When I was in my twenties I came across a book on my then mother-in-law’s shelf called Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson. I devoured it. I can’t remember much about it except that it was about women trying to figure it all out: how to be a person over time when you are dealing with paying work, creative work, family, and things being interrupted and needing to be juggled. I remember being fascinated by it and soaking up everything I was reading, because I simply had no template for how to construct a life that was in any way original. I looked it up again recently and noted that all of the women Bateson wrote about were white, upper-middle-class women with a stable socioeconomic base, so I didn’t bother getting it for my kindle because it would probably just piss me off. I think I’m probably better off remembering it as it was.
I googled it again because I have been thinking about mentors lately. I have had two wonderful mentors in my life, both when I was under thirty, both male. It’s not that I didn’t want a female mentor; there just wasn’t anyone. I never used to think it mattered; probably it wasn’t until I had my first child that I started to appreciate why I might learn things from a woman that I couldn’t learn from a man. And as I get older I’m increasingly conscious of an absence and it makes me sad; there is no one to answer the kinds of questions that I want to be able to ask of an older woman, of someone who has travelled through some of the places I am in now or where I hope to go.
Many of the older women I do know are tired. Some are embattled. I don’t see this in the same way with the men I know; could be my confirmation bias, of course.
In 2012, after a couple of years of failing to finish any saleable work, I came to a crunch point. I was really worried about what would happen to our family if my partner wasn’t able to earn enough to keep us going, because my own contribution had become nonexistent. I had sneaked in under a tuition deadline with the Open University so that I can study at low cost, so I decided to study full-time in the hope that I’d end up with enough credit at the end of the year to get on a PGCE course for physics. I took a gruelling course load: 120 credits of physics and applied maths. I didn’t do very well, and I had to defer the physics in the end because I ran out of time to prepare for exams. Still, one of the reasons I was able to get through the year at all was because my maths tutor was this amazing woman. She is an Oxford PhD who home-schools her kids in between teaching at Oxford and with the Open University, and she’s incredible, absolutely devoted to helping her students. She uncomplainingly carries an enormous and varied workload, and she saw me through whether she was fully aware of it or not.
What happened was that after my father died last winter I was so overwhelmed that I wished I could just drop everything. I was driving myself to do work I hated, I was bad at it, the pace was unrelenting, and every day was a struggle. Yet when I went to tutorials with this tutor, or got feedback from her online, I felt like I wanted to try harder. I didn’t want to let her down. I could see how much she put into her work and all of the things she had to juggle, and I was determined to give it everything I had. I put in many late nights. There were a lot of tears. But I would not give up. I am getting kind of emotional just remembering it.
So thinking, recently, about female mentors and role models and the women Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls ‘las madrinas’— the little mothers*, the women who guide us in our lives—it occurred to me that maybe I had such an intense reaction to this tutor because I need someone wiser, more experienced, who has been there. To help me. For that moment in time, she was the person who filled that void. And I don’t think I’m going to find a proper mentor in real life at this late stage, not in the shape of one single woman, anyway. But oh, do I sometimes wish I could just sit down at the kitchen table with someone who could fucking tell me how to do this thing.
For women in any field where there haven’t been many women before, this must be a problem. For women who are the first generation in their family to be juggling work, family, education, creative work, as I am—it surely must be a problem. It can’t just be me, can it? Who do you turn to when you are at mid-life and there is no one older than you to lay it on the table in a way that can help?
I feel sometimes like I am out here in the wind trying to do things that I have no idea how to do.
When I’m kvetching on Twitter about women in SF or whatever, maybe I sound like a one-note samba. I feel like I have to talk about it because I’ve got the battle scars and I want people to know I’m here. I’m delighted to see what looks like the beginning of a renaissance in women writing science fiction, and as a science student I am hopeful that women will start entering science in greater numbers, which I think will happen if the barriers there are addressed. But what’s really going through my head all the time is the question of where is the chain of trust and help being passed down from older to younger? I feel responsible for younger women coming onto this scene for the first time. A lot of hard-working, talented women have fallen by the wayside since I’ve been around, or have been marginalized. I don’t want newcomers to fall into the same traps I fell into—not that the traps are ever quite the same.
And yet, how can I help anyone when I am still trying to figure this out for myself?
At school when teachers would talk about role models I thought it was a presumptuous, condescending concept. Changed my mind. I’d give nearly anything for some successful, job-family-writing-juggling woman role models aged 60+ to sit me down and give me the straight shit wisdom-in-hindsight right about now. Let me know if you find one I could rent or something.
*I heard Dr. Estes talk about this phrase on one of her audio courses, but to write this post I googled to check I had the correct Spanish. According to the online dictionary, the definition of a madrina is: 1) godmother 2) bridesmaid (3) protectress (4) prop or stanchion (5) straps or cords which yoke two horses (6) police informer. I love police informer! That one is the best.