blahblahblah · feminist · In the family way · navelgazing

Myths of motherhood

For some time now I’ve been vaguely meaning to write (rant?) about all the crap people say about Motherhood. Well. Probably not ALL the crap people say. That would fill a largish book (and certainly some future posts). But some of the crap that is supposedly positive… but no less damaging for all that. You know the kind of thing:

“It’s the most fulfilling thing you can do as a woman.”
“No other love can possibly come close.”
“When I became a mom, I just realised how unimportant everything else was.”
“It just makes you see everything differently. Everything.”

…and so on, and so on.

I happened on this article t’other day: “Mothers, stop moaning!” In which Bibi Lynch is fed up with hearing about how hard babies are, because she really really wants one and it won’t happen. It’s very painful, she says, to have to congratulate new moms when she is so sad about her own infertility. I imagine it really is, and I feel for her. It would indeed be pretty callous for a woman to complain to an unwillingly childless friend about the travails of motherhood. But does that mean that no mother should be allowed, ever, to draw attention to the ways in which mothering sort of sucks? It would be pretty selfish to whine about your job to someone who was unemployed… but surely anyone suffering lousy working conditions should be allowed to make a public noise about them? Especially if those lousy conditions were suffered by a large group of people, who perhaps hoped to raise awareness and maybe even effect some positive change by so doing?

By which I mean: yes, motherhood is (for many of us, though not all) a choice, even a privilege, and yes, it can be wonderful. But it is also, often, extraordinarily difficult – certainly in the first year – and since there are societal, patriarchal factors behind some of those difficulties (or at least ways in which societal changes might alleviate some of the hardships), for feminists, and for feminism, it is clearly a good idea to speak up about the difficulties, to share our experiences, to point out the ways in which, sometimes, mothers are getting screwed.

(I should say, here, that I am quite exceptionally privileged, not to mention lucky. A lot of the ways in which Mothers Get Screwed don’t hurt me too much. This is not about me whining. This is about me saying, I have seen how Mothers Get Screwed, as can anybody, and it’s worth talking about – whether or not you personally have kids, or have as much privilege as I do.)

It’s also a good idea in a less political way, surely, to speak up and say: this sucks. The whole world is telling me how amazingly lucky I am, but… not from where I’m sitting. It’s a good idea, because although, yes, there is a fair amount of mommy moaning out there, the dominant narrative is still that You Are Having the Most Special and Amazing Time Ever. So, if that’s what you’re being told, then the fact that you feel you’re balancing on a knife edge over the abyss… well, that means it’s all your fault, you are screwing up, you are in fact – worst nightmare! worst (self)accusation in the world! – a Bad Mother. So – that doesn’t help. I’ve heard often, from women of my mother’s generation (and also, though less frequently, more recently new moms), that they really thought they were the only ones having such a rough time, and of course that belief was a source of much black despair. I count myself extremely lucky to be plugged into a network (largely online) of new mothers talking honestly about our experiences, and validating that experience, whatever it was (good, bad, or usually, both).

Having a baby – taking care of that baby – is an intense, crazy, overwhelming experience. It can be wonderful. Often, it is not. Every time someone gushed at me to “cherish this precious time, it goes so fast”, I longed to yell “OH THANK FUCK”. And smack them. There were… nice moments. But honestly, it wasn’t “wonderful” or “fantastic”. I had a baby who, while fascinating and beautiful and strong and funny, didn’t sleep and didn’t sit still. She wanted me to hold her all the time, but not for cuddles; just for transport, and a better view. She actively resisted cuddles. I didn’t get to “snuggle up to my warm, chubby baby” as consolation for the desperate sleep deprivation, frustration and sense of helplessness. There were precious few peaceful moments, and it took me a long, long, long time to fall in love with her. (Which I certainly did. At around eight months, when she got mobile, she suddenly stopped hating life, and so did I.) And this was with a healthy baby, financial security, a supportive and very available partner, and no postnatal depression to deal with.

So these are good reasons, strong and valid reasons, to talk about how hard it can be. Even if it is hard for some people to hear. Because Ms Lynch’s article made me realise something else: those myths about how precious and amazing it all is are doing a lot more damage than just making the hard times harder for new parents.

Claudia is now three, and I’m completely besotted with her. But is it a completely different love to that I share with Armin? Hardly. In fact I find it pretty much impossible to separate the two: it is family love, and it is wonderful, but it’s not of a different order entirely. Some people may of course have a different experience. But this is mine.

