Mother guilt. Every mother I know feels it (except for one, and I’m desperately trying to figure out her secret), but where does it come from?
‘I should spend more time with the kids.’ ‘They should spend less time on screens.’ ‘I should put more protein in their lunchbox.’ ‘Have they brushed their teeth for long enough?’ ‘Read a book for the recommended number of minutes per day?’ ‘Am I RUINING THEIR LIFE BY NOT SENDING THEM TO PIANO LESSONS AT AGE 3?’
Jacqueline Rose’s new book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, opens thus:
A simple argument guides this book: that motherhood is, in Western discourse, the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human. It is the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which it becomes the task – unrealisable, of course – of mothers to repair.
Yep, I’d agree with that. Mothers are given all the responsibility, pay the economic price – in lost income and lower pay for life – and get none of the credit, for raising our future generations in their formative years.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you. Rose’s book is incredibly dense, written in heavy academic lingo and moves from ancient Greece to current-day U.K. and Trump – and back again – with nary a blink of the eye. You can’t get through a whole page without being interrupted by a footnote.
It made my head hurt. I did not finish it.
BUT. I do believe it’s important that we’re discussing motherhood and the raising of children at all levels of society, including the upper eschelons of academia. So, to Rose I say – thank you for taking on the ivory tower. Kudos to you.
To you guys I say – unless academic language is your thing, ahem, perhaps not the best book for you.
So what I’ve decided to do is distil a few of Rose’s excellent points into some less-dense anecdotes here. And then I’ll recommend a couple of other books that you’ll actually be able to concentrate on in between measuring out the protein for tomorrow’s lunches and shouting at your offspring to stop trying to kill each other while fretting that by raising your voice you may be condemning them to a lifetime of expensive therapy which they won’t be able to afford alongside their outrageous university fees and unaffordable housing that you’ll need to help them with a deposit for, oh god oh god, we forgot to save for a house because we were buying too much avocado on toast, DON’T KICK THAT WALL OR WE WON’T GET OUR SECURITY DEPOSIT BACK.
Anecdote 1: Mothers are a drain on our health system
Around January 2017, The Sun and The Daily Mail launched an attack on all these Nigerian ‘health tourists’ coming to England and having babies on the NHS bill.
‘One health tourist’s £350,000 bill – and you paid!’ screamed one headline, alongside a picture of a Nigerian women with twin babies. Rose speculates that this figure was chosen specifically to echo the £359 million that Brexit campaigners falsely claimed Britain would get if they stopped being part of the European Union.
This had a direct effect on the health of other pregnant migrants, who – ‘according to charity reports from across the UK’ – simply stopped showing up for antenatal checks because they were scared of being deported or charged thousands of dollars.
Migrants. How dare they expect to access quality healthcare to avoid dying while bringing new life into the world? The cheek.
Oh, and no, in case you were wondering, there was no mention of the fathers in any of these. Clearly immaculate conceptions, all of them.
Anecdote 2: Lazy single mothers who just want to care for their children
I mean, really. They don’t contribute to the economy in any way and they’re a drain on the health system. Also – single parent benefits just encourage teenage girls to get pregnant to claim benefits.
This demonising of single mothers is not new and it is thoroughly endemic to western culture. Rose had a couple of excellent points to contribute on this subject:
- A 2012 study conducted by Pat Thane and Tanya Evans proved that the ubiquitous teenaged girl who gets herself knocked up to live below the poverty line on single parent benefits – she’s nothing more than a myth.
- Western society is freaked out by the idea that children should be at all entitled to dedicated care by a related adult: ‘the single mother brings too close to the surface the utter craziness, not to say the unmanageable nature, of the idea that a mother should exist for her child and nothing else.’
Anecdote 3: It doesn’t have to be like this
Neo-liberalism has sold us the line that, unless you’re doing an activity that generates numbers that can be included in the national accounts, then you’re not contributing. Parenting is unpaid and uncounted in the economy. Hence the push to get all parents into the ‘workforce’, as though raising children were not work at all.
Rose points out that Patricia Hill Collins, an African American studies scholar:
was the first of many to insist [that ‘mother-work’ of women of colour], cuts across private and public, and is not coralled inside the family unit. Instead such work plays a crucial role in collective, community survival in a racially discriminating world, thereby unsettling just about every white-dominated dichotomy on the subject of mothers.
Easy-read books about being a woman/mother/wife in modern society
If this subject gets you riled up and you want to learn more – but words like ‘dichotomy’ make your sleep-deprived eyes twitch – try one of these:
- Fight Like A Girl, by Clementine Ford
- The Wife Drought, by Annabel Crabb
- Motherhood & Creativity: The Divided Heart, by Rachel Power
Grab a copy of Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty from your favourite bookshop or online from:
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.