Interview by Gundula Haage
Ms Strömquist, your latest graphic novel is about astrology. Did you check the stars to see what kind of mum you would become?
No, luckily not. But joking around in astrological jargon about horoscopes used to be a popular pastime in my circle of friends for a while. When I was pregnant, I was struck by a disturbing thought: “What if my kid is going to be this or that star sign?!” That’s when I realised I had ventured in too deep and I decided to stop thinking about star signs completely.
Now you created a whole book on the topic. What sparked your interest in horoscopes?
Astrology has been used by very different segments of society at different times. In the 1940s, it was a huge thing on Wall Street. Businesspeople used astrological forecasts to predict profits. Later, it appeared in women's magazines and influenced housewife culture enormously. Adorno made this very famous study of a horoscope column in the 1950s. He observed a very conservative overall message from such horoscope advice, a message to preserve the status quo.
That’s why he calls them petty bourgeois advice. Like when you’ll fall in love, or what’s a good day to work on your network. It’s very focused on family but it would never suggest, for example, distancing yourself from your family if it is toxic. It never urges you to connect with other workers to improve workplace conditions. Horoscopes are currently playing a major role in social media. But despite all the hip editing, a conservative and persistent attitude often resonates there as well.
Currently on Instagram and other social media platforms, there is a rise of so-called mom-fluencers who present themselves as the ideal housewife and mother. What do you think of that?
This kind of romanticisation of solely being a housewife and mother is a reaction to the intense feelings of stress and of “never being enough” that many women feel. Compared to any other time in history, a lot of women work full time and have kids, also full time.
You’re never enough at home, never enough at work. In response, people invoke dreams of an idealised (and fake) past. They offer a reality in which you can fully focus on making a beautiful home and delicious food for your kids. In recent years, there has been a commodification of motherhood in Sweden and many other countries. And that also works well on social media.
“It’s almost like you’re supposed to live multiple lives at once, always afraid to waste your life on any level.”
Do you have an example for this commodification?
You have to buy a really expensive baby stroller or make home-made biological food to fulfill some idea of what being a “good” mother means. And then you need to have a baby shower and a gender-reveal party and a cake and matching decorations. Things have important now that weren’t before. These days, you have to perform pregnancy and look good. In 1991, Demi Moore was the first pregnant woman on a Vanity Fair cover.
Before that pregnancy was hidden. But today, it really increases the market value for a celebrity to be pregnant, to share things about pregnancy, childbirth, children and breastfeeding. I’ve read that the best time to market your kid is when it is between one and three. As they get older, they’re not so lucrative. It's another example of capitalism expanding into new, once-hidden areas. I think the success of mom-fluencers comes from a wish to escape the pressure that placed is on women from all sides.
Where is this pressure coming from?
The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has written about acceleration. I can relate to this as a parent, because the demands from every area of life are increasing compared to previous generations. I grew up with four siblings. My mother was at home for a really long time, until I was eleven or twelve. But I never remember her playing with me once, because I was just expected to go out and play.
Today, we have this culture of being really intensely immersed in our kid’s lives. We are expected to have a real psychological connection and help them with a lot of life decisions. At the same time, as a woman you should perform well at your work place, you should work out, look good and enjoy it all. It’s almost like you’re supposed to live multiple lives at once, always afraid to waste your life on any level. That’s why so many young women are burnt out in Sweden.
How do you escape this vicious circle of expectations?
As an individual, it will hardly be possible. The fact that family and career cannot be easily reconciled and that patriarchal structures continue to shape our everyday lives can only be changed through political decisions. Our economies are built in such a way that they profit from the unpaid care work that mostly women perform. Everything would collapse if caring, nurturing and educating were suddenly no longer provided free of charge. And this imbalance runs through so many areas: I'm thinking of the gender pay gap, the pension gap, and so on.
“We are allowed to have fun as well.”
How do you personally deal with this pressure as an artist and mother?
I’m of course no expert to this. It is tough and I don’t have any perfect answer. I really wanted to have kids. As a freelancer, I have a certain amount of time flexibility. But what if you have a low-paying job, are a single parent or have to work night shifts? There is simply not enough support, there is a lack of good kindergartens, schools and affordable housing. In my experience, it only works if you find people with whom you can reliably share the responsibility.
A network of caregivers. And by establishing very clear rules and responsibilities with the respective partners right from the start. For example, that you put the children to bed every other evening and have the other evening off. Or that you take turns staying home when the child is sick - even if one person has the supposedly more important job.
Even the small tasks that are on your mind all the time should be named and divided up very precisely, i.e. that the child needs new shoes or a birthday present needs to be bought. All that what we call the invisible mental load.
In your book “I’m every woman”, you describe kids as inherently conservative (see excerpt). Is humour an effective way to address the absurdities of being a parent?
I made this comic a long time ago, before I had kids myself. It is not based on my kids, but on general observations. I make my comics quite intuitively. It's easier to talk about difficult topics when you are funny. That way you can enjoy life, even if things are difficult. It’s nice to have a laugh. When I was really young, I sometimes went to feminist events and I remember that everything was about rape, trafficking and anorexia.
It was just extremely depressing and serious. It’s not fair to us as feminists, that we should always carry this heavy burden. We are allowed to have fun as well. (laughs)
“I think the relationships you have with your parents, your siblings, your kids are interesting, because they have a real potential to make you grow”
Do you ever worry that your children might grow up to have very different values than you? For example, they might not be feminist?
The biggest surprise to me when becoming a mother was that my kids were already someone the second they were born. And that person can be quite different from me. I’d always thought they’d be like empty buckets that I fill with knowledge. But that’s just not the case. You have your parents, your siblings, your kids, and they are who they are. They're in your life.
Whether you want it or not - you just have to make it work. I think these types of relationships are interesting because they have real potential to make you grow. In other parts of life, I can cut people out if their opinions are too different to mine. I think it is an interesting challenge to have kids that really differ from you. You stay with your anti-feminist kid, support them, understand their point. I think that’s the most important aspect of being a parent: putting the child’s needs first. That’s how things work when you’re responsible for a very small person, someone who’s completely dependent on you.