In a feature in the UK’s Guardian last week, Ayelet Waldman, author and mother of four, said that modern society has turned motherhood into an Olympic sport.
Waldman was unwittingly launched into the public eye in 2005 when an essay in which she stated she loved her husband more than her children went viral. Death threats and calls to take her children into care followed. Her biggest critics were fellow mothers.
Is Waldman right, though? Had Waldman been a man, it’s more likely that the reaction would have been more along the lines of “Dads, eh? They just don’t feel parenting the way mothers do. Ha ha.” Men quite readily admit the importance of their partner over their children, the theory being that you can always have more kids, but your partner is your soul mate, and there’s only one of those around if Bollywood movies are to be believed.
I don’t doubt that Waldman loves her children fiercely, she admits her own distress when her oldest leaves for university. I do wonder if she would feel a little more distraught in her ‘God Forbid’ exercise if she had a child that she was pretty much guaranteed to eventually lose, like I do. I don’t judge her, though. I even agree with her in as much as couples who take care of each other first are happier, and therefore make better parents.
I have witnessed the two extremes, parents who abandon each other when the child arrives and now exist as housemates rather than partners (particularly rife in Asian arranged marriage culture). Then there are parents who are mad for each other, had a child because it seemed like what they should do, and realized they didn’t love the child the same way they love each other, that the child was a disappointing appendage to their own intense relationship. Both models are damaging, but then any extreme is.
Reading the comments on Waldman’s article, I was shocked by two things. 1) the level of fury that was leveled at her for continuing to admit she loved her husband more than her children and 2) the stories from other mothers about their negative experiences at the hands of fellow parents.
Parenting. When the word parent turned from a noun to a verb, it brought with it an entire new set of challenges. From my own perspective, from the moment your pregnancy becomes obvious, you become the property of all other mothers out there. Perfect strangers will think nothing of asking you about the sex of your child, how you plan on giving birth, your proposed sleeping arrangements and that ultimate can of worms, whether you will offer the baby breast or bottle. All this before the child has even made its appearance in our world.
Once the baby arrives, you immediately feel like you are on a treadmill that someone keeps setting faster and faster, raising the incline while they’re at it.
I see friends in the final weeks of their pregnancies and I feel privy to a dirty secret I want to share with them but I know I can’t. I want to tell them that in a few weeks from now, I will visit them in their homes, their pregnancy glow replaced by the shell-shocked look of someone who has slept 8 hours in three days.
They will tell me that motherhood looks nothing like what the catalogues said it would and they will ask me why I didn’t tell them it would be this hard. I will probably say that I would have told them, but the chances of them actually believing me were minute.
They say in Africa that it takes a village to raise a child, and it’s true. The Western world has created a model of motherhood, one where we are expected to do it all alone, without complaint, and usually while working full-time, that constantly threatens to turn motherhood into a misery rather than a joy.
It often succeeds. When you are always stressed, tired, overworked and rushing through your children’s childhoods because there are bills to be paid, both parents putting in 40 hours a week or more to scrape together a few weeks in the year when you can actually be a family, something has gone very wrong.
There is a lot wrong with the Eastern model of family life, with interfering family members, the joint family system and menacing mothers-in-law brandishing cans of kerosene at the drop of a hat, but the one area that this model of family life excels in is raising children.
When family is around to help, the new mother can at least take a break. Sleep deprivation is not a torture technique by accident. In the East, families rally around new mothers with offers to take existing children off her hands, pitch in with the housework and cook meals.
Significantly, the concept of making your baby sleep in a separate room to you is still a largely alien, almost cruel one in the East. Babies and small children usually sleep in the same room if not the same bed, and since this is how I was raised I follow the same line. The criticism this move has attracted in the Western world merits a blog all of its own.
Without the village to help, let’s be honest – motherhood is a grind and those cute little finger painted cards do help, but sometimes you wish you could exchange them for some sleep. There are days when you wake up counting the hours until bed time. There are moments when your toddler is having a tantrum and throws up all over you, the baby refuses to let you put her down to clean up and lunch is on the stove burning, when you feel like you will snap, and some mothers indeed do.
Human babies are incredibly demanding, more so than any other mammal, and it’s a handy trick of evolution that they are so cute that we forge an emotional bond strong enough to override the relentless work that raising them involves. On paper laid out as a job description, no one in their right mind would choose the Western way of parenting, where you have to do it all on your own, with little or no relief.
The nuclear family is a wonderful model for everything except raising small children. But since nothing comes for free, the downside of extended family to help is that you risk raising children with a confused set of boundaries, brats, for want of a better word, and your own authority is diluted. Why listen to Mum when Grandma lets me get away with murder?
In the West, new mothers are largely left to cope on their own and cross a minefield of criticism from other mothers. The West loves to pick fault with the barbaric East. But I think it’s particularly barbaric that a society like the USA, for example, still has no official paid maternity leave.
At the end of last year, I was on a flight on my own with my toddler and baby. As we drew to landing time, a man across the aisle started to chat to me. I had had a hard day and the trip had been a difficult one. He commented on how well my children were travelling. “They’re good kids” I said. “You’re a good mother” he replied, and tears sprang to my eyes because hearing that from a stranger was such a rare thing.
The truth is that motherhood is exceptionally hard as it is, and even more so in Western societies. We as mothers know that, and instead of supporting each other we relish the chance to find fault in each other. Whether you vaccinate or not, co-sleep or don’t, bottle or breast feed, there will always be another mother waiting in the wings to tell you that you are doing it wrong. In being so judgmental, maybe we manage to cover up our own misdeeds, that time we dropped little Johnny out of the pram or when Lizzie need stitches because you left the scissors on the table.
It would be so nice if once in a while we could look over in the midst of the battle, recognise a fellow comrade in arms and say to her “You’re doing a great job”.
A version of this post appeared in the Khaleej Times on the 26th of April 2014.