Sunday, 24 January 2010

Some mothers actually like bacon sandwiches

My maternity leave ends in two weeks' time. I really can't wait, the little ones are driving me insane. Or so I say, because I'm meant to say it, and everyone thinks I'm joking. I mean it, though, but then I wouldn't chance it if I thought anyone would believe me. Instead, I let people pity me because I "have to" go back. I know they think I'm losing out on something I'll never have again.

They're only young once. I'm never quite sure what that's meant to say. My baby, sleeping in the cot at my feet, will never again be as tiny and fragile as he is tonight, or so I hope. Every day is something lost but also something gained. And the truth is, baby- and toddlerhood is wasted on the person doing the actual caring, just as youth is wasted on the young and wealth is wasted on the old. Little ones are exhausting, frustrating, maddening. They're wonderful, too, but I'm always mistrustful of those who go overboard in their adoration of infancy. As one comedian put it (I've forgotten who) all it means is, you love the whole human race, but only very temporarily.

If I describe how I feel when faced with another day of bright smiles, love and fury just below my skin, a fury I don't notice until a cry reaches a certain tone, and I realise it's there, but still I hold it down, just - if I describe it, I know I will sound like one of the following:

  • a pathetic, reactionary mummy martyr, revelling in self-adoration masquerading as self-abnegation.
  • an over-educated loser who thinks she's too clever for dirty nappies and CBeebies but really just doesn't know her place yet, and implicitly looks down on any mother who does.
  • a naive middle-class idiot who should have known motherhood was hard and needs to stop crying into her cappuccino.

But I really don't feel like any of these. How women feel about motherhood has become weighed down with clich├ęs, crushing any impression of authenticity. And yet underneath, it's always so real and raw.

I will go back to work full time and once again, just as happened last time, everyone will be amazed, assume I won't last, since all mothers of small children go part-time or drop out. And they'll then decide I haven't lasted, regardless of my very presence. Several times a week the people I interact with every day will say "So which days aren't you in?" and I'll reply, like a corny end-of-pier comedian, "hey, I'm here all week!". I'll get defensive, slip it into the conversation that my partner has flexible hours so the children aren't in nursery every day, forgetting that he's male so it doesn't really count (he's just "babysitting", that's what they call it at the children's centre he visits). I'll get paranoid, wonder whether everyone's asking themselves how a career-mad monster such as myself could be so spectacularly bad at actually progressing up the career ladder.

Each evening, I will be surprised that I have not become totally rubbish at parenting, have brief moments of feeling like Superwoman, living the dream as I totter around in work shoes after my gorgeous little brood. Then something utterly normal will happen - my eldest doesn't like his dinner, my youngest hates being undressed - and I'll be wishing I was back in the office. Or my eldest will hug me and tell me he loves me, my youngest will start to giggle at nothing at all, and I'll be wishing I could be with them all the time. Childish, grass-is-greener nonsense. and I'll half-spoil the most beautiful moments by over-analysing them - is this what motherhood is meant to be?

A few weeks into work, I will forget the physical impossibilities of caring for more than one child, the misery of wanting so badly to make if not both, then at least one of them happy, yet failing whenever I am most loved and needed. I will forget afternoons of dragging despair in the bedroom of one child, a room crammed with toys which the other cannot touch so all I can do is limit the damage, talk about sharing while no one listens and start to hate the sound of my own voice. I will forget that on maternity leave I become obsessed with Facebook, with selling my worldly goods on ebay, becoming pointlessly thin, volunteering for projects I don't believe in or have time for, anything to make me feel as though I have a speed other than painfully slow, up the stairs a minute at a time while my baby cries and my toddler tries to reread his book on each step and I try not to shout at him because he's doing nothing wrong. He gets angry with me if I attempt to speed him up, take his book from him, Mummy no touch! And why shouldn't he be angry? We want the same thing, control of our own environments. I'm bigger and stronger, but at least this keeps me in check.

I will work, the weekend will come and I will not be able to visit the children's centres, which only open for dads' days, dads who work in the week and need "special time" with their children come Saturday. Rough play encouraged, male role models celebrated, bacon sandwiches offered to all, so different from the soggy toddler-munched malted milks "non-working" mothers make do with during the week. I can't join in because I am an abberation - I like bacon sandwiches, I work full-time, I'm a mother who loves her children without having to say how or why because it's unsayable. And I am not filled with regret, or rather, I know the compromises I make and I am tired of all the questions, tired of defending love and feelings, defending structures of living and caring which aren't deemed good enough, tired of allowing myself to cross over into anger, an anger which stops me just accepting this life as it really is.

