Although thousands of women give birth every year (over 700,000 in the UK in 2009 to be precise), motherhood is one of the most contentious subjects around. From Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother, to the ‘She Who Must Not Be Named’ vs Mumsnet case, opinions on bringing up babies are never mild. Lately, I’ve noticed that I can’t open a newspaper or women’s magazine without finding an article about mums – and the information out there is only ever conflicting. Either a woman is being berated for going back to work too soon after birth, non-mums are complaining about shouldering the burdens of the mums in their workplace or stay at home mums are being criticised for not making a mark in their career. While we’re told it’s selfish to watch our weight during pregnancy, we’re also shown images of size 6 women who seem to have just pulled their babies out of their Birkin. It seems clear that, in trying to ‘have it all’, a generation of women have been left exhausted and confused.
So what does it mean to be a mum in the modern world?
Our grandmothers and mothers fought for us to have equal rights in the workplace. While that is a battle which continues to rage on, we seem to have forgotten along the way that being a parent is the most demanding job of all. With the status of women at work slowly rising, the value of women at home have largely disappeared. A colleague going on maternity leave recently was told to ‘enjoy the break from work’, as if having a baby would be a year long holiday. Being increasingly distant from our extended families, and frequently raised without other children available to us, motherhood can suddenly become a mysterious task which we must face in isolation.
Even for those who assume they will become mothers at some point in their lives, the transition to motherhood can still be an enormous shock. For many women now, often working may be prioritised until suddenly, in our 30s, time becomes more important than readiness. Once a decision is made to ‘start trying’, some women talk about a surprising anger or anxiety which follows. Having spend a whole life working to build up a career, what does it mean to take a step out of it? What if all that work was for nothing? What if being a mum takes over and what has felt paramount becomes less important?
Naomi Wolf, in her book ‘Misconceptions’, talks about pregnancy as being the first time in a woman’s life she may really have to confront her gender. While we can quibble about whether men and women are truly treated as equals, once a woman becomes pregnant there’s no pretending anymore. Only she can carry that baby and give birth. When our identities are formed around our sense of achievement and success, what happens when we stop running in the rat race?
Either we can make our babies into projects, and measure our success by how much they weigh, or how long they sleep through the night. Or maybe we can question whether achievement is so important and take a leap into an uncertain and exciting space. In my mind, that’s a space where relationships become more important than any promotion.