“Flowers may bloom again but children never have the chance to be young again”. Bluey, Cbeebies.
I have read and reread parts of Sheila Heiti’s Motherhood. Heiti’s memoir details the journey of her process of deciding whether or not to become a mother. It charts her yearnings and her misgivings and leads towards the ultimate conclusion- that she will not have children. I pre-conceived I would find the book tricky to navigate so was surprised when I didn’t find it an uncomfortable read. Perhaps that was because I have already found my place, made my decision. I have children, three of them and I have lived both sides of the motherhood divide ; the childhood line with all its glory and despair, all the way through to the borderland where they become adults. Reading it therefore was not to find support for a difficult personal decision rather just curiosity about how other women perceive Mumhood.
What emerges from Heiti’s text is the consideration she submerges herself in. A complete commitment to making the right decision for her and her potential child.
The argument grows against the background of her own self reflection, rather than suggesting that the pitfalls or the difficulties she is having are solely due to how society has made her feel about being a mother. She recognises that her battles are from within- should she be free to do what she wishes or should she bequeath this to allow her child to be happy? I feel that she recognises that there is no case for working and mothering being equal, as the mother role will always out do so the work role in importance and so she bases her decision on this realisation and decides this is not a battle she wishes to have. She manages to separate herself from societal expectation.
I wondered about my own decision making process in this respect and found it to be quite weak in comparison. As a Mum , I have stayed at home to raise the children and I have worked; I have had more than ample income and more recently have raised them on the meagre offerings of unversal credit.It was never a question that i should do one or the other. With the elder two I did one and with smallest I did the other but not until the pandemic struck was it a conscous choice, grounded by personal experience, to consider if the two merge. A year after making the decision that they do not (see New Beginnings post) I have been reading articles about Women’s battles for equality in the working Mum world. What I have read has fed an internal discussion about the divide between parenting and sustaining a career. I have wondered about how current opinion manifests itself due the chosen relative needs and wants in society, as opposed to what is a consequence of absolute need.
Recent commentary on this matter has unearthed again the bitter subject of society’s appraisal of motherhood and the problems this creates for the woman. It settles in part on the impact of choosing to have a child on finances and careers. What is drawn out is the poor state of equality in this respect , exposed by Mother friendly organisations such as Pregnant then Screwed and written about by many authors; Eva Wiseman and Eliane Glaser of The Observer and The Guardian, standing out in particular.
The explicit content of discussion centers on the issue of women’s equality which is suggested is in the the interest of fairness; however it becomes more complex when you consider what we are being encouraged to be equal about. The right to having a career and a raising a young child, are presented as going and in hand at all times, even when our children are still very young. Activists have termed this a woman centred approach to child rearing , putting the needs of the woman above the child; arguing that if the women is happy i.e able to work and earn with the ease of a single person or the father, then the child will be happy. This is a risky supposition, one that can’t easily be measured and which has such great consequences. Does the Mum going out to work make the child happy? What if, what makes the child happy is the Mother being at home? Is having a career perceived as more of an achievement than raising a child well?
The opposite approach, natural motherhood was discussed by Eliane Glaser in The Guardian (18th May 2021). Eliane argues against natural motherhood stating that this is not compatible with 21st century life. She argues it is no longer possible for us to be present all the time or to provide the kind of care that is deemed essential for the child’s healthy development cited by professionals. It is certainly true that things can be very tricky, though whether it is possible to argue against natural motherhood completely , I find uncomfortable reading. The main difficulty with the argument is, if we opt out of natural motherhood in favour of the women centred approach then our children, small creatures with developing brains, are going to somehow have to sidestep their biological mechanisms and fit in with whatever it is that 21st century woman can give to them.
It is very difficult to argue against biology, to see motherhood as a contemporary issue that can be aapted for life in the fast lane.
