I was raised to believe all the usual liberal things about men and women. How humans are all broadly the same apart from differently shaped genitals and some socialisation; how sexist stereotypes alone are what hold women back in the workplace; how success in the workplace and the world at large is what men and women, to equal degrees, do (and should) aspire to. How parenthood, not motherhood, should have equal impact on both parents; how having a child would be a temporary blip in a life otherwise oriented outwards, towards the world.
Then I had a baby. It is commonplace to observe that life after becoming a parent is different from life before, which is true, and one part of this was my cherished liberal beliefs running aground on the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother.
For me, becoming a mother involved 12 surreal and painful hours of labour followed by a crash C-section and a week on a drip. Recovery took a month. On sharing this with other women who are mothers I discovered that most of us have a horror story of one sort or another about childbirth, but that a polite omerta exists around sharing these either with men or with non-mothers. On the whole this is probably for the best, or no woman would ever consider getting pregnant. But it is only the first layer in a cloak of obfuscation that lies over the nature of motherhood.
Gestating a baby is physically punishing, and one sports science study compared it to running a 40-week marathon in terms of energy expenditure. Getting the baby out is not easy, either. Although, mercifully, fewer women die having babies in Britain nowadays thanks to modern obstetrics, childbirth still carries a high risk of sometimes life-changing complications.
Women who have had one or more babies by vaginal delivery are at double or treble risk of developing pelvic floor disorders – that is to say, anal or vaginal prolapses or urinary or even faecal incontinence. And once the baby is there, breastfeeding demands some 500 or so additional calories a day, is painful to establish and comes with a risk of mastitis and other unpleasant experiences.
This life-changing experience collides at a fundamental level, as I discovered, with the liberal vision of all humans as equal, rational individuals, for whom embodied existence is a mere servant to the pursuit of individual desire. To the extent that it is a liberal movement, much of feminism has focused on freeing women from those aspects of our traditional roles that seemed an impediment to women’s freedom to fulfil ourselves.
Freedom from domestic drudgery; personal safety on the streets; recognition as equally deserving of the right to vote, own property, succeed in the workplace and so on. More recently, this being largely accomplished, third-wave feminism has focused more on liberating women from the necessity of even being female, declaring that “Trans women are women” and that about this “there is no debate”.
This is all (or mostly) good stuff; I have no desire to live in the nineteenth century. The problem with where we are now, though, is babies. When it comes to the most gruelling aspects of propagating the species, there is no means by which the work can be equally distributed between the sexes. Males cannot give birth, unless you count those male-identified females who are periodically reported in the papers as “pregnant fathers”. Neither can males breastfeed, and it is arguably breastfeeding where the roles of a mother and her co-parent in a couple really begin to diverge.
A breastfeeding mother needs to stay physically close to her baby, and runs on the baby’s timetable for months. That is to say, on a two, three or four-hour feed-play-nap loop regardless of whether it is day or night. The other partner, meanwhile, can support the mother in practical ways but is considerably more free to maintain a normal daily schedule or return to work, as most fathers typically do following the legally-allotted two weeks. (Indeed, fewer than a third of fathers take their legally permitted two weeks’ paternity leave, according to a report earlier this year.)
Reports lament the poor uptake of shared parental leave, but given that males cannot breastfeed, it should not come as any surprise. Or is the idea to ask mothers who have endured cracked nipples, blocked ducts and sleepless nights establishing breastfeeding to then move their baby onto a bottle after a few months so daddy can have a turn at home? Not going to happen.
This in turn shapes how housework is divided. There is no doubt that socialisation plays some role in a differential distribution of housework between men and women, but the rubber really hits the road when children arrive, and this is to no small degree because of a mother’s desire to be close to her baby. It will feel logical for a mother to take on the lion’s share of house and child management during maternity leave.
By the time she returns to work – and over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children in the UK now work – it is highly likely that a pattern will have emerged in which this is normalised, and the mother has become more oriented toward managing the household while her partner is more focused on work.
Then there is what I call the “Mum Bluetooth”. This is more difficult to describe but likely corresponds to what attachment psychology calls “maternal attunement”: the capacity mothers have (to a varying degree according to their own psychological background) to tune into and reflect their infant’s state of mind. Non-mothers of course have some capacity to attune to infants, but for most healthy mothers there is an intensity to the connection that is simply not evident in others, however fond they are of the baby.
I routinely found myself waking a few moments before my daughter did in the night, even after she moved to her own room. The sound of her hungry cry would cause my milk to let down and all rational thought to cease until she was fed: the only occasion in two decades of driving where I have ever damaged a car was trying to get it around a sharp corner with my hungry baby daughter screaming in the back.
I embarked on motherhood with a vision of myself as rational and autonomous. It was unsettling the least to find myself in this messy, leaky symbiosis with a wholly dependent infant whose cries caused me to lactate and lose the ability to think coherently. I am not saying we should shrug our shoulders at the different ways men and women are treated by society, on the grounds that it is a biological inevitability. I want rather to suggest that the simplistic picture of sex equality promoted by popular feminism has a motherhood-shaped blind spot and, as such, lets both sexes down.
Popular depictions of motherhood in our culture tend to go two ways. Motherhood is either an adjunct (or obstacle) to other more worldly achievements but of no notable value or difficulty in itself, or else it is a pastel-coloured ideal of domesticity cleansed of the blood, milk, excrement and hormone-driven altered states of mind.
Left-flavoured liberalism generally ignores the embodied nature of motherhood, and assures us that sexist stereotypes, and those social patterns that conform to sexist stereotypes, are an oppressive creation of the patriarchy designed to keep women from fulfilling our true potential. Right-flavoured liberalism tells us these same patterns are simply a matter of “choice”.
The truth, though, is that carrying and nursing children is neither exactly choice nor coercion: it is an animalistic experience that cuts profoundly across the fantasies implicit in liberalism of free, rational individuals for whom liberation means transcending our physiological natures.
This matters. We cannot think politically about the place of family life in society, or indeed about sex equality at all, unless we can look frankly at what motherhood is, rather than at the motherhood-shaped space gestured at by a liberal focus on identities and economics. Maternity leave in Britain is far better than in many places but it has been a long time since a political party of either Left or Right dared to suggest that many mothers might want to spend years rather than months at home with their children, and adjust the tax codes accordingly.
Motherhood is a crunch point where the liberal pursuit of individual freedom collides not just with communitarian obligations to others in society, but our very nature as biological creatures, yet for political reasons the ball has been dropped and kicked into a corner by Left and Right.
While our mainstream liberal culture pretends that all humans are essentially identical apart from our dangly bits, it will continue to recoil in disgust from the messy reality of motherhood as a deeply animal experience. And so mothers will continue to be as overworked, guilty and burned out as they currently are, and our birth rates will continue to plummet. Perhaps, finally, it is time to restart the long-overdue public conversation about what motherhood is, and move beyond the polite political omertà that covers the subject.
First published at Unherd