Saturday, 21 February 2009

sticks and stones

In the process of writing this account of stay-at-home motherhood I have recently become familiar with a number of new terms.

Since Snooks’ birth I have diligently avoided books on parenting in the belief that no-one else would know better than I what was right for my child. I have also not read many newspapers, simply because they tend to get shredded by my curious offspring faster than I can read.

However,a quick perusal through the recent writings of women of the press, like myself, I learned some new terms, Dummy Mummy, Yummy Mummy and Slummy Mummy.

In the simple 70s, when it all began, when my mum was a mum, being a mother seemed to mean a bit of Watch With Mother, trips to the swimming baths on Saturday and fish-fingers and chips with Doctor Who.

It looked pretty easy and for most women marked the end of their career, or certainly a major change in it.

Now we are faced with many options, none of which is perfect and yet everybody strives for and expects perfection.

Yummy Mummies, I understand, are the ones whose aim is to have a child without letting it impact in any way on their lives. Their bodies, their clothes, their make up, their relationships, their social lives and their careers are all unchanged by this slight bump in the road. They are applauded for resuming their former lives as if nothing had happened.

Dummy Mummies, I learned this week, are those whose life centres around their children, who can talk of nothing else, who cannot listen to a friend talking on a subject other than motherhood and who pity and patronise women who choose not to have children. The name, I assume, implies the stupidity of these women while punning on the image of them as human dummies – an inanimate object whose only purpose is to suckle their child.

From where I am standing, which I hope is in neither of these reductive camps, I fear that we women, in the fight to be emancipated, have burdened ourselves with a Herculean task; to be mothers and hunter/gatherers at the same time.

Sure, for some, it is not matter of choice. But many women choose to pay someone else to look after their child so that they can go back to fight the unequal fight in the workplace to prove that they are what… independent…intelligent … free?

It took me a long time to learn that if I want one thing, something else is going to have to give. It is an enticing goal to be the perfect mother and brilliant high achiever at the same time but not, I fear, a realistic one.

When the Engineer and I decided to have a baby, it was on condition that I would give up work to care for it at home. We had both arrived independently at the same conclusion as a result of our own very different experience, that a child needed its mother.

After staying at home with my three older siblings my mother was desperate to go back to work by the time I came along, and did so part time leaving me for a few hours a week in the care of an assortment of trusted neighbours.

No great harm came to me, unless you count the fact that I remember her leaving and I remember how it felt not knowing if she was ever coming back. And the feeling that she did not want to be with me has lasted to this day.

And if you don’t care what I say then read it in Sue Gerhardt’s excellent book, Why Love Matters. Can anyone really believe that a child is better off being looked after by someone who might, if they are lucky, like them, rather than their own parent? Seriously. And is that trade-off really worth the odd skiing holiday and your highlights redone?

So I gave up my career (for now), my financial independence (isn’t this dependence on a spouse just what we used to call trust?) and my freedom to go out (I’ve been out, a lot) to do the most important job there is, unpaid, unsung (except by the Engineer) and invisible to the world.

Living on one income is hard, but much harder is the intensity of a 24-hour connection with another, very demanding human being. We are not emotionally prepared for this in our drug-numbed society. We shy away from this intimacy. No wonder so many women go back to work.

What this woman wants is some serious discussion about what should be done to help and encourage women to look after their own children; more financial, social and emotional support for parents at home with children.

But most of all I would like not to be belittled for trying to do the best for my son. I believe that having children is a gift, not a right to be exercised to meet our own needs. Having brought my baby into the world - a world which does not need any more children– I owe him my time and attention.

And if you don’t like the sound of that, then you heard it from Larkin first - ‘don’t have any kids yourself’.

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