This kind of dual thinking concerning natural vs women centred parenting was a topic I discussed with a friend years ago after a Saturday morning gymnastics class for my daughter. That morning I sat next to a woman who had her four month baby sitting in a car seat in front of her. The Mum chatted to me and it turned out that she worked full time while her child was in nursery. At the time I was still at home with smallest and spoke about my plans to go back to work which i was concerned about. “Oh”, she said, “I know – the expense of childcare……..I literally work to pay for it”.
“Its not the cost I worry”, about i replied, “I am just worried that leaving him is the wrong thing for him”.
She then sighed and laughed, “Oh well, I know I would NOT want to be at home looking after a baby all day. They are easier when they are older”. My friend confessed how he thought a lot of women want to have their cake and eat it. Although I too had been shocked at the brazen claims of gym lady ,my reaction to this was defensive, I tried to shield her status. At the time i was juggling three jobs and raising the elder two alone; I felt guilty at the time I spent away from them – so I argued for her, that often people work to maintain a career and to balance the finances.
The physical contradiction between my felt response and verbal defense of this women though sat with me and I have often wondered why, despite my natural inclination towards wanting to be with the children, why did I always do the very thing which caused me and them the most discomfort? And the response I had learned to say , “Well its because you need to, don’t you….”, stating the financial consequences of not having an additional income.
The issue of the cost and provision of childcare has been raised again and again in the pandemic. Eva Wiseman (The Observer 16th May 2021), comments on how undervalued and underinvested in our childcare system is in comparison to other European countries. She reflects there is a need to value the system more as we as women are raising the next generation of this country. The focus of the this view is on the provision of facilities for our children to be looked after by someone else. Essentially it’s based upon the notion of woman centred child rearing.
Perhaps what is needed is a system for allowing Mums themselves to fulfill this role of raising the next generation in these early years. Providing us with the chance to take secure career breaks for longer periods, so we have jobs to go back to. A system that would to allow us to be with our children without worrying about work all the time or being so exhausted from our dual lives that when we are with our children we see all their behaviours’ as emotional and inconvenient.
Wiseman recounts a moment with her childminder where the childminder candidly tells her that the reason her child is crying so much is because she knows that her Mum is going off to work is because she wants to and not because she needs to. This moment has stuck vehemently with Eva who recalls it years later; the weight of its effect prompting her to include it in her column. One wonders about the audacity of the comment and I murmured my support initially, until I considered need and want and I must admit, my allegiances fell to the child. For in this situation, where we take our child and place them in the care of another, particularly when the child is under three ,I feel it is our want that is being satisfied and their need denied. Years later when I made the decision to resign , leading the way was the justification – you can make money again but building a child’s resilience and well being is a lot harder when they are older.
Or perhaps what could change is how we are educating young women about Motherhood, so that they don’t grow with the expectation that a women needs to do both at the same time. That there is an option to do things separately.
The issue of need and want is raised again by Eliane Glaser. Initially we are presented with a waft of statistics mainly pointing towards the pitfalls of motherhood which again frame the incompatibility of being a mother and working. The statistics I would say are unsurprising, we all know the downfalls.
The article though traverses to framing motherhood in terms of the wants of the mother and appears loosely to suggest that shifting developmental theory somehow legitimises the morality of rebranding the role of mother into something a bt more compatible with the 21st century woman. Donald Winnicott’s theory appears to be utilised to justify a level of care given, good enough translated as a minimum requirement for the role. Winncott’s ideal of the good enough Mother though is as important as his other observations. The me and not me distinction is integral to the Winnicotian tradition, detailing the importance of a child learning to be on their own, through learning to be with one other, namely Mum/Guardian; achieved through a slow introduction to their environment at a pace that they can manage. I think this is key. Winnicott was a innovative thinker and his theories reflected his views that the mother and baby cannot be seen as separate at first, we have very primitive nature, primary maternal preoccupation being his equal to a instinctive state where the baby is the mothers absolute concern and everything should be done to ensure that that her focus is not impeded upon. Work as an intrusion, is disruptive to this state.
