The para­dox of par­ent­hood: does be­com­ing a mum mean you lose your­self?

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents -


I con­ducted a fran­tic, in­for­mal straw poll of every­one I en­coun­tered about par­ent­hood.

I wanted to know if it was pos­si­ble to be a par­ent and still have time to do work I cared about. To make things. To see my friends. To be part of the world, not just the home. Es­sen­tially, if it was pos­si­ble to be a par­ent and still be, well, me.

No, came the usual re­sponse. Not re­ally. Peo­ple al­ways said that noth­ing would change when they got preg­nant. And then the baby came along and all they wanted to talk about was nap­pies and house prices.

But surely, if you tried re­ally hard, it must be pos­si­ble? No, they re­peated. That’s not how it worked. You had to choose.

Be­ing a par­ent, you see – or more specif­i­cally, be­ing a mother – was hard. Not in the way that other things I’d done in the past were hard: write a book, move coun­tries twice, con­vince ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties to give press ac­cess to a bunch of stu­dent jour­nal­ists dur­ing a fed­eral elec­tion when I was 22.

No, it was a whole new ball­park of hard. The kind of hard that con­sumes and buries you and leaves no room in your life for any­thing but your baby.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this. If any­thing, the fre­quency with which I’d heard it was the rea­son I was ask­ing those fran­tic ques­tions in the first place. There was the glit­ter­ing thir­tysome­thing au­thor I’d in­ter­viewed, who had told me that each time you had a baby it wiped four years from your ca­reer… de­spite the fact that she, who had two chil­dren, was cur­rently the toast of the town. There were the es­says by new moth­ers about how, while their lives had once been a tightly di­arised suc­ces­sion of work, friends and sleep, in the haze of new par­ent­hood they no longer cared about such things. There was for­mer Gov­er­nor Gen­eral Quentin Bryce who, shortly af­ter be­ing ap­pointed to the role at age 65, fa­mously de­clared, “You can have it all, but not all at the same time.” It was a line that was sup­posed to in­spire, but had left me de­spon­dent at the idea of decades in the pro­fes­sional wilder­ness.

“Be­com­ing a MOTHER be­gan to seem the BRAVER CHOICE for me”

I had come of age in a cul­ture that po­si­tioned moth­er­hood as both a fun­da­men­tal fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence and an an­ni­hi­la­tion of the self, in ways that fa­ther­hood sim­ply wasn’t for men.

On one hand, moth­er­hood was po­si­tioned as some­thing every woman should do – prefer­ably be­fore the age of 35. Some­thing you might re­gret if you didn’t do it, or if you left it too late to try. It was the most im­por­tant, ful­fill­ing thing you would ex­pe­ri­ence in your life, the thing com­pared to which ev­ery­thing else paled in com­par­i­son. On the other hand, moth­er­hood was also de­picted as some­thing that re­duced women into two-di­men­sioned shells of our for­mer selves.

Moth­er­hood seemed to strip you of the re­wards fem­i­nism had be­stowed: in­de­pen­dence, a wage, self-iden­tity. How­ever hal­lowed it was, there was a sense that the real meat of life lay else­where, and moth­er­hood would re­quire an exit from it, tem­po­rar­ily at least.

These twin nar­ra­tives left me feel­ing frus­trated and torn. I didn’t want to be di­min­ished. I also didn’t want to re­gret not do­ing some­thing.

I hit a turning point on my 34th birth­day, over din­ner with my hus­band. I had been hang­ing out with one of my clos­est friends ear­lier that af­ter­noon. As we ate, I re­galed him with sto­ries of her two-year-old daugh­ter; the way she had passed me books as she sat on my lap, the hi­lar­i­ous things she said. I felt self-con­scious as I spoke, em­bar­rassed for my ob­vi­ous in­fat­u­a­tion by this tod­dler. But I also recog­nised the sig­nif­i­cance of my words. I be­gan to imag­ine the pos­si­bil­ity of en­gag­ing in moth­er­hood in a way that still al­lowed for ful­fil­ment, and the ca­pac­ity to do work I cared about. I still felt scared, was still un­cer­tain, but be­com­ing a mother be­gan to seem the braver choice for me, the one that em­braced life in all its com­plex­i­ties in­stead of running away from them. I de­cided to take the leap.

*** If the ex­pe­ri­ence of moth­er­hood is of­ten framed in terms of era­sure and sac­ri­fice, it is not with­out good rea­son.

Af­ter all, in most het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships, women still do the lion’s share of the par­ent­ing. Added to this, we live in a work cul­ture that be­lieves pro­duc­tiv­ity means work­ing not just full-time, but over-time. Even if you’re lucky enough to get paid parental leave (I wasn’t), that leave can end up feel­ing like a prison that locks you out of the adult world. It can also re­in­force gen­dered dy­nam­ics where the mother, spend­ing all day with the baby, be­comes an ex­pert on all things par­ent­ing and the fa­ther is rel­e­gated to hap­less side­kick or oc­ca­sional helper.

The truth is that a life that is all baby, all the time, with lit­tle to no sup­port, is hard. It is self-eras­ing for many women. And sto­ries that con­front those re­al­i­ties head-on serve an im­por­tant fem­i­nist pur­pose. They il­lu­mi­nate a truth and make us feel less alone. But this crit­i­cism is only the first step. We also have an­other op­por­tu­nity. To re­ject. To over­turn. To rein­vent and rebel.

