Why are so many young, successful women conflicted about having children?by Stephanie Boland / 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.”