Published:  12:55 AM, 11 December 2018

'I love being a mother' - it's just the word that bothers me

'I love being a mother' - it's just the word that bothers me

Natasha Pearlman

Over the past few months, every time I've tentatively raised the subject I'm going to tell you about with friends, family or acquaintances, I've been met with a sharp intake of breath. "Really?" they ask, tilting their heads quizzically. Occasionally a look of concern flashes across their faces. "Is she serious? She has kids. Has something happened?" Nothing has happened and, yes, I am serious.

I just don't like the word "mother", that's all. I am aware, of course, that by an inescapable biological fact I am one, with my two daughters: Rose aged four and a half and Thea, four months. I love them - deeply and intensely. And it's a part of my personal life that couldn't bring me more joy. I don't even mind hearing "Mummy" whined at me about 200 times a day. No, it's not being a mother I don't like, it is being a "mother".

For it was as if the minute I had Rose, I had been conferred some kind of generic identity, with the same generic needs and wants as all other mothers. It was a society-defined term, with society-defined generalizations. How I was going to feel as soon as I "became one". What I needed to buy, as a mother, to meet expectations.

The way my life, from this point on, was going to pan out. The ferocity with which this new identity felt like it was being thrust upon me - I was now a "mama" who surely was going to want to abandon my old life to focus entirely on my new family, right? - couldn't have been further from what my husband was experiencing as a new father.

His was a role he could wear lightly, one he could learn to define for himself, alongside his other commitments. There were no products he had to buy, no books to read, no new personality to subsume. But becoming a mother? It felt loaded, all-encompassing and, to me, uncomfortable. Not positive, or powerful, or equal.

It also felt clichéd. Even today, even with so much effort focused on achieving gender equality, the language around mothers is so stereotypical - we "care", "juggle", "wing it" or "do it all" (and even if we "own" these words, they still exist), whereas fathers "provide" or "entertain", rather than "divide" and "share".

And while words might not seem like much, I know from the job I do as a writer and editor that the casual, throwaway way in which we use language helps shape our culture and expectations. Whether we like it or not, we often become the terms that seek to define us. Right from the very start, as a result of all this, while I loved my daughter with every part of me, I struggled with being a mother.

Before I continue, I am fully aware of just how loaded and emotive motherhood is. How difficult, provocative and upsetting this may sound for some women - those who have been through immense trauma or struggles in order to call themselves, and be, a mother. Those who long to have this identity, but yet may never be able to, for various reasons.

So who am I to take issue with the word? And whatever my own personal feelings, I'm wrong, surely? Because, arguably, there's never been a better time to be a mother.

Gone are the days when having a child meant the end of your career - Serena Williams, Helena Morrissey, Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet and current president Alison Loehnis, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Nicola Mendelsohn are just a few of the many visible women showing us how you achieve success at home and at work.

Then there are the women making motherhood profitable - Michelle Kennedy, founder of "mum" friendship app Peanut and the women behind similar app Mush, as well as Molly Gunn, who has turned Selfish Mother into a thriving clothing business, where we can wear various slogans of motherhood proudly across our chests.

Want to write a book? Make it about motherhood and you're on to a winner! From Sheila Heti's acclaimed novel Motherhood and Angela Garbes's non-fiction feminist book Like a Mother, to manuals on how to birth, there have been more than 30 published this year with the word "mother" in the title.

And fashion - the industry I have worked in for the past six years, first as deputy editor of Elle and then as editor of Grazia until February this year - has made motherhood "cool".

It's been sexualised on the catwalks for a while now, with pregnant models often showcasing their bumps in barely there lingerie, and in September this year with the appearance of Slick Woods at Rihanna's Savage x Fenty show, nine months pregnant and (she revealed later) having contractions.

And at the recent Marine Serre show in New York, motherhood was celebrated - with models wearing their babies, proudly and defiantly, in slings that matched their jumpsuits. While fashion shows might seem easy to dismiss, thanks to their often headline-grabbing showmanship, the influence the industry commands is huge.

British and German Vogue now run online columns on motherhood and a number of fashion's greatest social media influencers have recently or are about to become mums - Susie Lau, Pandora Sykes and Giovanna Battaglia, to name a few - and are using their platforms to showcase pre- and post-birth style, as well as the daily travails of new parenthood.

Whether we like it or not, motherhood is in, and we are being sold the message that being a mother doesn't have to hinder us. It can be cool, sexy and even financially lucrative. In fact, the figures are staggering - with "mumpreneurs" now expected to contribute £9.4bn to the UK economy by 2025 (up from £7.4bn in 2015).

So, rather than shun it, why have I not embraced motherhood? Why have I not thrown myself headlong into the movement and even tried to turn a profit from it? Why haven't I allowed myself simply to enjoy it?

It's an uncomfortable question to answer, because in many ways, surely, my prejudices are unfair. Just because I've not been able to switch off and allow myself to be consumed, on both my maternity leaves, by the uncomplicated gorgeousness of having a newborn, why should I start criticizing it for everyone else?

But it's not that - everyone is entitled to the maternity leave they want. Where I come up against mothering and motherhood is that it's become fetishes. It's turned into an obsession, a crew to be part of, even, arguably, a clique - into which some of us will and won't fit.

We are being seduced into this new world, where we are meant to be able to be ourselves, with women just like us, and even potentially make money from it, but in which we are also, thanks to social media, required to keep up with our peers, heaping yet more pressure on us. But what if we can't succeed as our role models do? How does that make us feel?

Yet more disturbingly, it is because I believe the #motherhood movement is something we've convinced ourselves is empowering, when, really, it's just a smokescreen for the fact that we still face so many inequalities every day. The gender pay gap is not closing any time soon. There's a lack of women in senior roles across almost every single profession.

And nearly 20 years on from the publication of the book Wife Work by Susan Maushart - which argued that women still do the large majority of work and childcare at home, whatever our role outside it - nothing has really changed. Somehow we had been convinced that creating our own women's world was our idea, and the best place for us to thrive, when actually it was because we had been forced out of the wider one.

So rather than see their lives stall, #motherhood rose up. We turned kitchen table start-ups into huge empires, because we're deeply capable. But we were only sitting at them in the first place because we were forced from our desks.

While it might feel empowering, by not tackling the wider issues around sharing childcare, or smashing societal stereotypes, are we not allowing the cycle of inequality to perpetuate? Are we accidentally exploiting one another because we've bought into the lie that we're better off out of the "boys' club"?

The reality is that it's still tougher, in every respect, for women after a baby then men. And by sidestepping the issue, are we not harming ourselves, in the long term, more? We've spent years making the most of the decisions that have been taken for us. And we've turned the corner we've been put in, into a palace. But it's still a corner. And we're still in it. Surely it's time, now, to leave that behind and send #motherhood out of fashion.

The writer is an Editor, Consultant, Budding entrepreneur and former Editor of Grazia

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