Saturday, February 25, 2012

I may not be a mother – but I'm still a person

The Guardian
Motherhood has become an all-consuming role during the past couple of decades – dominating women's thoughts and conversations – possibly because the pressure on mothers to get it right is greater than ever. When a man has a child he remains who he always was and becomes a father to boot, but once a woman has a baby she is a mother first, and perhaps something else, a teacher or a lawyer, in addition. Websites such as Mumsnet and Netmums feed this obsession and sense of common identity. . . . So, if a fifth of women are child-free, why do we feel so peripheral, so shut out? Perhaps – despite decades of feminism – it's because there's an assumption that the only truly worthwhile job a woman can do is to raise children. Jennifer Leonard, a chartered psychologist and parenting coach, agrees that mothers of young children gravitate towards one another. "Once you have children, your priorities change and your interests alter," she says. "The result is that mothers tend to seek out reassurance about their parenting from one another. It's a growing trend, partly because we don't have the extended families around who used to provide that kind of support. Women who don't have children are in a minority, so as more of their friends have babies and build mummy networks, they can end up feeling sidelined." The division between mothers and me was brought home at a party recently, organised by the mother of one of my goddaughters. Many of the guests were friends I hadn't seen for a long time. But when I tried to chat, telling them what I was up to, they couldn't concentrate on what I was saying. I saw panic in their eyes, as if they didn't know how to have a conversation that wasn't about their offspring. OK, their children were there, too, so they were looking out for them at the same time and maybe their inability to concentrate results from years of having to do lots of things at once. However, I couldn't help but feel I was bothering them by talking about something other than their children. I was happy to listen to tales of potty training, broken nights and teenage hormones. I appreciate what pressures they are under and what a difficult job mothering has become. But when these mums began comparing notes about their youngsters, I felt completely excluded. They are a very broadminded crowd and I don't think they consciously left me out. It's just that our interests are now very different – we no longer have things in common. Eventually, I drifted away and ended up chatting with the men, who were happy to talk about things other than family life. But feeling increasingly lonely, and somehow not quite a fully fledged woman, I left early.
I've heard similar stories from the childfree-by-choice, and I'd love to hear more. I don't really have these experiences since I'm a lifelong New Yorker and so few of my friends have kids. We're reaching our mid-30s, and I still have plenty of single, letalone childfree, friends to keep my life diverse and interesting.
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olivia said...

This was such an interesting post to read, particularly your reflections at the end about trends in your city. I am the only woman I know who has chosen against being a mother. It makes me think I should leave Australia and head out to NY where I might not have to keep explaining myself at dinner parties :)

Vicky said...

I'm the 2nd one in Aus then. If you leave for NY I'll be alone!
But seriously, this depends on the geography and demographics of your area, but also on the cultural attitudes. I know a couple of childfree by choice women but we don't naturally gravitate towards each other for this very reason. I think there's still a lot of belief, among child-less/free women themselves that we are somewhat incomplete, inferior, less important members of the society or whatever and we don't really advertise our position and beliefs. Maybe if our PM showed some pride about her own lifestyle choice things could've been different, but now the best we can do is not to stick our heads out.

olivia said...

It's interest about our pm isn't it - what a talking point that aspect of her life has been! I think the media focus has strengthened the stereotypical perception that a childfree woman is career oriented to the point of being ruthless (not that she shouldn't be, but I think that's a very simplistic way of understanding the childfree woman/mother distinction that definitely doesn't apply in all cases. One of the things I love most about my choice is that I don't feel I have to tie myself doggedly to any job I'm not enjoying, since I have no dependents and therefore the freedom to move around...