To imag­ine and then make re­al­ity a ver­sion of moth­er­hood that is more equal, more sup­ported, less iso­lated. To create a world in which adults – not just women, but men too – do not have to choose be­tween be­ing in the world or at home, but can do both at the same time. To trans­form moth­er­hood from some­thing that “must” be done in one par­tic­u­lar way into an end­less ar­ray of pos­si­bil­i­ties that can be adapted to fit our in­di­vid­ual pas­sions, per­son­al­i­ties and the needs of our fam­i­lies. Moth­er­hood doesn’t have to be a death of the self. Why shouldn’t it be an ex­pan­sion of the self?

The day we brought our son home, I was feel­ing emo­tion­ally bat­tered from two nights spent alone at the hos­pi­tal try­ing to put our mys­tery of a child to sleep (bad hos­pi­tal pol­icy, not a re­flec­tion of a bad part­ner). I asked my hus­band if he might do the next overnight shift so I could get a full night’s sleep. It worked so well that we al­ter­nated every night from then on in. A few days later, al­ready tired of nights spent sit­ting in my nurs­ing chair and scrolling Face­book be­cause my son screamed every time we tried to put him in his cot, I pushed past my fears about co-sleep­ing and lay down in bed with him on my chest. I haven’t slept less than seven hours since, de­spite the fact that my son still wakes up at least three times a night.

Reimag­in­ing the rules of moth­er­hood meant not choos­ing be­tween breast­feed­ing and bot­tle feed­ing, and in­stead do­ing both at the same time, a de­ci­sion that left me with a cou­ple of mild bouts of mas­ti­tis, but also gifted me with the abil­ity to leave the house with­out my son when I needed to. It meant pay­ing for child­care even though it cur­rently eats up every cent I earn, be­cause my ca­reer mat­ters as much as my male part­ner’s does, and be­cause work is es­sen­tial to my men­tal health.

These choices won’t work for every­one, but my point is not that every­one should repli­cate them. It is a wish that every woman have the op­por­tu­nity to carve out a way of en­gag­ing with moth­er­hood that works for them.

*** Even with a sup­port­ive part­ner, flex­i­ble work ar­range­ments, a steely re­solve and a re­bel­lious spirit, the first year of moth­er­hood wasn’t ex­actly a breeze.

I re­mem­ber see­ing a photo of Women’s March leader Bob Bland speak­ing on stage with her baby in her arms and feel­ing en­vi­ous. I had hoped to be that kind of mother, seam­lessly in­te­grat­ing my work life and my par­ent­ing life. I had imag­ined my­self an­swer­ing emails while my son slept, bring­ing him to re­hearsals for the off-broad­way adap­ta­tion of my book The Sex Myth I was pro­duc­ing while he qui­etly breast­fed. Tak­ing him with me when I trav­elled to speak on cam­puses. I re­mem­ber feel­ing aghast at a New York fem­i­nist con­fer­ence that didn’t al­low chil­dren to at­tend, think­ing that surely, if I had been a speaker at it, I would want to bring along my baby. Shortly af­ter my son was born, I changed my tune. If I was speak­ing at a con­fer­ence, I would def­i­nitely leave my in­tense, im­pas­sioned baby at home with my hus­band.

Life didn’t in­te­grate in ex­actly the way I thought it would, but it in­te­grated none­the­less. I pro­duced my play to rave re­views, even if I didn’t get to at­tend as many re­hearsals as I would have liked. My hus­band and I each gave our­selves one night off each week to go out, see friends and con­nect with our pro­fes­sional selves. And I watched my son go from a new­born who screamed in the back of Ubers be­cause he hated be­ing con­strained, to a tod­dler who shouts and kicks with joy as we travel around the city to­gether. (And let’s be real, who also reg­u­larly has pub­lic trans­port melt­downs.)

Even on my worst days, when I’ve felt sad or an­gry or frus­trated, I have never ques­tioned my de­ci­sion to have my son. On my best days, he is the best de­ci­sion I ever made.

*** I learnt years ago that the things in life that are most worth hav­ing are usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by strug­gle, tears and reg­u­lar crises of con­fi­dence. That doesn’t mean you don’t go af­ter them. It just means you recog­nise that the strug­gle is part of the process. I didn’t want moth­er­hood to be easy. I just wanted to be able to walk into it and come out the other side still recog­nis­ing my­self.

Strug­gles aside, 13 months in I feel com­fort­able an­swer­ing my orig­i­nal ques­tion in the af­fir­ma­tive. Yes, it is pos­si­ble to have a baby and still be a part of the world be­yond baby. No, be­com­ing a mother doesn’t have to mean an an­ni­hi­la­tion of the self.

I still bub­ble over with new ideas, and I still get to ex­e­cute them. I still crave con­nec­tion with other peo­ple and I still look for ways to create mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ences with friends and com­mu­ni­ties. I still thrive on chaos and pos­si­bil­ity and hav­ing slightly too much on my plate.

I still have all the things I had in my life be­fore I had my son, I just have them in smaller serv­ings. Be­cause I wanted to make space in my life for some­thing new. E

“NO, be­com­ing a MOTHER DOESN’T have to mean an an­ni­hi­la­tion of the SELF”

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