Having a baby completely failed to change my views on anything, except perhaps what constitutes a good night’s sleep, and what level of crease is acceptable when choosing an outfit to wear in public. Maybe I’m just too stubborn to change my mind; of course I like to think my opinions were perfectly formed in the first place. At any rate, whether or not I experience radical philosophical and political turnarounds at some point in the future, it hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t happen because I’m a mother.

One of those opinions that making a whole new person out of fairy dust completely failed to change, is that the idea that procreation is “the most fulfilling and important thing a woman can do” is a ridiculous, offensive lie. There’s no doubt that it’s a big deal. That’s a new person right there! You did that! It’s YOUR PROBLEM! It will require dealing with (rather intensively) for quite some time, and it’s probably fair to say that looking after that person – now s/he exists – is indeed your most important responsibility. I don’t take issue with a woman saying mothering is the most important part of her life (though it’s interesting that women seem to say this so very much more often than men – but that’s another discussion for another time); that’s only reasonable. I do, however, object very, very strongly to the notion that being a mother is more important than anything else any woman could possibly do with her life. Really? I mean… really?

Yet that is the narrative; that is the gushing, saccharine, nauseating message spewing from a thousand magazine covers and Sunday paper celebrity interviews (and so on, and so on). No wonder Ms Lynch feels so desolate at the idea that she can’t have a baby. No wonder she has a rose-tinted view of how delightful motherhood is, and how well the world treats moms. (I don’t even want to get into the misogynistic dark side of how so many childfree people see moms, at least moms who dare go out in public with their babies; it’s way too nasty.) And let’s not forget: there is such a thing as the fucked-up family. It’s pretty common, actually. So why the assumption that motherhood = supercharged, super-satisfying love?

I guess there’s a grain of truth to all these myths. Baby bonding is a strikingly physical, basic thing – that feeling that you’ve been amputated when you go out for the first (or third, or twentieth) time without them; the magnetic thonk when you hold them to your chest. (Just me?) That’s not the same thing as a special, unique, irreproducible love, though. To mother someone is to take on a vital and supremely central role, to assume huge importance to them. That is quite the feeling. Fulfilling, even. Does that mean it is the ultimate, the only possible, source of true fulfilment? The idea that “this is what you were born to do” might be true, speaking strictly biologically; but in no other sphere of life are humans happy to reduce themselves to base biology, and I’ve never understood why people do that here.

I never felt baby lust. I realise that many do. I realise that to be unable to achieve your heart’s desire must be, well, heartbreaking. But being unable to fulfil one emotional need, no matter how deeply felt, isn’t the same thing as being unable to reach fulfilment, full stop. The neverending cultural gushing about Sacred Motherhood suggests, quite wrongly, that it is. And – besides being a source of much annoyance to the happily childfree and to struggling new parents – perhaps it distracts the unhappily childless from taking some positive action to find that fulfilment. Ms Lynch’s article completely ignores the existence of adoption, or fostering, possibilities, though presumably she herself has considered them. It also unfairly fails to admit the importance of relationships other than direct descendance.

After all, I’d hate to think that my daughter would be the only one mourning me on my deathbed.

14 thoughts on “Myths of motherhood

  1. I think that it is a classic case of ‘the grass is always greener’.

    I can tell you that it is fluffing awful to have a fertility issue and before I met my husband I was pretty much in the same boat as the woman who wrote that Guardian article. I was in my late 30s but just never met the right man. Getting together with him at the age of 37 felt like being saved from a very lonely, childless future. We spent 2 years trying for a baby before we managed to get a referral for help. In the meantime, I had to bite back tears of bitter envy and resentfulness when my sister told me that she was expecting (even though she herself had needed help to conceive).

    Every day that I look at my son, I can still hardly believe that he is here. He’s just fantastic. Every day he does something that delights me. Does that make me dewy eyed about how sleep deprived I am? Or what hard work he is? Nope. I think that babies are just deigned to give you the odd, brief, fleeting good moment just to stop you from feeling like flinging them out of the window at 3:24am!

