I’ve never bought into the idea that parenthood – particularly motherhood – changes you dramatically. I’ve always taken it to be a toxic idea, one that cuts you off from your friends and your life at a time when you most need support and a sense of normality. Far younger than most of my circle when I married and had kids, I needed to dismiss this idea to keep my sanity and my ego intact. I was just the same. Nothing had changed. I worked in the same place, had the same parents and sisters, the same husband, the same friends, liked the same books and films and food and cities. I just had a noisy hedgehog to wheel or sling around with me now; and then I had another. They played with each other which left my hands free, and we still lived in London, Hub Of All Life, so things were still simple.
Then things, as they tend to do, stopped being quite so simple. We had one more baby, the final one, and suddenly our two-bed flat seemed a bit of a squeeze. I’d been made redundant from a job I had loved, but which had tied us to London, so we could finally get out of the city and find a home that would fit us all. We could go anywhere. We talked about Paris, and Japan, and we looked at international teaching jobs for J. Then my dad got ill – a whole bouquet of cancers blooming among his organs. My sister, brother-in-law and nephews extended their year-long stay in Australia to a tentative two, with a possible view to more. We moved house, out of the capital and into the Home Counties. One of the children stopped sleeping. The days got shorter and darker. J’s commute was over four hours a day.
And suddenly, suddenly, I had to admit that finally, definitely, parenthood had changed me. It had taken my choices from me. I was out of London, away from 98% of my friends, and with J stuck in traffic I found myself doing nothing but school runs, nursery drop-offs, swimming lessons, teas with school friends, Rainbows and coffee mornings and PTA meetings and desperately trying to cram in some reading around it all, to keep my hand in with work and my brain ticking over.
Any spare moments I have to myself are generally spent reading enraging, excellent feminist articles. J is barely in the door each night before I’ve turned on the blast furnace of rage and frustration at slut-shaming, mansplaining, intersectionality used as a stick with which to beat feminists, sexual assault conviction rates, institutionalised sexism and misogyny in film and TV and music and art and literature. I took him to see Bridget Christie the other week (Merry Christmas, darling!) and between the rib-aching laughter, I welled up furious tears at the things she said, that were so true and so right and so very fucking wrong. Why are we taking our children to supermarkets where women with legs-akimbo are on the front of almost any mag which isn’t The Lady? Why do I ache so much just walking down a street when ads for everything from deodorant to tights to cameras to cars are constantly, incessantly reminding us that women are objects, designed to look nice and to ornament the world of men? Why is it so fucking impossible to go to the library or the cinema without being reminded that the world is created and maintained only for white hetero men? And if you’re sick of hearing this, imagine how unbelievably sick I am of living it.
But all these things made me realise something else. I’ve been mother-shaming. Not in the sense that I like to do impressions of my mother’s European accent in a falsetto voice (although you know I love that) but that if someone defines herself as primarily a mother, I dismiss them. If I see that the first thing in your twitter bio is your maternal status, it’s massively unlikely that I’ll follow you back.
What the hell?
What the actual hell?
When I think of my very favourite women in my life, the majority these days are mothers, as I meet more and more in the life I have now. And because I am interesting, funny, smart and ambitious, so are they. Just like I haven’t been ‘dramatically changed’ since the birth of my children, neither have they. I don’t despair at boring, obsessive, martyred mothers, because I don’t befriend them. Just like I didn’t befriend boring, obsessive martyred people in my teens, or at Uni, or in my twenties. So why am I so ashamed of motherhood?
I wasn’t a fan of Gone, Girl. But that Cool Girl trope is true. And I bought into it just as much as the next person. When I think of the things I did and said and laughed at as a teenager, I despair at the lack of education and role model I had at that age. My daughter now asks constantly where the women are, why it’s only men, and that’s great. But there’s still so much internalised sexism on my part that I’ll be building in blind spots to my education of her and her siblings. Like a dismissal of and a shame about motherhood. Keep it quiet, love. You’ve had a baby, but no need to bang on about it. I understand and accept and tacitly condone the idea that it’s a nice hobby, that whole ‘perpetuation of the human race’, but it’s best to keep it under your hat if you want to be taken seriously. Motherhood is a niche area. It’s a fraction of the audience – not something everyone would ever care about. And the idea that you might actually be proud of raising kind, brave, funny, generous young people, who make you laugh, and make you cry with their selflessness, and who are interesting and boring at the same time, and who might actually have changed you for the better – even if you don’t buy into that whole thing about ‘making every decision for the children’ because frankly, that way madness lies – but who are on the whole A Good Thing… god. Heaven forbid, you boring Allsop-clone.
And if those were my feelings, why wouldn’t I feel as if my choices had been taken from me? In a society in which no value (or only a self-effacing, mocking value) is given to those who join a PTA in an attempt to make a school better for all the children, or those who clean and cook and discipline and drive and organise and launder and actually bear children are - because the latter is the one thing men can’t do, so its value is diminished in society until we’re embarrassed to even be doing it - just hobbyists, idiots who have made their cot-beds and now have to lie in them. And more than anything, I *must* remember that I have absolutely no right to demand respect for this job I’m doing. Alongside the one where I actually make money for myself.
So yes, I may have changed. But as long as I still feel that way in those dark subconscious cupboards of my soul, I haven’t changed nearly enough.