As I drag my tired body along the landing at 1.52am, muttering angrily about the nightly bed swapping, I feel a wave of guilt for not simply throwing a welcoming arm around my son and ushering him into my bed. As a mother, I am supposed to always put my children’s needs above my own desires. His need for comfort and company at night, is greater than my desire for an uninterrupted night’s sleep. For maternal love is selfless; children have needs which must be met, and mothers only desires which can be cast aside and, if met, have been selfishly pursued.
But sleep is a need, not a desire, no matter what you age are. Needing sleep doesn’t make me a bad mother. Wanting sleep doesn’t make me a bad mother. Wanting anything doesn’t make me any kind of mother, it just makes me a person. Becoming a mother doesn’t supercede personhood. All the desires you had, all the flaws, all the you ; they are there, still. And yet, we somehow expect mothers to live without desire, without needs, without flaws. Of course, no one can live in this way, but mothers, believing that they should, are overwhelmed with a guilt which stems only from wishing to live as others do.
“ My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings toward these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I was not fitted. And I am weak sometimes from held-in rage.”
I read this from the diary of Adrienne Rich, from her book ‘Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution’ and I felt I could relate, in part, to the ‘murderous alteration’ of feelings she describes, and the despair at feeling that way, which must make me in some way unfit for motherhood,
“ I do know that for years I believed I should never have been anyone’s mother, that because I felt my own needs acutely, and often expressed them violently..”
I felt rage on realising that Rich’s words were written in 1970, and I, a mother nearly fifty years later, was still experiencing the same conflict. In her book, Rich outlines the difference between the harmful and misogynistic nature of motherhood as an institution and mothering as it is experienced by women. In the years since Rich’s book was written, we have still failed, on the whole, to listen to the maternal voice. Historically , mothers might gather at mother and baby groups, sharing stories in whispers amongst themselves. Now that many mothers return to work, they can be navigating the world of early motherhood alone, and without a place to share their thoughts. Social media and blogging has changed this to a degree; mothers have seized this as a place to share their stories of tongue in cheek failed parenting moments, as well as depictions of raw and honest emotions. But much of this story telling is ghettoised, from mother to mother, rather than reaching the wider world. When it does have a wider impact, its often subject to the same old misogynistic scrutiny.
The most radical act a mother can commit is to claim her personhood alongside her motherhood, and shout it loudly. Not, “ I am a mother, but also.” Not, “more than a mother.” Mother and. Yes, I am a mother. And I am also a reader, a writer, a blogger, a student, an employee, a friend. If I say, I am a mother, but I am also all these things I am giving more value to the other roles. I am saying, ‘I know you don’t value my role as mother, so look at all the other things I am.’ We need to claim our motherhood, in order to bring value to the role of mothers. The relationship between feminism and motherhood is complex ; the idea that we need to run away from it stems from the assertion of many second wave feminists that our reproductive capabilities are the source of female oppression. But this is only true, because the power of motherhood has been taken from us, and used as a tool of oppression. If we fail to claim our motherhood, we are singing the master’s song, we are believing the myth that it is a role of no value.
I think as mothers we are torn between embracing motherhood, and not wanting to be defined it. We also know that it is an overwhelming and life changing experience. Ultimately, I don’t believe that gender equality will be achieved by diminishing motherhood. In fact, I’m not altogether sure anymore that gender equality is the holy grail we should be chasing, not in its current neo-liberal form anyway, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day. I think we should talk loudly, freely and openly, about our mothering experience and all our complex and contradictory emotions, desires and needs. I am a mother, and I am.