I love a good fight*.
Or rather, I love a good fight. A fight worth having, which is fought without resort to abuse, and without getting entrenched or stuck.
In my perinatal psychiatry practice I work to help good fights happen. When a woman and man I’m working with get their polite gloves off and it’s on, I feel privileged – they are showing me something private, a live sample of how things go at home: their dirty laundry. They can show off their clean linen to anyone, but it’s kind of special that they can trust me to see what isn’t so presentable.
Frequently a mum and dad engaged in combat will look over at me as if I’m meant to declare a winner. Who is the most exhausted? Who has had to sacrifice the most? Who wins the hero role, consigning the other to villain?
But as I’ve begun saying to these parents of late:
If we make one of you a winner and the other a loser, either way your child gets a loser for a parent, which makes the kid the biggest loser.
Adults have many choices. Kids have far fewer.
Of course it’s not just parents attacking each other over gender, it’s everywhere, and kids everywhere are affected. Gender war is the term we have for it now: someone says something about Men, something about Women, and the being male or female is central to the charge. Identity is in play: do you feel male or female? Well come on then, pick a trench and jump in!
Ever heard of a sexist baby? Of course not. Whatever the mix of nature and nurture that produces gender identity, it is clear that gender warriors are not born warring, they grow into their battle positions.
This is why I don’t side with either adult where possible. I watch the salvos fly back and forth over the battlefield and I seek to protect that no man’s/woman’s land in the middle. Because that is where the kids live.
As long as men and women attack each other over being men and women, you could say their kids are born onto that battlefield.
Actual trench warfare was a century ago but the gender wars can seem similarly mad and intractable. Each opinion article, blog, soundbite or Something-Gate that blows up then blows over has a depressingly familiar feel:
It’s his fault.
It’s her fault.
He started it.
Did so too.
Whose side are you on?
Sadly, I think that as long as any side tries to win the gender thing, they risk making kids – theirs, other people’s – the biggest losers.
As I said at the end of the last article, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’m writing in the hope that what seems to work in my office might be useful more broadly. What makes a battle into a good fight?
Well, when a man and woman stop and look at me to name the winner, to take a side, I can choose to stop too. Pause a moment. Think. On the battlefield there could be a tiny pause in the gunfire, in which you might hear a bird’s call.
As on the battlefields of a century ago, a ceasefire – time to retrieve the dead and injured – is a great leveler. It’s such a precious moment of equality of vulnerability, when firepower differences are momentarily irrelevant. In my office two people in a close relationship look out together at me: what will he do now?
What I do then is strive for a ceasefire, time to retrieve the dead and injured, which in my work means recognizing loss and hurt on both sides, and the kids in the middle of it all. Those bird calls audible once the guns stop? That’s the kids, calling out as they always were. Always there, compelled to survive as best they can.
Of course, the fighting will continue. There is so much historical and ongoing loss and pain for men and women that is about being men and women. Shaking hands and calling it settled just won’t do it, can’t just make OK so many millennia of gendered violence and oppression awaiting children who did not choose to be born male or female.
In my office, as in the world, to heal, we have to hear about the hurt, have it honoured and enshrined lest anyone forget what people did to one another. Otherwise on it goes: we fight, we hurt, and fight on fearing more hurt.
Heard of fight-or-flight? Fleeing – however sensible or necessary at times – is running away, avoidance.
We can think we’ve safely avoided gender issues much of the time these days, by using gender neutrality, respecting diversity of gender identity and just trying really hard not to be sexist. But embark on the path to parenthood and the gender inequality is unavoidable. Fleeing is not an option; good fights must be fought.
Good fights can be fought together, such as fighting for kids’ rights to a safe and loving childhood, for everyone’s right to feel how they feel, for conditions that let us name our feelings and think at our best.
Good fights can also be fought with one another, so that kids learn how to fight fairly using thought and feeling. Thoughtful, healing acts are then more likely; in the end history will judge us on our acts most of all.
However it ends, a good fight inches the world onward from old battlefields. Kids born today will have enough of their own battles – let’s not give them our old ones too.
Acknowledgement: Again, my thanks to my colleagues and mentors who have helped in the development of this piece.
*This piece is about non-violent conflict. It does not seek to address domestic or family violence. Berry Street www.berrystreet.org.au has a family violence page with definitions of family violence and how help can be found.
Other useful numbers:
PANDA Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia 1300 726 306
BeyondBlue 1300 224 636
Lifeline 13 11 14
Mensline 1300 789 978