because it's my job
There will be a few weeks in there where I fight the lethargy, the uncomfortable awkwardness of very late pregnancy, the providing amusement to a 4 year old on extended holidays and the preparing for birth. Then, ta da, a new baby. There will be much joy and celebration, a revival of the discovery of the miracle of life, many happy hormones and the fulfilment of a dream.
But there will be other stuff too. Stuff I’m not going to like. Stuff I spent a long time, years in fact, contemplating whether I could face again before agreeing to have another child. And until now I guess I have been thinking mostly about the obvious stuff that belongs in this discussion, the sleep deprivation, the constant illness, the drudgery of washing and feeding and listening to a baby’s cry. The crowding out of time and freedom and independence, the worry and frustration and boredom.
I didn’t like this the first time around and I have no illusions that I’ll like it any better this time around. It is a time to be endured and I think I have the strength to get through largely because I know it won’t go on forever, and because secretly I am hoping I will have an easier baby this time (please, no reflux and sleep disorders and ear problems).
But I haven’t spent as much time thinking about the elephant that’s growing in my head as perhaps I should have. I thought I’d dealt with him, but now that I am packing up my desk and saying goodbye to colleagues and banking my last pay I realise that he hasn’t gone, I’d just turned my back on him.
You see try as I might, I just can’t shake my grief and anger about the way being a mother interferes with me being a person, and how I am heading back into being a non-person in some of the key parts of my life. Bye bye CBD, bye bye working girl with brains and ambition, bye bye equal of men, bye bye independent financially viable woman.
I’ve consciously chosen to have another child despite the trade offs, so I know that in the final analysis I have my priorities and values set on mothering over career. I know I will love this child as fiercely and devotedly as I do Amy and that no good day at work can ever meet the bar in terms of joy and fulfilment that a 30 second snippet of mothering at its finest can ever give. I know all this.
But the flip side is loud in my head. Trumpeting in fact. I was never raised to see myself as a dependent, I never developed the skills to negotiate what I might be allowed to do, never imagined that I would agree to limit myself, my options, my freedoms to such an extent. I never imagined that being a mother would be so utterly different from being a parent.
I grew up believing not just that I wouldn’t be living a kind of gendered domestic life, but that to do so was the worst possible kind of mistake women make. To my very core I believe women can and should be equal to men, and that this equality is measured to a large degree by the way they balance participation in the big world outside the home (paid work, volunteering, socialising and so on) with their responsibilities and creativity within the domestic sphere (housework, craft, cooking relationship nurturing and so on). I always believed that this stuff got out of balance only where individual men and women let it.
But mothering tips that balance in a way I don’t feel I can control. Pregnancy alone is a dividing line, a responsibility, a job, a joy, a journey that is entirely gendered. And then there’s the 8 hours a day of breastfeeding I had with Amy that was both a privilege and a curse, and the accumulation of knowledge and skill that comes from such close contact that ever widens the trench. How easy it is to become enslaved to those things which defined me as mother and mother only.
And I make no claims to motherhood as being a punishment for women while men drink cocktails and live it up. The other side of the great divide is hard too, and lonely, and in many ways men are often less well placed to deal with it than women are. The sense of exclusion, of redundancy, of responsibility to be in the world on behalf not just of oneself, but for a whole family, weighs many men down to the depths of despair.
So my problem is less about the hierarchy of gender (though I admit I often feel oppressed and diminished as a mother compared to life as worker for example) than about its rigidity. I positively resent that motherhood narrows my world to such an extent. And I absolutely resent that the work I do mothering carries no financial reward in the way having a job does. I love working, passionately, and it depresses me no end that I don’t get to do it for long periods or in the way I used to.
I hate that to live happily within the constraints of motherhood, in the now, I need to ignore what I know to be very real risks I run in the future. And here’s the rub. Intellectually and experientially I know that the decision to suspend my independent equality seeking self, even for only a few years, will resonate throughout my future. For us as a family my lack of earnings and retirement savings will have an exponential financial disadvantage, and place yet more pressure on my partner to earn and save more and thus spend yet more time out in the world while I tend home fires. Or stay home and go mad.
But the really scary scenario is what happens when the happy family unit becomes happy no more. It’s taboo to think like this, to show disrespect to one’s life long love by even contemplating a time when said love might whither and die. I hate to do it, I feel like a traitor and perhaps as the superstitious amongst us would warn, the very contemplation may in fact produce imagined results.
But I can’t ignore what I know to be true. Somewhere around half of all families break up, and all of them existed for a considerable time believing it could never be so. And when that break up comes, the reality of the gendered life hits home with a whollop. Men lose their domestic life and are frequently financially ruined to boot. Women are forced into financial independence without a safety net and bear the brunt of the emotional work of caring for children through the trauma of separation.
The specialisation of labour, the gendered division of home and work, made sense in a time when family bonds where concrete and the social context made clear the importance and necessity of a full time domestic manager. While it still had loopholes and cracks through which many (especially women) were known the slip, the basic unit of the world, of the economy, of government was the family.
We no longer live in this world. We now inhabit a legal and political landscape in which we are expected to take responsibility for ourselves as individuals, where single mothers must earn and support their families, where men must participate in their children’s lives, where paternity tests can define who should pay for a child’s upkeep and where the minimum wage is designed not to support a family of five, but a single grown adult.
And this is the knowledge that gnaws at me as I sit at home, nursing a baby on the couch as I kiss my partner goodbye and he goes off to work. As I contemplate sessional kinder and primary school schedules that require children to be picked up and dropped off and cared for at hours of the day that make meaningful paid work near impossible. When I say goodbye to my colleagues today and they ask if I will be coming back to work next year, or when I tell Amy I am finishing work and she is delighted because now she’ll have mummy back.
Like I say, I know the deal and I’ve chosen the best balance I can live with to be the kind of mother I need to be. In the short term I think I can keep the scary things at bay. I can chant mantras in my head about the march of time and try not to let it drag me down. But over the next little while I’ll also be struggling to accommodate the elephant in my head, the warning that what makes me feel good about being a mother now is making me feel uneasy about the future and how those choices might play out if just a few things in this picture change.