Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Cult Of Motherhood

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. 


  1. I have, actually, heard a mother say it was the worst mistake she ever made. I also remember my best friend, who became a mother at 19, saying that if she had her time again she wouldn't have done the same, and ditto a girl of 24 I know locally. However, from what you tell me of Julie Burchill, I think 'monster' sounds about right. That poor kid. Whatever your personal feelings, she brought that person into the world and deserves better than to be degraded in such a way, in public, as she did. I don't know much of her these days, but I seem to remember back in the 80s that she was always protesting too loudly about something or other and appeared to have many 'issues'. Her sex is not the point, it's the fact that she, as a parent, chose to verabally assault her child in public. Whether you regret becoming a mother or not, the fact is that you made the choice and need to live with it as best you can, for the child's sake. On the other hand, re your remarks about mothers being looked on favourably at work, I also think that because you've made that choice you might have to give up the rights to have everything you want career wise too. And again we come back to the current culture of entitlement, when everyone thinks they must have everything, and no hardship must be borne. I think that's the root of it.

    I don't think my mother liked being one very much. She had children late, by 1950s standards, ie, in her 30s, because she thought she ought to. She didn't do all the motherly things with us, and was more often to be found doing a crossword or reading than playing with us. But she was still a good mother, because she'd made that sacrifice and did what needed doing. Unlike so many mothers these days whose chief worry seems to be their own fulfilment, as they charge back to work as soon as they can.

    1. I do think a lot of women probably feel pressured into having children. My mum is really disappointed that she doesn't have grand children and that's always made me feel a bit guilty. Although not guilty enough to have children!!! All of the issues surrounding motherhood do tend to divide women. I have friends with children and ones without and the ones without get angry at having to accomodate women with children at work wheras the ones with children feel bitter than childless women don't understand how hard it is to juggle everything. I also think there are double standards where mothers are concerned because I know I judge a feckless mother more harshly than I would a father. I do think it must be hard trying to live up to the idealised image of what a mother should be. But then like you say it's a massive responsibilty and once you've had a child you're duty bound to do your best by it. Maybe if as a society we were more honest about motherhood, not having children would feel more like an option to women.

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    3. Deleted the above comment because I had typos! I always tell Rosie to do what she thinks is right for her. I would probably like her to have grandchildren purely for selfish reasons, but that would be for me, not her. You only have one life. As women, we should do what makes us happy. We spend so much time pleasing people in other respects - we should do here what pleases us. Otherwise, we just end up being resentful parents, and that's not fair on the child/children. As for taking time off with kids - I'd love to be able to take time off outside the school holidays. It's so inconvenient and holidays are so expensive at peak time. Can't wait for Lucy to leave school/college and be able to take a cheaper break. And as for Julie Burchill - why did she have to publicise her feelings about her son? That's just cruel. Kate and Oliver Hudson's father did a similar thing lately, and I thought he was a knobend too. (PS this is to make up for my comment that seems to have disappeared somewhere - hopefully the same won't happen to this too!)

    4. Just found your comment, Sal, and I think it's such a good one it warrants being said twice :D It's a disgrace the way holdays are so expensive during school hols. I have a friend who works in an office though who is childless and she and other childless people aren't allowed to take any days off in any of the school hols - apparently they are all blocked out for parents only. How to divide a work force or what :D

    5. That sounds more of an issue with the managers (who are probably pleasing themselves) than with the parents. Yes, it's unfair, and yes, it will create an awful divide between those who have kids and those who don't.