Why are so many young, successful women conflicted about having children?by / May 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Motherhood, wrote Adrienne Rich in her groundbreaking 1976 polemic, Of Woman Born, is “the suffering of ambivalence.” A poet and radical feminist, Rich had already had three children—and outlived her husband—by the time she began writing her exploration of what it meant to be a mother. At a time when to publicly admit to dissatisfaction or frustration with motherhood was almost treasonous, Rich insisted that we should recognise its difficulties, as well as joys. For her, it is both about the relationship a woman has to her children and also the institution of motherhood, “which aims at ensuring that potential… shall remain under male control.”
If the possibilities afforded to mothers—especially in the workplace—have progressed since Rich’s day, then new difficulties have emerged. TUC research shows that childcare costs have risen up to seven times faster than wages since 2008. A single parent working full-time spends, on average, 40 per cent of their salary on childcare. For many families, it makes more sense for one parent to leave work; for most, this will be the mother. This trend endures among millennials, the key difference being that they are having their first child at an older age: in 2015, over half of all live births in England and Wales were to mothers aged 30 and over. This means that, in spite of women’s more prominent position in the workplace, increasing numbers find themselves taking a career break just as they begin to gain seniority. With maternity pay entitlement still low, particularly in self-employed roles, and take up of shared parental leave stubbornly stuck below 10 per cent, it is hardly surprising that more and more women thinking about starting a family are calculating the true cost of child-rearing and not liking the result.
Meanwhile, our investment in mothers—their wants and desires; their behaviours and concerns—remains high stakes. One need only look at a sampling of books published over the past few years to see just how vital memoir or autobiographical fiction, in particular, remains: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, Elif Safak’s Black Milk: On Motherhood and Writing, the newly-translated Latvian novelist Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk—milk is, for obvious reasons, a theme—Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, Jessie Greengrass’ Sight (recently shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction) and the novels of Rachel Cusk all insist, in their varied ways, that readers witness the complex, sometimes conflicted, demands of motherhood. In the past few weeks alone, both Elle and American website The Cut have run series about motherhood; British website The Pool’s, on pregnancy, came earlier this year. Other sites, specifically targeted at younger first-time mothers, run headlines like “Signs You Are a Millennial Mom” and “Six Myths of Millennial Motherhood.”
That the subject of motherhood can sustain so much content is testament to its range and urgency. In her review of Sheila Heti’s semi-autobiographical novel Motherhood for Slate, critic Willa Paskin asks: “Why, when there are scores of new books about mothers and mothering and motherhood, does it continue to feel like there aren’t any?”
Both Heti’s Motherhood and Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty consider motherhood as a state of being as well as an experience: “mothers” are a class of people, one whose status can engender envy, longing, fear or disgust. Rose, a literary scholar and psychoanalyst by training, has long been uncovering aspects of women’s lives that are ordinarily hidden from view. In a 2014 essay on the topic for the London Review of Books, she observed: “It’s clear that to be seen by a mother is a mixed blessing.” The whole subject, she writes, “is thick with idealisations.”
Taking Rich’s essay as her guide, Mothers prods at the notion of mothers as bearers of secret knowledge or inscrutable motive. For Rose, society is afraid of mothers’ desires and suspicion of their intentions. There is horror if they admit to experiencing a sensual pleasure in breastfeeding; outrage at the migrant women who arrive in the UK with children, with newspaper headlines “[reinforcing] the age-old stereotype of blacks and the poor reproducing irresponsibly and to excess.” The potential for split loyalty should the needs of their children conflict with the desires of the state—whether enshrined in immigration targets or policing initiatives—hovers over these conversations. (Of course, to not prioritise their children would be equally monstrous.)
The idealisation and related suspicion of mothers can be hard to escape—even for those who are childless. The narrator in Heti’s Motherhood, too, fears that mothers harbour secret knowledge: when a friend tells her that she seems “very fertile,” it is “as if becoming a mother had made her psychic.” At another point, a glamorous mother tells her that “men like to come in their partners.” In response, Heti’s narrator gets an IUD. Shortly after, she has it removed—yet she is still uncertain, and when another, new friend proclaims that she could “never” get an IUD, Heti’s narrator confesses that she feels “excluded from some deeper knowledge she had. She was … someone who seemed to know herself.” To not have anticipated her own displeasure with the device is only further evidence of her worrying lack of self-knowledge.
“I bet you always consult your heart,” the narrator says to her new friend. Privately, she worries: “I don’t think I have a heart—a heart I can consult. Instead, I have these coins.” “These coins” are, as an explanatory note at the start of the novel explains, a device based on the Chinese divination system of “I Ching.” The narrator of Motherhood repeatedly poses questions to them: two or three heads mean yes. Two or three tails, no. In this way, she creates long pages of questions and answers:
Should I get pregnant this year?
How old will the child be when we separate? One?
And how old will the child be when I find another man? Three?
And will those four years be a big pain in the ass?
Will they be kind of a joy?
Will they be like any other years?
“When I was younger,” she says, “I told myself that if I was ever going to have a child, it would only happen if I accidentally became pregnant.” Now she is older, and in control, she is caught between the desire to remain independent and the fear that if she does not have children she will miss out on something fundamental.
Heti’s narrator imagines having a “drop-gorgeous child with Miles,” her partner. Yet both Miles and the narrator are also disdainful of their friends who are mothers. “They want you to be in the same boat they’re in,” he tells her. “They want you to have the same handicap they have.”
For her part, Heti’s narrator sees motherhood as disabling because she believes it is used to keep women under male control. “A woman must have children because she must be occupied,” she writes. “When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing . . . that they want woman to be doing the work of child-rearing more than they want her to be doing anything else.”
