosity. It’s still too rigid. A mom who needs or wants paying work, needs places to go. Let’s talk about that.

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