And someone will read this and think it's up to them to decide whether I mean any of it at all.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

What does Trust Women mean to you?

I value choice, and I value the work of its defenders. And yet the slogan "Trust Women" encapsulates for me so much that pro-choice rhetoric should not be. It is well-meant, I know, but I resent its implications. When it comes to abortion, I neither want nor need anyone's "trust".

Why should I be trusted? My right to define what is beneath my own skin as my own should not be contingent on me being "trustworthy". My right to choose should not be contingent on me making the right choices. Equality is not conditional or one-sided; the moment conditions are set, it ceases to exist.

Who is doing the trusting? Who takes it upon themselves to magnanimously grant me the right to decide whether I or not I reproduce? Those who can't get pregnant? Bodily autonomy is not something to be earned. It is something to be defended, regardless of the ways in which it is expressed.

I want equality to be real. I don't want crumbs from the table of the privileged. I am a woman and I don't want to be "trusted". I just want to live in my own body, freely. Shouldn't we all?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Baby group, the highs and lows

High: My eldest son and another toddler are playing in the home corner. Eldest is making pretend tea, other toddler (another boy) is ironing. A children's centre worked comes over and, for no apparent reason, hands them a toy DIY toolkit and encourages them to play with fake drills and spanners. Both look at said kit in bemusement, then get back to the more serious business of mopping the ironing board and loading plastic cakes into the washing machine.

Low: Little boy with his mother and sister wears a T-shirt which says, in military-style writing, "After dad, I'm 2nd in command". Ah, male dominance from birth, what a jape! Not sure why his mother thinks that, by virtue of being born without a penis, she is subordinate to a toddler, but can't say I care. I just wonder how his sister feels about all this, or perhaps she's just learning to know her place pretty fast. Still, what I want to know is, why aren't my blue "Misogynist in training" T-shirts selling as well?

Monday, 11 January 2010

Career women: still (arguably) bad mothers

Last week, it was reported that an advert stating "career women make bad mothers" had been pulled following complaints from working mothers. While not exactly cracking open the champagne (hey, I'm breastfeeding), I still found this rather good news. So imagine my surprise when, earlier today, I saw said statement still emblazened on a billboard close to my eldest child's nursery.

Now, although I don't suppose it's in my "bad mother" remit, I'm currently teaching my eldest to read, so I felt particularly uneasy about being confronted with this. Thankfully, though, I don't think he was quite up to understanding terms like "career women", so we have a bit more time before he can indulge in some classic musings on how mummy is ruining his life (nice to know that when he gets there, he'll not be alone in his conclusions... ).

Of course, I'm being sarcastic. While I may not be the world's greatest mother, one thing I know I'm definitely not is a career woman. I'm not successful enough, I don't earn enough, I don't have big enough shoulder pads or red enough lipstick. Essentially, I don't live in the eighties and / or have the type of salary that is considered unseemly unless one is in possession of a penis. I'm not a threat. I'd be merely a "job woman", if such a term existed, except no one ever bothers to label the countless mothers whose paid work is absolutely expected, taken for granted, never resented. Work without which we'd be scroungers (if single) or parasites (if attached). Work which, so long as it pays below the national average, will have no negative impact on our parenting whatsoever. Apparently.

I'm not saying that there aren't other ways in which we "job women" can fail. As I type this, my toddler sleeps on the couch, tantrumed out, while my baby dozes my lap, inches from the computer keyboard. I ought to be making dinner, they ought to be having dinner, but I'm just relieved they're both peaceful for a while. I bribed my way through the afternoon with TV and chocolate. One of those days, a series of mundane compromises, just enough to keep the constant, low-level feelings of inadequacy going. But still, I don't believe I'm a bad mother, or rather, I find the phrase so personal, so loaded, so utterly vague yet utterly hateful, that I don't see the value in contemplating it.

Parenthood makes one hugely, underservedly powerful, and this is especially true of motherhood, at least as it is currently constructed. Parents have the capacity to completely ruin lives, and most of us know it, too. To play with this fact simply to score points is unforgivable, regardless of whether the motivation is pure antifeminism or a self-serving desire to "provoke public reaction" (roughly on a par with the classic "it's ironic" defence for sexism). It is very easy to make parents feel rubbish even when they're not. This doesn't make them even better parents. It makes them human beings who start to lack confidence in perhaps the most important areas of their lives, the area where they need it most.