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.