By this logic, a mother’s time is taken up by child-rearing to the extent that she can be only a mother. Only when the narrator realises that her own mother has not, in fact, been swallowed up by motherhood—is, in fact, enjoying her later years, “alone in a house by the sea”—does she begin to relax.
If Rose warns against the expectation that mothers be perfect, then criticising our own mothers is still a common trope. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard friends say that they, unlike their mothers, will not give their children chocolate bars or allow long Saturday-morning hours in front of the television. “I too shall marry, have children,” Rich writes. “But not like her.”
For women raised on popular feminism, this urge to differentiate is often less to do with bad habits and more an attempt at liberation. “Many daughters live in a rage at their mothers for having accepted, too readily and too passively, ‘whatever comes,’” Rich wrote in the 1970s, and in the age of baby blogs, this effect is magnified tenfold. One sees the impact in glossy magazines and self-help books, in internet forums where women do not so much swap tips as collaborate on vast dossiers of information. Books with titles like I Don’t Know Why She Bothers: Guilt-Free Motherhood for Thoroughly Modern Women insist that women should enjoy a freedom their own mothers could not. Recently, the government placed adverts about their shared parental leave initiative in Stylist magazine, a free weekly given to commuters, presumably to prompt women into a position where they, in turn, might badger their partners to share the childcare more equally.
Underlying this trend is a belief that one can avoid the problems other women face if only one tries hard enough. Find the right partner, read the progressive baby books, negotiate fiercely at work, and refuse to be worried by scare stories about co-sleeping and caffeine, and an egalitarian experience of motherhood will be possible. One can, in effect, organise oneself out of patriarchy—as long as you’re willing to work twice as hard. (The possibility of more radically re-distributing labour is mostly absent.)
It barely needs stating that solving injustice through better organisation is ludicrous. Recently, it seemed as if every woman I knew was discussing Lisa Miller’s essay “The Ambition Collision” for The Cut, diagnosing a crisis among American women in their early thirties who, having grown up with mainstream feminism, find their days filled with unfulfilling work. “After a lifetime of saying ‘yes’ to their professional hunger—these are the opportunity-seizers, the list-makers, the ascendant females, weaned on Lean In—they’ve lost it, like a child losing grasp of a helium balloon.”
Miller says that female achievement has flatlined: the wage gap is around what it has been for a decade. As one friend after another faces the fact that her career begins to take off right at the moment when her fertility begins its descent, I have observed a similar malaise around the prospect of motherhood. Brought up with the idea that it was possible to have it both ways—career and family, work and life—young women are beginning to see the reality: that the promises of our feminist daydreams will be unfulfilled, that nobody can manage their way out of sexism, and that just as the pastel-coloured 1950s dream of happy children, well-fed husbands and patterned fabrics is dead, the 1990s dream of “having it all” is also, if not quite dead, then at least spending more time at the GP.
Compared to the experiences of those who bore their children only a few decades ago—and, indeed, to those who are not young, relatively secure urban professionals—this is a lovely problem to have. Many of my friends were born to mothers much younger than they are now, who never had the luxury of worrying about anything as middle-class as chasing a board position while still fitting in the school run. My own mother, who was a near-penniless woman of 20 when she had me, assures me it’s mostly a business of getting on with it. (I can, of course, only ever recall being secure in the presumption that she knew what she was doing.) Compare this to a world where reproductive planning ends at vinegar and pennyroyal tea, and she, too, is enormously lucky. All things considered, the fact that Heti has the chance to write Motherhood is a triumph.
Yet privilege does not necessarily stem anxiety, nor solve newer problems. The number of severe third and fourth degree vaginal tears incurred during childbirth tripled between 2000 and 2012, a rise that has partially been attributed to women having bigger babies later in life. The rising cost of rent against earnings means one friend will need to leave London if she wishes to have a child. Another notes that, despite all her advantages, she cannot rely on the help of nearby relatives, as her own working-class mother did, and jokes about scheduling her own pregnancy alongside her friends, so everyone can go part-time and split the childcare. All share a frustration at fathers who describe watching their own children as “babysitting.”
More than that, they wonder how people will perceive them as mothers. In A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (1997), Rachel Cusk describes parenthood as a “defection, a political act,” in which one—to borrow Rose’s phrasing—is “cut down to size.” Those of us who do not have children wonder if our bosses would be decent, our colleagues’ view of us unchanged, if we were to start out own families. We imagine what it might mean to fall deliriously in love with a child; how we will handle being daughters once we know how deep the unrequited love of parenthood truly runs; if our children would resent us for our imperfections. If we became mothers, would we too pass into this group, become the subject of the fear and loathing that Rose describes? Would the years really be much like any other years? What compromises would we choose?
I used to believe that the personal is political, in that one could enact politics for oneself. But the saying cuts both ways: the two aspects of motherhood laid one over the other. When Heti’s narrator contemplates becoming a mother, she is painfully aware that she would be joining a group of which she is deeply suspicious. When Rose writes of Medea as a scapegoat, “another mother who is guilty because everyone else has failed,” you sense how widespread this suspicion is. Great importance is invested in motherhood as an experience and an institution; both sides are affected by progress (or lack of it), whether the change being advocated is a wider rollout of shared parental leave or abortion access.
As the sheer variety of different motherhoods are flattened out by policy-makers, tensions can arise on everything from career gaps to pensions to job shares. Feminists argue as to whether women should be reimbursed for domestic labour or whether mothering should not be degraded by the logic of late capitalism. Much of the practical work of feminism is, of course, deeply tedious—lobbying for small changes here or there, protecting a local Sure Start centre, a complaint against that doctor. But when the matter of what one can be and what the world will allow are one and the same, these questions are as fundamental. Every bit as much as what secret knowledge we might learn—and what the dream might become.
Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose is published by Faber & Faber, £12.99.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti is published by Harvill Secker, £16.99.