On the Fear of (and Desire for) Motherhood

The contradictory ‘maternal instinct’.

Photo by Cole Patrick on Unsplash

I have always felt that I wanted to have children. It’s unclear to me where this desire really comes from — it is simply a knowledge that I have, despite the fact that… I hate children. Women are not meant to say this out loud. We are not meant to write this down in print. But it’s true. I hate children.

Specifically, I’m afraid of them. I am afraid of children because I have seen what raising them can do to people — primarily, to women.

I worked in retail as a teenager, like many teenagers, and remember the overwhelming disappointment I felt as mothers and their children came in to the cinema I worked in and asked for tickets. Asked for popcorn. Asked for ice cream and whatnot. It was overwhelmingly the mothers in attendance, not the fathers. Mind you, this was over ten years ago now; I can only hope this has shifted a little. But in the process of selling untold numbers of mothers an untold number of tickets, I noticed increasingly just how frightening many of the children were. Obnoxious, badly behaved, screaming and shouting… Teenage me saw all this and thought, “Children suck.” I saw how mothers wrangled their kids into seats, bribed them with sweets and still dealt with abuse from these small tyrants. I wondered if my children would be the same, someday.

Now, I am in my late 20s. At my age, my mother had me. As a woman, and an adult, I feel I am only just coming into my own — I am just discovering who I am, and what I’m made of. The idea of having a child now, at my age, feels insane. Much of this comes from a fear that is perfectly embodied by this comic:

The comic is about household chores; how women are often made to bear the entire ‘mental load’ of understanding what needs to get done and when in the home. It’s the phenomenon where male partners insist, “I helped put out the washing,” even though they also simultaneously ignored all the other things on the to do list, unless the female partner explicitly says, “Please also do x and y and z.” The point is that women often bear the brunt of understanding everything that needs to get done, remembering everything, anticipating everything that could go wrong, and allocating those tasks, while men simply sit by and wait to be instructed, doing nothing until it is explicitly and specifically called upon. Women are the house managers. Men ignore it all until prompted. This is the stereotype. The ‘mental load’ of being a woman in the home is frightening.

I have no doubt that this is not universally the case. I’m sure there are some men out there who are much more involved in the running of the home. But my mother ran our home, and my grandmother before her. And I’ve been dealing with this problem on a smaller scale recently. I live in a house with a male flatmate, and I do bear the majority of the ‘mental load’ of the apartment running itself. It’s been an interesting experience, because this man is not my partner, and not related to me. Just a man I happen to live alongside, because London is an expensive place to live alone. My partner, when he comes over, is quite thoughtful and observant and will assist with chores around the house without my always prompting him. This seems like a good sign. He doesn’t live with us, though, so many of the admin tasks are not for him to worry about because ultimately, it’s my name on the lease.

My flatmate has demonstrated to me that this phenomenon absolutely exists; until I explicitly listed out what needed to be cleaned in order to constitute having cleaned the bathroom, for instance, he did the minimum imaginable and nothing else. He doesn’t clean unprompted. He doesn’t observe when he drops things or leaves things behind. He will wait for me to point out any household issues, often ignoring obvious tasks (like overflowing bins etc). He, like many men, was brought up not to think about their environment, because mother would deal with it. They don’t have to worry about that sort of thing.

I’d understand, because the way you are raised sets the tone for so much, but I feel if you’re a so-called feminist, at some point you try to make a change. And it’s not like there’s an easy step by step process to teach someone who has never thought about their home as a point of pride, to feel that way automatically. It seems to be a lack of cultivation of awareness and observation in some men — observing other people is okay, but observing one’s home is still the realm of women.

In this way, I’ve had a small sneak peak into what it is like to be made into a ‘mother’ for someone else. To have to do all the thinking, the planning, and the allocating of tasks. I have to prompt all the cleaning, and I have often heard, “Well, you didn’t mention that this needed to be done. If you mention it, I’m happy to help. I won’t be offended.” This excuse is so common, and so infuriating. It is my great fear that, were I to become an actual mother, my entire life as I know it would be over, as I became subsumed into the endless to do list of life spent caring for another human being, as well as a partner and a home. I fear motherhood, because I fear losing the person I’ve finally become.

I finally like who I am. It has taken time to get here. I like what I am doing, I like what I am working towards. I also love my relationship, and I have faith in it surviving the birth of a child. My partner does do a lot to help me, even now. But I’m still afraid of what parenthood would do to us as a couple. I’m afraid of what parenthood would do to my career. I’m afraid of what parenthood would do to my creativity and my writing. I know people have made it work, against the odds. I know people have overcome this problem. But I am still afraid of what my future would look like, as a parent. Shouldn’t we challenge these potential fears? Because I don’t think I’m alone in having them.