    Before I was a mum, I used to resent the way that I was pushed aside while out in public for mothers but (due to my large family upbringing) I always leapt forwards to hold open doors for buggies etc.. Now, 5 months into being a mother, I notice that it is very rare for people to help me when I’m out and about. I’ve had people step quickly in front of me to get through a cafe door before me and let it slap back on me/my stroller. I’ve watched people watching me struggle to get through a snappy shop door and not lift a finger to help. If I’m walking out and about with my son in our double chariot (we bought a double for very good reasons, the single is only 11cm narrower and it’s only as wide as a wheelchair), people have commented loudly (nastily) on how unecessarily big it is. It’s for walking and taking over rough terrain (it cut my weekly walk time to an infant group by half). I don’t expect to take it inside anywhere, I didn’t ask for their opinion nor their help. But they enjoy sharing their opinion with me anyway.

    Luckily, my son is still at the fairly cute baby stage so people didn’t get too irate about him crying in a cafe today because he was tired (they didn’t sit near us). However, I am not expecting this tolerance to last.

    C’est la vie. What irks me is all of the unwanted, erroneous advice.

    1. Yes, of course you’ll have seen it from both sides. I do understand that it must be awful to be outside looking in (when that’s what you want). And it’s absolutely true that even when motherhood sucks, there are amazing parts to it (definitely designed to stop you throwing them out the window!). I just think that the idea of how *very special* motherhood is, and how supposedly well the world treats you once there’s a baby in your arms, is, well, more than a bit misleading. As you’ve found. And the advice and opinions, oh gods and little fishes…!

      1. Right now, it’s definitely the unwanted, unasked for, opinionated advice that’s irking me. Let the door slam on my stroller by all means, just keep your opinions to yourselves.

        The most recent example – we were looking at glider/recliner chairs for night feedings when we were trying to move E into his own room at 5 months. So we were soliciting opinions (on the chairs) from people who owned them and testing them out in stores. The number of people/shop assistants/other passerbys who gave us erroneous and unwelcome advice on STTN. Most of which included the intstruction to give our breastfed baby a big bottle of either formula or a blend of formula and infant cereal (yes seriously – mixed and fed to him via a bottle, no less) just before bed and then telling us to let him CIO. One woman just about accused me to my face of not producing enough milk to keep him satisfied through the night – that I was selfishly preventing him from sleeping through by not feeding him enough. It was my duty as his mother to tank him up with a big bottle of formula. .

        Truly. If you want to tank your own baby up with formula and/or infant cereal before bed. You do that, it’s your perogative. Just don’t expect me to inflict it on my own, acid reflux suffering child who has a tendancy to barf his entire feed back all over me if he overeats. He can have as much breastmilk as he wants, when he wants it and he can eat at his own pace. When he’s ready – he’ll be getting real food.

        1. Uh huh. I got similar advice, *from a health visitor*. Imagine my (silent) howls of frustration. (Mixed in with a large dollop of dithering and insecurity, because really, as much as I knew what I thought was right for Claudia – I was still constantly worried about her sleep and other issues, and it was never hard to make me doubt my own instincts, research and knowledge of my baby… at least a little bit!)

          Gabrielle, do you check your Yahoo email? I don’t seem to be able to reach you!

  2. Well said. I find myself wishing more and more these days that people were more tolerant of what others are experiencing, more able to accept that the many choices of lifestyle out there are valid and worth living. Less with the judging, you know?

    1. Yes, and more with the understanding that what you think you see is certainly *not* the whole picture! Which goes for all sides. For every childless person telling a desperate new parent “wow, you mothers have it good”, there’s a smug mom telling a very happily childfree woman “you poor thing, you have *no idea* what you’re missing, your life is so incomplete…” Smacks all round, pls.

  3. Excellent. I’m in the happily child free category, one who really enjoys kids and being with them, just no wish to be a parent; this is probably one of the easiest categories to be in – just occasional annoyance from people’s assumptions, really. But I’m so aware of the overwhelming exhaustion that can come with parenting – and gobsmacked by the ongoing assumptions (so glad not for you!) that it’s the female parent’s job to worry about eg clothes, food, collection, and the male parent (if it’s this sort of arrangement) juts ‘helps’!

    Anyway, thanks!

