It’s a strange dichotomy that in our modern ‘anything goes’ way of life – people are happy to cavort naked, have sex and even take their last breath on TV – there are still so many taboos within our society. Try having a meaningful conversation about race, religion, violence or terrorism for example and I guarantee you’ll clear a room quicker than shouting ‘FIRE!’ Surprisingly though there is a more benign, closer to home taboo that can leave you feeling as if you are walking on hot coals. Express an opinion on motherhood that is not the accepted version and you may well find yourself lynched from the nearest child friendly climbing frame.
For those of you who may be from Mars, the accepted opinion on motherhood is that it is the most worthwhile occupation in the world and all mothers are deities to be worshipped. Even Hitler promoted the cult of motherhood and he was off his head. Anyone who fails to perform in their role as a good mother or indeed opts to remain child-free is an aberration of nature to be vilified or pitied.
You’re probably wondering what it is that’s set me off on this line of thought and I’m going to tell you. This week I read a series of articles that challenged all of my previously held notions of motherhood and frankly left me reeling. For those of you who may have missed it, Julie Burchill, the acerbic and fiercely intelligent journalist was rocked by tragedy when her youngest son committed suicide. Sadly for her, the media had a bit of a field day, re-hashing past articles she had written about motherhood. I like Burchill and have often laughed out loud at her take on the world but part of me did think, ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’. After all, no-one has ever been off limits for her own caustic style of journalism.
Clearly she is devastated and deserves privacy and compassion but what has shocked me are the republished articles in which she expresses her thoughts on her oldest son, a boy brought up by his father. Burchill repeatedly writes of her dislike for her child and even states that, when he was fifteen, she sent him a letter saying she no longer wished to spend time with him because he irritated her so much. She justified her cruelty with the comment, “I would rather be viewed as a monster than a hypocrite.”
I have to say her treatment of her child left me shocked to the core but, when I discussed my feelings with my sister, she asked the question – would you feel the same way if she was a man? My gut reaction is that yes, I would, but I have to admit that it somehow seems worse that it’s a mother dispensing such heartless cruelty. Furthermore, I always experience the same mixed emotions whenever I meet children whose mothers have abandoned them. When I first started teaching, in the early 80s, the only motherless families were usually the result of bereavement. Now, however, there seems to be just as many women walking out on their families as men. Why does this make me feel uncomfortable then when I’m constantly irritated by the way motherhood is used as a yardstick to measure the worth of a woman?
Whenever a tragedy befalls a woman, it’s always deemed infinitely more tragic if she’s a mother. The media love to wring every bit of pathos out of a story with the image of motherless children but, despite our so called gender equality, a father doesn’t have the same impact. Likewise, any childless person will tell you (if they dare) that mothers rule supreme in the workplace. They get first dibs on holidays and days off because, let’s face it, only a monster would stand in the way of a mother spending time with her children. Forget the fact that you may have been looking forward to that mini-break or best friend’s wedding – mothers come first. Ditto when they have to take time off with a sick child, dare to complain about the extra work and you’ll find yourself a social pariah.
We all pretend then that motherhood trumps everything and anyone special enough to give birth deserves our full support and public recognition. I certainly would never dare to express the fact that, actually I think motherhood looks like a fast track to hell, and I’ve never heard a mother say that she fears she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. There must be mothers out there thinking along those lines, after all we read about them in novels and there are enough women on Prozac to stand testament to the fact. However, in real life, no woman dare admit that she doesn’t like being a parent. We are all, mothers and non-mothers alike, trapped by the ‘motherhood myth’.
I have been forced to admit this week that I judge mothers in a way that I don’t judge fathers. Despite their privileged position in our child-centred society, mothers must feel the pressure of our eyes upon them. Maybe if we were more forgiving and open to the idea that our definition of ‘motherhood’ doesn’t have to be set in stone, then women wouldn’t feel so trapped. They might not find themselves blaming their offspring for their own misery or feel compelled to head for the hills.