When I became a mother for the first time, I had many moments during those early months when I felt irritated and confused. Why had nobody told me how wonderful this was? All anybody has told me about motherhood was how incredibly hard it was. This, the single most perfect decision that I have ever made in my entire life, could easily never have happened.
I went to an academic school where I was empowered to believe with conviction in my own potential. The world was open and available for me to explore, just so long as I didn’t get pregnant. To fall pregnant was to die; I would lose myself forever. As a teenager, pregnancy often featured in my nightmares. Subtly, and in many different and pervasive ways, at school and then later at work, motherhood was shrouded in a kind of grief. I wanted to be travelling the world making films, not cleaning up actual human poo. I wanted my head full of the fireworks of quick and coherent thought, not the incessant background clamouring of a toddler. I wanted the money to fly across the world, the time to sit at the hairdressers all day on a Saturday, the mental space to sink into a two-hour-long yoga practice. I was, quite simply, too selfish to be a mother. It would be the end of life as I knew it.
We all have our own individual paths to parenthood. I am sure there are many of us who always knew we wanted children, many of us who struggled for a long time to conceive, and many of us who were slammed in the face with the opposite feeling from the one that hit me (Why did nobody tell me this was so hard?). But I’m sure there are others like me, who agonised over the decision to try, who felt no maternal tugging of the heartstrings, who never cooed over babies, who found it hard and disorientating to spend time with small children, and who lived in comfortable companionship with the idea of a solitary old age. I just always felt utterly complete.
For me, the combination of how I believed motherhood would temper my enjoyment of the world, and the endless negative comments I heard about parenting, meant that I was pretty close to deciding it just wasn’t for me. It is unfortunately, not something one can test drive: I was terrified of making a decision that I might regret, that I could never revoke, and which affected another’s life so completely.
This trepidatious, unconvinced and unsure route into motherhood isn’t spoken about all that much. This makes sense – it feels risky to share the fact that I once thought I didn’t want children. I might unknowingly be speaking to someone who has been trying for years, who has wanted a baby all their life and may never have one. Then one night in the back of a cab, heading from a nightclub to an after-party at somebody’s house, the mum that I’d been chatting to all night turned to me and said, nervously, ‘I wasn’t sure if I wanted kids to be honest. I mean, my son is the love of my life, but also…I could have just not had him you know?’ and I realised that the trouble with nobody ever speaking like this, is that it leaves space for women like me, to grow up viewing mothers as a completely different species – these separate, ‘other’ beings who are endlessly giving, patient, and maternal. We decide that we simply aren’t cut out for it, and we move on to other things.
Now that I can speak from the other side of the line, I can admit that life looks very different from how it did five years ago. There are toys scattered across my living room carpet; my favourite lamp was smashed this week during an over-enthusiastic game of hula hoop; I have only just noticed that one side of my nursing bra has been undone for the last two hours. Five years ago I woke up each morning to a quiet flat; I stayed late in the office without having to make any arrangements; I mooched from yoga class to vintage shopping trip to brunch; I went out late at the weekend and enjoyed leisurely breakfasts in bed. I am not suggesting that every woman should want children, but I think it is important to recognise that – aside from being separated by many years of a life lived – these aren’t the worlds of two different sorts of women, one ambitious and go-getting, the other ‘Mumsy’ and stay-at-home. The old me is simply me, before we decided one day on a whim, to try.
I have wondered over the years, why I felt such a strong aversion to mothering. I feel uncomfortable being honest about the fact that, had I ‘followed my gut’ four years ago, I think I may have decided my gut was telling me not to have children. And yet, having feared the dread-filled moment of a positive pregnancy test all my life, when it finally happened, my first and almost only thought was: ‘Why did I not do this sooner? My baby could have had so many more years with me, together on the earth.’
I have berated myself for having got myself so wrong. I have also wondered, if it wasn’t my ‘gut’ telling me not to have children, then what was it? What value systems and judgments were at play when I looked at mothers and thought ‘I could never be you’?
Part of the picture I think lies in the Great British Understatement. As a nation, we aren’t innately that good at leaning earnestly into bliss in regular conversation; we feel much more comfortable making jokes about sleep-deprivation, or being unable to use the bathroom undisturbed. I received many more ‘Just you wait’s than ‘Congratulations’ when I was pregnant with Ella: ‘what time did you wake up this morning? Yeah you won’t be able to do that in a few months’; ‘Sit down while you can’; ‘Pregnancy is the easy bit’. (It wasn’t, by the way.) I am not suggesting we should go against the grain of intuitive and free-flowing chat, but I think it is okay to say to a non-parent – sensitively, briefly – that having children is a wonderful thing.