I have heard it said that becoming a parent is selfish, and deeply un-environmental. I have also heard it said that my way of thinking, right now, is selfish. That I am too self-involved to be a parent. I think this contradiction is just the first in many that you likely encounter as a mother. I fear having to accept that I will be wrong no matter what I do.

But if I am selfish, what does that say about parenthood? I feel I have thought a lot already about this issue; I have thought a lot already about the sacrifices I would have to make to become a mother. But why must I sacrifice my very self? Because so far, that seems to be the trend. I have watched mothers who are unable to complete sentences, they are so distracted by the activities of their children. You can’t talk to them, they can’t really be present in a conversation. They are unable to be anyone themselves, buried by the ever growing to do list of parenting and adulting. Their partners still roaming the world, still having adventures, still experiencing things as individuals. I fear the imbalance, and the anger it would cause me.

I have written before about anger, and what power I think it can have creatively and otherwise. But I fear who I would become if this became the dominating emotion of my life.

Somehow, still, I want to be a mother. And perhaps I will have to wait — perhaps it won’t be possible. Perhaps any number of untold eventualities will emerge. I can’t predict the future. I can only reflect on what I have seen. I have seen smart, capable women become entirely enslaved to their homes. I have seen very few examples of women who ‘do it all’. And on that subject…

A year ago or so I attended a philosophy discussion event in London. The subject of the day, it just so happened, was women in the workforce, and the pay gap. The organiser, who I can’t help but have very negative feelings towards, split the room into men and women. The women would have to discuss amongst themselves what equality should look like. A ridiculous way to have a discussion on the topic of equality. Regardless, the words of one older woman in the group really stayed with me. She was in her 60s, originally from France, white, and had been living in the UK for several decades. She said, “In my day we did everything — we cleaned the house and raised the children, went to work, and we never complained about it! We never relied on men, we were stronger and more capable than they were. Women these days are just lazy.”

I was appalled. Her attitude perfectly summarised my fear. My fear that, as a woman, I would have to do three or four times the work of men, simply because of my gender, while the men nearby are exempt. Her attitude struck me as terrible for several reasons. She seemed to think that women were ‘superior’ organisers and therefore had to do all those things — had to be the leaders in the home and at work. This didn’t strike me as an equality-driven attitude. She seemed to think that an imbalance in the home was perfectly obvious — it’s what women do, and not what men do. Infantilising men is not the way towards equality. It’s a notion that propagates the feeling amongst men themselves that they don’t have to do half the work. They are less able in the home, so just let the women do it all.

Finally, her words disturbed me because they did make me question: am I just lazy? Does this prospect upset me because I am a fundamentally lazy person? Or does it upset me because it seems to impede on my ability to actually be my own person? What is the man in this hypothetical household doing, while I am managing the home and the kids and working?

We all have to believe we’ll be different. Different to our parents, different to other parents we know. We all believe our children will be different. We have to believe it to go on having children, it seems. And maybe some families are genuinely different. But my fear seems to be founded in reality. In the world that I have seen and experienced. I know there must be another way out there. I fear being unable to execute it. I fear being trapped in a world in which I am nothing more than my children.

I am not planning on becoming a mother any time soon. I live in the modern world, where I can’t afford a home and my family live far away from me. I feel that this is not the time or the place to have children. But I think about these things intensely anyway. I wonder how my desire remains intact despite everything.

I believe much of this desire comes from the relationship I have with my own mother. My unfailing, dedicated mother, who has always been my best friend, my mentor and guide. Who was always there to pick me up, to take me out, to feed and house and love and support me. I have the best possible motherly role model. A woman so emotionally supportive and available, so affectionate and warm, who knew how to set boundaries and also how to love unconditionally. I am so intensely grateful for my mother. I want to be like her, even in a small way, if I can.

But perhaps unlike my mother, I also need a realm outside my family and my home. I don’t judge my mother for her choices, I just know deeply that mine will be a little different. I need to know I have a place that is mine outside of my family life. Does that make me selfish? Or does that make me the same as every man with children, that I know? Because all the men with children that I know, including my own father, had a realm outside their family home. A realm that was theirs. Adventures still.

Equality is a difficult subject, and female empowerment is complex, in this world where it seems many parents are expected to naturally want to give up their own identities to become parents. But what sort of model does that set for our next generations, as change is already underway, and children grow up under increasing pressure to do more and be more?

I hope to be a good mother someday, whatever that means in the end. I hope too to be a good, and a whole, person.