Rebecca Asher and the curse of motherhood

28Mar11

“I worried about being a parent long before I became one.”

Rebecca Asher’s article (a short excerpt from her book) in the other weekend’s Guardian reads like a chilling, cautionary tale of motherhood. Despite the fact that she loved her son, “the independence, sense of recognition and daily purpose that I’d been used to gave way to gruelling, unacknowledged servitude. My life became unrecognisable to me.”

A familiar story – beneath the Hallmark version of parenthood – is just how exhausting, and boring, and demanding, and never-ending it is. And in Asher’s case, it’s the end of an (illusory?) equality between her and her and her partner – he goes back to work, where he’s valued as an achiever in the way that carers rarely are, and has a range of experiences, and adult company, and she is left holding the baby.

She won’t speak for everyone, and she isn’t speaking for the stay at home dads (or the dads who’d like to be more hands on but are stuck at work, and come home as exhausted as their partners) and the mums that love home-making and the working class mums and the non-white mums and neither, perhaps, the same-sex parents, who negotiate different terrain. And she must have known these people would be pissed off with her argument (though they should probably be pissed off with the Guardian for not representing theirs).

I am not a mother, but her anger (about the lack of equality she’s experienced, and that she feels and tries to demonstrate is widespread) and desire (to be stimulated outside a narrow baby-centric world) make sense to me. It’s sometimes hard to know what you really want, as opposed to what it seems you should want (most people end up having kids, may as well, I suppose?) The ambivalence in something that can both be wonderful and exhausting is always going to create great depth of feelings.

Team games

Even when mothers return to paid work after maternity leave, the responsibility for the domestic chores accrued in that time often remains with them. In fact, women carry on performing almost the same number of domestic tasks when they switch from looking after their children full-time to working outside the home part-time. And even if they work outside the home full-time, they are still more likely than their partners to take responsibility for household chores, and to take time off work to look after an ill child.

More than three-quarters of mothers say they have primary responsibility for the day-to-day care of their children in the home. And although the amount of childcare that men do has risen from between three and eight minutes a day in 1975 to between 32 and 36 minutes a day in 2000, the time women spend on primary childcare (such as washing, dressing and reading to children) has also increased in that period, from between eight and 21 minutes to between 51 and 86 minutes a day.

Equality is a powerful beast: humans have struggled throughout history towards what they see as justice. I wonder if most arguments between parents is about who has done the most – childcare, stuff around the house. It’s a shitty feeling if you think  it’s you. And these cultural habits are hard to shake – as Asher argues, “Institutional structures, cultural norms and inherent beliefs about gender roles prove too strong to resist”. If a decent amount of the men we love are spoilt by their mums and consequently reluctant to pick up a tea towel; if little girls are still playing with dolls and learning to feel like caring is inherent to them; if parental leave is weighted in favour (or to the disadvantage, depending on how you see staying at home) of women – then more women will care at home (or be the “foundation parent” – doing the majority of monotonous cleaning, cooking, scrubbing, holding info about school and doctors appointments in your head, packing the rice cakes and the nappies and the change of clothes) and men be at work. It’s not the end of the world, but it takes up people’s headspace, alters (perhaps disfigures) their relationships and reduces their choices about their place in the world.

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One Response to “Rebecca Asher and the curse of motherhood”

  1. Some comments from my (mostly home-based) sister:

    I was worried that when i read this article i’d be saddened my the grim analysis but in fact i did agree with a lot of the sentiments. There is a lot of dullness out there in the world of mothering, the organised activities, the smalltalk. But find yourself a few friends who can hold a good conversation and do the odd sing a long with your tongue firmly in your cheek and you can survive, even enjoy the process. Its easy to fret about the bigger picture when the smaller one, the relationship and the experiences between you and your child is the important one. I’ll have to wait for a few more years to see how they turn out – to see if i made the right decision to stay at home for the majority of the time and work infrequently. But i hope that the intimacy and the trust that i have with the children i chose to have and to raise will be the reward.

    You can still be appreciated for your brains and beauty in the evenings too!

    It might be great to both work part time and share child care, but this throws up its own difficulties – if we are so used to getting what we want we might not actually like sharing the decision making of childcare. Someone usually needs to take the lead i think. The baby stage can be quite alienating, but you quickly learn that you have to be responsible for making yourself happy, not be envious of your partner or expect them to fill the void.

    T and S are lucky to spend so much time with their dad and know that we both work and both look after them. I think she was unrealistic to expect that things would remain equal when your focus, and one ‘foundation’ parent in particular, shifts away from the outside world of work.


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