Alongside our sarcastic tendencies, there is an interesting separation that occurs during any rite of passage, between those that have passed through it, and those who haven’t. I’m sure many of us remember those awkward teenage years, watching our first few peers fall in love or lose their virginity and wondering what the hell they were going on about (‘Tess doesn’t want to come to laser quest on Saturday because she’s going to sit and hold hands in the park with a boy? That sounds dull.’) For a few years between the ages of 14 and 17 my friends were split between those who suddenly seemed childlike and immature, and those of us in serious relationships, listening to love songs on the radio with brand-new context and thinking we were about 35. Becoming parents is the first time this sort of social dislocation has happened to our peer groups for a couple of decades. As a new mum, it can feel disorientating speaking to a childless best friend about the experience – it is such a vast, soul-shifting time of life, we worry that words won’t do it justice, and so we share the bits that our friend will understand, the bits grim enough to make them laugh, so that we can feel the spark of connection we are used to enjoying with them, instead of watching their patient face attempt to arrange itself around an overwhelming outpouring of raw love.
But it goes much deeper than these everyday social behaviours; my own attitude to motherhood was fostered by the patriarchal capitalism that has defined many of my unconscious value judgements. As a society, we place less-intellectual caring and nurturing roles at the bottom of the chain – surgeons look down on nurses from their lofty well-salaried perch; the CEO breathes the rarefied air of a private office while the HR department (if it even exists) does not. Obsessed with forward momentum and productivity, we have segregated the generations to allow the productive middle ages to work free from the distractions of children and the needs of the elderly. We view children as half-formed adults, rather than complete and inspiring beings that we can learn so much from. We view the elderly as past-it adults, rather than the repositories of wisdom and experience who have shaped us.
I had absorbed the pejorative flavour of words like ‘mumsy’, ‘stay-at-home’, and ‘domestic’. I never wanted this cerebral, five-days-a-week, individualistic, money-earning, socialising, holidaying, spending season of my life to end – it reflected so perfectly everything that we as a people hold dear, and so it was simply easier to love and accept as a reality than a life lived mostly within the four walls of my home, and within the borders of my baby’s wake windows. Exchange your time for money. Give in to the grind. To mother was to drop off the edge, to disappear, to matter less.
As with many women my age, I was told that I could have it all. But I was never actually taught how to. The bit I was taught, was the career bit, the ‘me’ bit. The rest of it was largely ignored. I know this, because the few instances where an alternative view was offered to me, stand out like bright stars in my memory: A director I have worked with many times telling me how brilliant it was to have kids when you are young; a friend of mine pregnant with her second confiding that ‘of course it is us women who hold the power’; a school teacher reassuring me with a kind smile ‘Don’t worry it gets much better when you get older. You can make your own decisions, travel, go to parties, even become a mother if you want’.
The harsh truth is that becoming a parent forces us to slow down, and collectively making space for parents forces our society to slow down. When I was younger, I was gripping on far too tightly to realise the blindingly obvious fact: we were all babies. Ultimately, this community that we find ourselves a part of, for all its dysfunction and selfishness, exists because we were loved, we were parented, we were cared for by adults. This is a foundational stone in the world we have built together, yet we give it little value.
Many of the things I thought I felt about parenting, were in fact opinions and frameworks that I had unknowingly adopted or had projected onto me by the society that raised me. They were not things I found to be true in my soul when I experienced parenting for myself. I am lucky that I was wrong about who I am, but I could have been right. I could have regretted it, and that’s why this is a thorny and tricky topic to unpick. I am not suggesting that we should gloss over the bits of parenting that are all kinds of difficult. Raising children is relentless, challenging every single aspect of who we are. But I do believe that by making space for mothers, by nurturing babies and children collectively rather than dealing with them impatiently or not at all, we are creating a glorious antidote to the harder corners of our society. And I think that we should consider the fact that we may be speaking to somebody who, like I did, believes they are not up to the challenge, that they are too selfish to be a mother. We should remind them that the reason our children exhaust us is that we are in love with them, and that if parenthood did happen for them in whatever shape or form, they would be exquisite.