    1. Thank you! And, I have to admit… it’s not entirely true that those assumptions don’t apply here. Or rather: I don’t think Armin assumes, at all, that feeding/clothing etc are my responsibility. But they do tend to fall to me anyway. He is awesome, he does a lot, and it wouldn’t be fair to say he “just helps”. Right from the start he’s been fully involved. Really. But (a) he works full-time, I’m staying at home and only working (at home) occasionally, so not only do I have more time for all that stuff (and have always been the one who cooks anyway, since I (mostly) enjoy it), I also feel very much that it is “my job” (and frankly I’m just glad he doesn’t think I also have to do all the housework!). (Also important to note: I have taken on more of all this, voluntarily and organically, as it all got easier; I certainly wasn’t overburdened in this way when she was a baby.)

      Having said that, (b) when he is on baby duty,* I’m often astounded at how he doesn’t think to do certain things. He doesn’t like getting her dressed unless I specifically ask, which is ok, he’s a bit clueless about assembling outfits. I’m more surprised that, for instance, if he knows she’s going to preschool at 12.15, when I ask at 12pm if she’s had lunch, he’ll say “You didn’t tell me to give her lunch!”

      I’m reluctant to feed into the stereotypes of how men are just helpless and have to be directed like big children… but in some ways, for a lot of fathers, that seems to be the case. Very willing, but Must Be Told. Less good at considering all factors and acting accordingly. I read an article** recently about how women (possibly) make better leaders that said something like this:
      “they’re more aware of the implications of their own and others’ actions; and they think more accurately about the resources needed to accomplish a given outcome”

      Sounds familiar!
      (and, whoops, overlong and nitpicky digression…)

      * Guess we need to change our terminology now that she’s a big 3yr-old girl!
      ** Just don’t read the comments…

      1. I’ve had the same experience in terms of shared workload–C is a very involved and caring parent, when he isn’t being eaten alive by his work :-\, but can also be very forgetful or tuned out about routine stuff that I think should be a no-brainer. I have found though, interestingly, that when there has been occasion for him to step up as primary caregiver he becomes waaaay more attuned to what needs to happen–no forgotten snacks, etc. It’s lead me to conclude that it may be less about gender and more about who’s primary caregiver, and in the know/habit wrt what needs doing.

        1. Makes sense. It does seem to me that it should be just common sense to know she needs to eat before going out for 4hrs – but I can completely understand that A is simply not used to thinking like that.

          1. I know when I look after niece/nephew etc, I *do* think about these things, but that’s I suspect mainly because I don’t do anything else at the same time – it’s a weekend for Ben or Alice, nothing else. I find it exhausting, having to be sure the’s stuff in the fridge, think about coats for someone else etc etc.
            So I think it’s using more of your brainpower/concentration/whatever than you realise, and may be part of that interruptability thing, too – a whole commentary necessary all the time. When it’s just me and Clare, we really don’t fret all that much about if there’s food in etc. (wel, we do, because we like it, but we could always wait, or shop, or eat strange combos or chips or something). I suspect virtualkathy is absolutely right that it’s not a natural thing to be thinking ahead all the time, but is actually work that you get better at.

  4. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post – as well as the link to the piece about interruptability in your latest post. I’m desperate to find time to write at the moment – partly in order to start piecing together my own brain again, partly because I need to feel like I can feel confident taking work on again (and knowing I’ll complete it when I do) and partly because I feel like I’m meant to be recording this ‘precious time that goes so fast’. Because right now I’m fucked if I can remember what happened this morning, let alone last week.

    I know that i’m enjoying this whole thing more right now than i was two months ago. But I don’t know when I’m going to get more than three or four hours sleep in a row, and therefore have the energy to be able to cope with things when they go awry.

    And I can’t remember the point I wanted to make with this comment. If i had one. I enjoyed this post, that was all. Hurrah!

    1. Thank you v much! Big fan of your writing, so it’s great to hear you’re reading and even better, finding something worthwhile here. New mommydom is… overwhelming. Relentless. Too much. But it changes, it gets better (so much better); only, you can’t control or predict that easing. So, I strongly recommend trying to let go of that urgent need to Do Brain Stuff (easier said than done, I know), because – at least in my case – stressing out about all that just made me feel more helpless, more frustrated, more miserable. You will get your mind back. You really will. Even if I sit here with my planner covered in scribbles (not mine) and my desk covered in lego (not mine) and it’s midnight and I never seem to find time to blog or design or all those other Important Brain Things… I am at least at a point where failing to blog (for instance) is something of a choice. Hm. Ok, this comment didn’t turn out quite as encouraging as I meant. Onward, o mother! The days go slowly, but the weeks go fast. It gets better. And OMG THE CUTE. Srsly. The best.

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