Waiting in sympathy as an old friend wonders if today will be the day she gives birth, I am reminded of what a steep learning curve first-time motherhood is. We learn about Henry XIII, cirrus clouds and sodding xylem and phloem at school, but anything related to womanhood, birth, or anything icky like that is woefully absent.
I remember one time at secondary school, a girl who’d dropped out to have a baby with a local squaddie came to talk to the female students, obviously under the pretext that she would deter us from doing the same thing. All I remember is her saying birth really hurt. That, a few textbook references to puberty in biology class, and our exuberant gym teacher’s ‘little chat’ with us around age 13 about our ‘P days’, was the sum total of education about our incipient womanhood.
So, when you decide you have finally outgrown your solitude and wouldn’t mind a wee bairn in your life, you have decades of programming to overcome, usually without any wise old women (except your mum, and she might give you the worst traumas of all) to advise, teach and reassure you. What do you do? Go online, to Mothering.com, or Mumsnet, or more radical places like natural birth forums (get thee to Google and the scales shall fall from your eyes). For so many women, the first baby they hold in their arms is their own.
There are so many new dexterities that you must learn when you become a parent, especially a mother: birthing; breast/bottle feeding; burping; lowering a sleeping baby into a cot without waking them up; calming a fractious baby when you haven’t slept for months and are pretty fractious yourself; wheeling buggies up and down stairs or hills, especially with heavy bags of shopping; cooking with a clingy baby in a sling or on a hip; having sex with your partner with a baby anywhere in a ten-metre radius; changing nappies in cars; removing snot without incurring loud screams; getting two or more kids ready for school with a baby to look after also; reading a book without falling asleep after half a page; putting a child into a car seat when they don’t feel like it; what to do about fevers, coughs, kids that don’t eat; finding ANY time to do yoga like you’re supposed to spend your maternity leave doing; preventing crawling babies from climbing up stairs or finding paints/cleaning products/that one nail in the corner under the sofa that you didn’t know existed…
…and then there’s also the subtle, invisible learning, like how to deal with tantrums, challenging behaviour and disrespect without taking it personally or turning into a fire-breathing dragon…
…not to mention the psychological issues dredged up from our own upbringing…
…and bang in the middle this practical PhD-cum-SAS training-cum-twenty year long meditation retreat, you’re meant to go back to full-time paid work?! What does it look like we’ve been doing, lying on a beach in the Bahamas having our cellulite wrapped in algae?!?!
Mothering is given minimal or no value in industrialised society. Women are just men with boob – which are meant for entertainment, not nutrition. We’re supposed to do everything men do, for two-thirds of the pay, and not complain that we also have a whole other job going on – the ‘Second Shift’ – which is far more personally important to us than the paid work, though impossible without the salary. And since nobody but other mothers will nod and commiserate, we sigh, label our complaints as ‘moaning’, and shut up and get on with it.
Nothing ever changed without people making a stink about it needing to be changed (a particularly a propos metaphor for people who have to change nappies on a regular basis). But we now have the financial necessity of having two incomes in order to maintain roofs that we rarely have time to spend under. Mothers already feel guilty that they’re not doing enough – how have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the idea of proving ourselves to be ‘as good as the guys’, fighting above our weight on an uneven playing field, and placing on ourselves this massive extra burden?
The female brain is far more complex, responsive, and therefore prone to frazzlement than the male brain. We have a smaller, lighter brain, but with a more convoluted cerebral cortex, meaning more surface area, meaning more neurones, meaning more thinking. Hence we are more prone to depression and anxiety, and often have a harder time falling asleep (especially annoying when your husband is snoring within seconds) even though the extra sleep does us a world of good. We need to make an effort to disconnect and relax our minds. Now those flower arranging classes don’t seem so superfluous, right?
Women have always worked, inside and outside of the home. I was once walking around Leh in Ladakh, the culturally Tibetan Himalayan region of India, when I saw a woman walking back from her allotment, bent double with a basket of produce on her back, while also knitting a complex patterned jumper for a small child. Multi-tasking is our (slightly clichéd) hallmark.
But when the work involved becomes very complex and stressful, in highly stimulating environments, and when your kids can’t just run about the village but are hyperactive, overstimulated creatures who need to be kept safe from cars, internet predators, and a whole host of constantly changing dangers, let alone all our own troubles that we have to process, our minds are under strain that we often don’t allow ourselves to recognise.
I don’t know how to end this optimistically except to urge anyone reading to recognise the effort, time, and thought that goes into parenting at large, to shed the patriarchal lens that edits out the female experience – as richly varied as it is – and start accommodating women who are raising small kids, often against huge odds. Yes, it makes us tough, but we don’t want to turn to armadillos. Early childhood is the beginning of a person’s life; we don’t need to burden it with unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Most of all, if we can deal with our own anxiety, embed rest, joy and simplicity into our lives, we model it for our children. This is one thing we can handle in a future that has always been uncertain and always will be. Godspeed and rest well!