I recall, when my biggest was the littlest, dragging myself out to a mum and baby group. In my mid-twenties, pregnant with baby number two, I sat sipping tea with other mums as our toddlers stampeded around the church hall mutually ignoring each other. We sat, we sipped, we chatted, and the conversation turned right back to work, as it always did. These ladies were counting the days until they could escape the drudgery of nappies and housework, to get back to their real lives.
Then it was my turn to contribute. As I sat there, a university graduate, a recovering feminist, I had nothing to say except “I’m just a mum.” Not a teacher, a nurse, a doctor or any other role to define and qualify my existence. Just a mum.
Now, nearly a decade later and mother of seven, I don’t think ‘just’ and ‘mother’ belong in the same sentence. Unfortunately for women, society has taught us there is something shameful in just being a mother. As girls, growing through the secondary school system, life is focused towards grades, points, university and a career. We are gently herded towards finding meaning and value in ourselves as persons through the career we choose. What will you be when you grow up? As if somehow a career denotes who we are and defines our humanity.
Aside from the brilliant but obscure subject of home economics, there isn’t much else that directs young people towards, and more importantly, prepares them for family life.
Women are educated, and educated well, encouraged to spend their twenties studying, working, travelling, advancing in careers, achieving and climbing.
For girls, as we traversed school life, the focus was on the future, CAO, points, university and beyond. Graduating, postgrads, careers, holidays, travel and so on. A future that never considers family and children. Yet somewhere, in the midst of this it’s time to make those decisions.
And woefully ill prepared are millennial mothers. As we sail through our twenties, achieving and succeeding, nothing in the world prepares us for that day you bring a new baby home. Trained for an altogether different life somehow, we, as women, are innately expected to know how to birth, to nurse and care for a newborn: to understand their cries, their needs and act accordingly, responsively.
The culture of death, the abortive, contraceptive culture cycle has women, growing up, far-removed from experiencing life with a newborn, or seeing their families grow through pregnancy and birth. Women get married later, have fewer children, and generally live quite apart from their nuclear family of origin. So, most girls with siblings have no memory of their own mums having babies. Where once families were big, siblings were plentiful and birth was part and parcel of life, with babies often born at home and nursed by their mothers, while the mothers themselves recovered at home supported by their extended families. This was an education in itself and one that is so woefully lacking nowadays.
Now women are groomed to work, to pay taxes, to traverse a career, and yet innately know, after never having spent five seconds with a baby, how to be a mother. Now women are discharged from hospital, hours after giving birth or undergoing a C-section, often living far away from extended family or any kind of a support system, with little or no experience of babies and birth. These factors are a huge contribution to post-natal depression and anxiety.
We need to reclaim the idea of motherhood as a positive lifestyle choice, that isn’t something we merely fall into after all the other boxes are ticked first, because it is the most important and the most fulfilling of life experiences, and our young women need to be given the tools, social and emotional, to reclaim that choice. Motherhood takes all of who we are as women, not what’s left over.
We need to tell young women that being just a mum is more than ok. It’s truly good and beautiful; that marriage and family life is a valuable and good choice for young people to make. It, in fact, is essential. As GK Chesterton said “all other careers exist to make this career (motherhood) possible.”
Raising the next generation of humans is the most important, the most valuable, the most rewarding but equally the most demanding.