On Motherhood

I gave birth to my second son under a tree. It was under an Ash tree, and it was bloody. Days after, a chuckling visitor told me I could be heard the other side of the hill; that everyone within a mile radius knew he was coming. I’d delivered that son standing, my two feet rooted into the ground, my face up to the sky. Roaring.

A few years later saw my car, boot full with the weekly shop, pulling in to the driveway next to my house. A short, clear three metres over tarmac and lawn lay between car and front door, but it would be another hour until I was home. My daughters head butt deep in my pelvis, her feet tangled under my ribs, I could not force those last few steps and fell instead into a dead, dribbling sleep against the steering wheel. I woke to confusion and imminent labour, thick red indents striping my cheek.

Years later again, and a woman I had never liked passed me in a corridor. Stiff, brusque, and always previously precise, she had returned from maternity leave the colour grey, her body rodless. A reluctant sense of sisterly duty had me ask privately if all was well, to which she responded not with the sharp and expected, “Fine thank you,” or even the less expected and exhausted sobs, but by rounding on me at speed and hissing through set teeth, “Nobody tells you, do they? Nobody bloody tells you!”

The health visitor had suggested she go to the GP; had talked in conspiratorial tones about the “baby blues” and taking something to “get you over a hump.” But she wasn’t sad, she said, and she wasn’t depressed either. She was just fucking angry. We sat, this woman I had never liked and I, for over an hour, sharing a level of understanding that went beyond mere empathy: one that only two women scarred in the same battle can share. Her new son wailed like a siren continuously, her husband had retreated into invisibility. She’d been sold a dream of wonder and fulfilment and now she wanted her money back, was all.

Nobody bloody tells you, of course. Nobody can ever write honestly about motherhood because who could bear to hurt their child like that? To become a mother is to be set in a cruel trap in which silence and performance and lies isolate, but openness risks too much. Women who have given birth are still tightly ring fenced by taboo, enclosed in a space in which they are relentlessly controlled and policed: by men, by society at large, and also by each other. To attempt escape is to invite the harshest of vitriol. After all there are bad fathers, and then there are bad mothers…

And so it is a stark paradox. Motherhood is, I believe, the site of the most rigid and effective repression of women — particularly poor women — that exists. And yet it has been my lifes work. We gestate, we labour, we feed. We are deprived of sleep until the point of madness, we clean up endless rivers of shit. The constant nappy changing and subsequent hand washing made my knuckles bleed. Women without the luxury of free childcare provided by their own mothers or mothers in law, or without the means to pay extortionate fees, are robbed of opportunities to pursue their dreams. We sacrifice, we resign ourselves, become neurotic and small minded in our judgements of other women over such things as what they choose to do with their own breasts (as if that’s any of our business) and pretend we never wanted to be Kate Adie anyway. If we are lucky, the men who father our children take some responsibility for their care, and provide some support for our efforts. But often they do not. And so we love and soothe and serve until we are wrung out like flannels, while simultaneously absorbing all societal blame for its ills. Everything is our fault, from the rise in violent crime and mental health issues, to fatherless households and terrorism. If only we’d loved better: done a better job.

We can chide ourselves for this self pity then, because we know that we made a choice. But why did we make it — that is the question. That is always the question. Choices are not made in a vacuum. Women give everything to the work of bringing up children, receiving neither pay nor thanks, then whether we do or don’t, must pretend to love it. A romanticised idea of motherhood as ultimate fulfilment is so pervasive that women too exhausted to pretend are pathologised, while women who refuse are monstered. No matter how objectively awful her circumstances, the belief that a woman’s only true purpose lies in motherhood is so deep rooted, that she who is not happy must be either mad or bad.

Not all women are mothers, but all mothers are women. It is work can only be done by female bodies, and it is our perceived reproductive potential lies at the root of all female oppression. Male people who know nothing of the realities of motherhood, yet would force it on an unwilling woman, or claim the experience for themselves, are labouring under the same romanticism that has forever trapped and oppressed female people, and isolated them from each other. Both positions can only be born out of deep ignorance of the female experience.

For my children then — whom I would fight to the death for — and for my daughter especially, I would like to see this narrative torn down and stamped upon. For her I wish motherhood to always be an informed and active choice: one properly supported by a society that views her as more than a mere vessel whose head is filled with booties and bunnies, but as an equal human being and contributor, made free to pursue her goals and tell her truth.