THE MOTHER LOAD
The paradox of parenthood: does becoming a mum mean you lose yourself?
IN THE MONTHS BEFORE I DECIDED TO HAVE A BABY,
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”