“It’s just so nice that somebody is interested in my opinion; that doesn’t happen very often,” an older, wiser friend told me after I thanked her for helping me.
My friend said that people stopped asking her opinion when they stopped wanting to have sex with her. Which suggests that they were never really interested in her opinion in the first place.
Judging by male-dominated opinion pages, male-majority boards, and the pathetically low levels of female representation of women in public life, our culture rates women’s opinions as less valuable than men’s.
Even when it comes to fiction, the world views presented by women are deemed by book reviewers as less worthy than the serious business of men’s books.
And then there’s the day-to-day experience of qualified, professional women being asked by customers and patients, “Is there a man I can talk to?”.
Where young women are seen primarily as cute or sexy objects, women over 40 are often not seen at all.
It’s not just men who disregard the expertise of older women. Women also make the mistake of undervaluing the advice of older women.
When I first became a mother I read every parenting book I could get my hands on to learn the “correct” way to be a mother. Almost all of the books were written by men.
Did I ask my mother or mother-in-law for advice? Hardly. What would they know?
Rather than asking older women who have actually been mothers, I foolishly sought my mothering advice from male “experts”. And while these men have impressive credentials and clinical experience, the one thing they have never been, and will never be, is a mother.
When I realised that it was the hands-on, in-the trenches experience of motherhood, and the associated emotional support that I really needed, I began to become more reliant on the advice of older women.
I found it in a nurse who took one look at my hungry baby and bleeding nipples that were incapable of producing enough breast milk and said, “Breast is best but sometimes bottle is better”.
Then she hugged me and told of her own struggles with breastfeeding and about her children, who are now grown adults, did not develop allergies or attachment issues from not being breastfeed.
It wasn’t just when my babies were young that I benefited from the wisdom and experience of older women. Anytime mothering gets hard, I want to be mothered myself. With my own mother unavailable, I have a network of women who have “been there” that I can call on to reassure me, to give me strategies, and tell me with the authority of personal experience to hang in there because whatever it is that’s troubling me will pass.
Nina Keneally, a 63-year-old mother and former drug and rehabilitation counsellor from New York, has realised that her advice and emotional support is so valuable that she’s turned it into a business called Need a Mom.
She charges by the hour to be a sounding board, teach basic domestic skills, and provide life and relationship advice. Her clients range in age from teenagers through to people in their mid-40s.
“Women use the service far more frequently,” Keneally says. “I think men can use it just as much if not more but I get the sense they’re embarrassed or shy about asking for help from a ‘mother’.
“Most women want support. Someone who listens to them, that does not offer unsolicited advice and remains positive. Many have lost their mothers, have a troubled relationship with their own mother or are going through a rough patch with their own mother and want some help in working through that.”
The lessons of Need a Mom go well beyond motherhood. Early in my professional career, it was older women who taught me how to be more effective in a male-dominated workplace. Older women have also given me life-changing advice about my career path and my relationships.
Need a Mom is not without its problems. It commodifies motherhood and arguably reinforces the antiquated belief that emotional labour and care is solely women’s responsibility. But good on Keneally for finding a way to monetise her maternal skills and experience as a woman that is so often taken for granted, and expected to be provided for free.
As is so often the case, it’s not until we have to pay for something that we actually value it.
The wisdom and support of older women is everywhere. The problem is that we’re just too blinded by our obsession with youth and male “expertise” to see it.
If we started to recognise the ways in which women who have “been there” and “done that” can help us, we all win.
Kasey Edwards is the author of Guilt Trip: My Quest To Leave The Baggage Behind. kaseyedwards.com