Eliane ends her piece describing how natural motherhood is pushed upon us my midwives, health visitors or professionals where we , “are guilt tripped into parenting that is not compatible with work outside the home.” She contrasts this with woman centred motherhood which is described as and sold to us on the basis that it is in both the child and the others interests that they are both happy. But does this equate to an all out rejection of natural motherhood; does it mean reducing the experience to gymnastics lady? If the central issue is about equality, then have we gained equality for ourselves at the expense of equality for the child- through a complete rejection of the very basic emotional needs of the child’s developing brain.
Regardless, tied in to what can be quite a circular argument are the wants and the needs of the child itself and no mother would argue that the child yearning for its parent is a need rather than a want. All children learn to be without their parents but how they do it is important. I remember separating from the eldest two – it was easy because they were ready- what I experienced with smallest was not easy because he was not ready. Which is why i.e made the decision to go back. Did I feel guilt? Absolutely. Maybe this came from knowing I had not ultimately given him the time to become ready. I was aware of the difficulties this would cause him problems later on down the line.
Much content appears to suggest that society creates problems, not enough childcare, telling us we should do this do that and the other, but maybe just maybe the problem comes from arguing against something which is innate. Perhaps we are making our own experinces of Motherhood bad not because of what society says or doesnt say or does or doesnt provide but because of how we receive the experience. I did it for years, argued that i should be out at work, worked all hours never saw my children who were always with someone else. The only time we ever felt better was when i stopped, held my hands up and said , i am going to stay at home because he needs me and my older children told me that was all they ever wanted. For me to be at home with them.
I had to make that choice at the expense of my children- expense in terms of childcare and more importantly their well being which I find out ten years on was at risk- they hated it but could not put into words what they were feeling at the time as they did not have the language for it. They were tired; dealing with all sorts from the day in an environment they were not overly keen on, despite the outstanding status. Worse still, by the time I picked them up I was too tired to be genuine and so I packed them off to bed with their worries, which would have to wait until the weekend.
As a women, or as a supporter of woman as a male friend once said, you nod along and shake your head appropriately to much of this information however there is something else that you are left with. Women succumb to it all because that is what is done. Its like a collective unconscious and then we spend time venting the difficulties and sourcing the root of the problem externally our view of our role as a mother bruised by a collision with our occupational role. A residue of something that emerges, not from the central argument of writing but from the something which leaks into the sentences. This something can be described as a shameful unintended consequence of our response to the problems of working mothers.
Its the lack of value which some women place on our primary role.
When I read motherhood by Heiti , in the first few pages i wondered how she was oing to fill a whole book with her comtemplations. By the end it is clear that this is probably exactly what we should all do; be able to consider our role and what it means for the unborn child on this level. Heiti of course looked at the ultimate question- if she ever wanted children, i am of course wondering about the process of contemplating the decision when to have children. It is clear that Heitis conclusion was right for her however anyone who can give that amount of consideration and care over such an important question would undoubetdly make a very caring parent.
The suggestion that we hould rebrand motherhood- so that it can catch up with the 21st century womenn, as if biology is mallaeable, appears odd- almost mechanical. The biological element of mothering doesnt stop the moment the baby is born, neither does it disappaear at 9 months, 18 months or three years. Its kind of there always. Yes there are lots of other people who could and do make good contributons but essentially as the Mum you are the centre of everything for the child. And that is pretty special.
Conceiveably, now could be a time when we start to consider a reorgansation of our perception of the mother role. We have battled long and hard for a change to the system but little has shifted and maybe that is telling us something.If the first 1000 days are so important,then lets help our Mums be part of it physically and to embrace it mentally. Sell Motherhood; its not a glitch or a blip or a gap, its for life and it is the soil of someone elses life.Ultimately, children do not grow in a vacuum , they grow with a primary significant other. Perhaps if we are not willing or able to give the child a few years of our life then maybe we should be questioning if this is the point in our life where we raise one.
We have the potential to generate a more favourable view of being a Mum to highlight just what an importnat job this is rather than societal expectation cultivating an attitude towards Motherhood that appears to have a ” blithe disregard for the indispensible role of mothers in securing any future whatsoever.” (Jacquline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty).