This Is My First Mother’s Day As Someone’s Mum, Here’s What I’ve Learned…

No matter how hard you try, there is one thing about becoming a mum that you just can't avoid

Motherhood Reinforces Gender Stereotypes

by Grazia |

Babies are time machines.

If you are in a heterosexual relationship, have a baby and are breastfeeding, then a rip in the space time continuum roars open and you find yourself, unexpectedly and unaccountably, living in a 1950s domestic cliche. You may be a strident feminist, have lived alone, read Greer, DeBeauvoir, Steinem and the rest, have had years of happy casual sex, earned your living, gone out with women, travelled the world, been educated and marched for sexual equality but there will be a point in your life, as there was in mine, when you find yourself at home, cooking dinner, holding a baby on your hip, while waiting for your partner to come home.

You will feel lonely, frustrated, bored; you will spend your days sitting with other women discussing breastfeeding and rolling your eyes at men’s inability to hang up a towel or change a nappy in the dark; you will be poorer, have little or no income and rely on your partner’s earnings; you will have less time to read books, follow the news, listen to podcasts and engage with the world; you will be physically and emotionally tired in a way that makes you snatch every available opportunity for rest, comfort and reassurance.

When I was six months pregnant a very kind and very wise women, a mother herself, met me for a cup of tea and explained all this. She warned me that babies do to gender roles what concrete does to walls - stiffen, harden and enforce. At the time I wondered what she meant. Today, as I tread a milky, muslin-scattered path towards my first Mother’s Day I understand exactly.

Shared parental leave is meaningless to a breastfeeding mother. For the last four months I have had to feed my baby every three hours, for at least twenty minutes, twenty four hours a day. It would take an extremely understanding workplace that let you pop out of a meeting or away from the shop floor to milk yourself with a breast pump for 20 minutes every hour and a half, hand that over to your baby’s father and then go back to work for an hour or two. It would take an extremely clear-headed, driven woman to juggle such a constant, relentless physical demand with full time work. It would take a well-paid job to support two adults and a baby. The World Health Organisation recommends exclusively breastfeeding your child for the first six months and while, of course, many wonderful mothers use formula or combination feeding, that still lands a huge majority of child care on the one with the tits. I love breastfeeding, want to do it, understand the physical, long term and medical benefits it gives my child and appreciate the way it has helped my body recover after birth, but to pretend that it doesn’t restrict your movements, ambition, time and physicality is bullshit.

Feeding-aside, there are myriad secondary consequences to motherhood that enforce stereotypical gender roles. Firstly, maternity leave is a flying kidney chop to a woman’s earning power. Until women are paid the same as men, it will always make more financial sense for women to stay at home with a baby while men go back to work. For the thousands of women on zero hours, short term, freelance, low paid or part time contracts, maternity leave basically doesn’t exist. You will have a gap on your CV and in your earning power that lasts as long as you can physically and financially bear to be at home, keeping a human alive. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a permanent job, in this country, statutory maternity pay is 90% of your average weekly earnings (before tax) for the first 6 weeks and then £140.98 or 90% of your average weekly earnings (whichever is lower) for the next 33 weeks. Child benefit is £20.70 per week for your first child. £13.70 a week for any further children. It’s not much to raise a family on; meaning that yet again you are reliant on your partner for money and for support, just as generations of women have been before us.

Then there are matters of the home. Ah home, that soft-furnished prison I know so well. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2016 women in Britain did almost 60% more of the unpaid work, on average, than men. That’s housework, care work, the drudgery of cooking, hoovering, food shopping, washing, bathing, tidying and generally looking after your home and the people in it. This may seem like a heinous injustice - it is an injustice - but as the person now at home for 20 hours a day I understand it. My partner leaves for work at 6am and is often not home until 7pm. I don’t want to spend thirteen hours at home alone with a baby, surrounded by filth and mess, hungry and uncomfortable, waiting for him to come home and sort it out. So I do it. I cook and clean and tidy up; I dress the baby, clean the floor he’s playing on, wash our clothes, make the bed, hang up the towels, clean the bath so the baby isn’t floating in pubes later on, wipe down the kitchen, buy things for dinner, put anything remotely dangerous or electric away and out of reach, hoover, wash up etc etc etc. Housework isn’t a full time job, but keeping a house safe and pleasant with a baby around is certainly time consuming.

Finally, there is the social aspect. As a mother, I often feel that I have all the social capital of an earthworm. I don’t drink, barely follow current affairs, often spend up to eight hours with just a non-verbal infant for conversation and - because I am still waking up every three hours to feed the baby all night - want to be in bed by 9pm. I also - and this somehow came up on me unexpectedly - have a baby with me all the time. All the time. And, that baby wriggles, cries, shouts, needs to move about, gets bored, gets hungry, gets hot, gets cold, meaning that at any moment, at least 60% of my attention is taken up with him. So, while I can meet friends for tea, food, a walk or to sit on someone else’s sofa for a change, I will often be distracted, unable to remember what they’ve just said, forget words, lose my train of thought, suddenly break off or miss whole chunks of conversation entirely. And so, I fear, the invites will dry up, leaving me alone, at home, bored out of my mind, feeling overlooked by culture, society, friends and the ‘real’ world.

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If all this sounds awful; it isn’t. Truly it isn’t. Babies do sleep; making time for reading, writing, running, swimming, talking, thinking and breathing possible. It may prickle my skin like a rash occasionally that here I am, living the life of a skint housewife but, in truth, I love having a baby. It has given me a true and vital purpose like I’ve never known. I am needed, loved and busy in a way I’ve never been before. I am, quite literally, looking after the future.

I also know all this is temporary. I am already four months in; one day, a day so soon it makes my throat burn raw and my heart run fast, I won’t be needed like this anymore. My child will be walking, talking, going to school, making friends and wanting his own life. I will be a mother, still, but will also be a woman. My body won’t feel special, I won’t be needed 24 hours a day, I will be expected to work and earn money and travel and keep up, keep up, keep up. So, while I may have fallen through a rabbit hole of nursery rhymes, breastmilk, washing machines and nappies, while I may be standing at the window looking out at the world, I know this time is precious. So I am going to enjoy it, while it lasts.

Oh, and raise my son to fight for equality, freedom, universal child care, maternity pay, equal pay for equal work, to do his own washing, cook, clean and know how to look after a baby, of course. It’s the least he can do.

Follow Nell on Twitter @NellFrizell

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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