Motherhood, in modern society, is like a cult religion. There are handbooks, rules, and commandment-style lists of do’s and don’ts. Instead of trying to getting into heaven, though, everyone worries about raising a “good kid.”
Considering all the judgment that surrounds parenting, it was shocking to me (and many others) when a mother of two unabashedly bashed motherhood in the UK Mail. The article, written by Isabella Dutton, is a confessional about the fact that she didn’t – and doesn’t – want her kids. Passage after passage describes a disdain for motherhood:
“I was acutely aware that a child would usurp my independence and drain my finances. I felt no excitement as my due date approached. I had no compulsion to fill the nursery with toys, nor did I read parenting manuals or swap tips with friends. I focused on enjoying the last months of my freedom.”
“Why have them at all if you don’t want to bring them up, or can’t afford to? And why pretend you wanted them if you have no intention of raising them? This hypocrisy is, in my view, far more pernicious and difficult to fathom than my own admission that my life would have been better without children. And here, perhaps, is the nub of it: I would not take on the job of motherhood and do it half-heartedly. Unlike so many would-be mums I thought hard about the responsibilities of my role, and, I believe, if more women did before rushing heedlessly into it, they might share my reservations.”
“Two years and four months after Stuart was born, I had my daughter Jo. It may seem perverse that I had a second child in view of my aversion to them, but I believe it is utterly selfish to have an only one.”
One line in particular stood out to me: “I am a conscientious parent – yet perhaps I would have resented my children less had I not been.”
Even in America today, I’d guess that many women have children just because of societal norms and pressure. We get little clues that deviating from the husband/wife/2 kids model will draw criticism and suspicion — if a young woman expresses no desire to reproduce, for example, inevitably the response is, “You’ll change your mind. But don’t wait until it’s too late, or you’ll regret it.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that some women have children to fend off regret, and then regret THAT. Yes, some dream about babies their whole lives — women for whom the desire for motherhood is deep-seated and unshakable, just like Steve Irwin’s drive for_ adventures and risks wilderness. Others may get pregnant on accident and just roll with it. Everyone is different in how they approach it. The problem, then, isn’t the premise of the article, i.e. that it’s possible to not want children or to regret becoming a mother. Hearing this out loud probably comforted women who feel the same way (and who society decides must be horribly flawed human beings).
The problem is Dutton’s critique of mothers who take an alternative path, e.g. those who return to work after giving birth. The implication is that there’s a wrong or inappropriate approach to child-rearing, and doing it “right” means utter, total, and immersive dedication to the cause. But, is it any more wrong to want and to have a child and return to work than it is to have a child you don’t want and stay at home hating your life — and, in her case, then publicly announce your lifetime of regret at 57?
If we tell women who want to work that they only have one option, most would feel like this woman, and those of my grandmothers generation: Trapped. Burdened. Unhappy. Regretful. I’d rather have a mother who is happy and sometimes absent than unhappy and constantly around.
Overall, though, I wonder how much emphasis we should really put on these types of decisions.
There are researchers asserting that early childhood experiences can shape your disposition for life. For example, in attachment and relationship formation, the hypothesis is that children who don’t have good relationships with the mother later become “avoidant” or “insecure” in their other relationships. Those who grow up feeling secure and supported then maintain secure relations throughout their lifetime. In theory, anyway. This stems from a far amount of study, and personally, I can see how mother’s neuroses may have influenced how I relate to people. Then again, my brother – raised by the same woman — is the pinnacle of trusting, loving monogamous stability. I doubt that parenting skills could account for my personal hang-ups, but leave a sibling entirely unscathed.
Similarly in other families with multiple children, I’ve noticed that one mother can have kids with wildly different dispositions. Often there is a “problem child,” the one who stands out from their straight-A, straight-edge siblings. I don’t want to start down the road of nature versus nurture, but short of abuse or other serious trauma, it seems like the mother couldn’t be the only thing driving kids’ bad (or good) behavior. I bring this up because the responses to the Dutton article include a slew of complaints (from adults) about their awful upbringing. Basically, all the ways that their mothers, fathers, or joint parents did them wrong.
This isn’t anything new. Lots of people complain about how childhood “upbringing” ruined their drive or intelligence or moral fiber. I have friends who, in their mid to late 20’s, complain they don’t eat right or keep regular sleep schedules because their parents “never taught them how.” Is basic nutrition too complex for their highly educated brains? I suspect not. It’s just a convenient excuse, and deep down we know it.
For all the pressure we put on mothers to do it “right” when raising their children, we should equally require children – and later, adults — to grow up right themselves. (If you’re old enough to complain how your mother messed you up, you’re old enough to get past it.) It sounds like Isabella Dutton felt an enormous pressure to be a “good” parent, and that she tried in her own weird way. Thirty-odd years later, she’s obviously still not over societal expectations and judgmental ways, though, and I suspect other mothers may similarly cave. Maybe the best thing we can do for this woman, her children, and future generations is to acknowledge that you don’t have to get it (according to our definition of) perfectly right. We’re born (even when we don’t ask to be), we grow up (each with the hand dealt by life’s deck of cards), we reproduce (some more enthusiastically than others), and we’ll die (everyone). In between, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.