Down among the children
My generation breathed in the assumptions of feminism as naturally as air.
Our participation as equals in the traditional male worlds of work and achievement came more easily to us than perhaps to any previous generation of young women. It never occurred to me that Freud’s aphorism characterising maturity as ‘Lieben und arbeiten’ (loving and working) ought to apply only to men, although by work I did not envisage necessarily paid work, but work in the sense of a central meaningful purpose in life. This would have been dependent upon the sense I felt of the importance—which I still hold to—of women being able to draw into their lives the capacity for economic independence, the possibility of making a contribution to the public realm, and the kind of human flourishing that may come with the use of one’s talents.
Yet when I became a mother in the 1980s, I found it very difficult to integrate my deepest feelings with what feminism had taught me.
The vocabulary of feminism and that of motherhood seemed not to join up. I came to a dead halt before the power of this new experience, as if those old signposts, for the moment, could illuminate no more. I found myself making the decision to go ‘down among the children’ for the early years of their life. That decision was for me quite unexpected, stepping ‘out of the world’, or the public realm, the world of work, and moving to what Hannah Arendt calls the world of labour in order to raise my children.
This book should not be regarded as a manifesto for what all women feel on the birth of their children. Quite the contrary. But I do know that some aspects of my experience are shared by many other women. During the period I was at home, the majority of families, in Australia and overseas, made the same choice. It remains, in the twenty-first century, most parents’ preference for the first few years of their children’s lives.
I will begin by way of a memoir for two reasons. First, I believe, like the Danish writer Isak Dinesen, in the power and truth of a human story, and what can be learnt from that.
The second is that this book is directed at the common reader, and the language in which the childcare debate is often couched—anxious-avoidance syndromes, separation distress, quotients and correlations, non-compliance and transient distress syndromes—can obscure more than illuminate what is central: lived human experience.
Before I became pregnant with my first child I thought about childcare as a kind of abstraction. I had not the slightest understanding of how it would affect a child, but I did have a strong sense of what it might mean for women in realising their legitimate aspirations in the wider world.
During my pregnancy, there were some tiny incidents, those unexpected moments that lifted themselves out of the ordinary, casting a sudden light upon what had until the instant before been in shadow. They did not necessarily mean much at the time, but settled like a kind of sediment, to rise again for contemplation when the time was right. One such moment was when I heard a mother describe a city childcare centre.
You could just ‘hand them over,’ she said, with all the nappies and bottles and baby paraphernalia, and go shopping, undisturbed by whining demands. ‘It’s just the best place!’ she enthused. But her son, then aged eight, told a different story. ‘I hated it,’ he said, ‘I just hated it.’ He said it in a quiet, flat tone but with real intensity, almost to himself, as if expecting no one to listen to him.
I did listen, however, and my first collision with those different versions—one from the adult and the other from the
child—of the childcare experience had a profound effect on me.
Another such moment was when a scientist I knew, near the end of his life, had fathered a child, and spent much of his time looking after her. I remember being startled when this scientist, whose career had been a distinguished one, said that his most important contribution to the world was to have reared a member of the next generation. It was startling, of course, because such sentiments from men were still uncommon, and because it came from someone whose career and life had all the external signposts of success. He found no activity more rewarding than looking after his young daughter.
On the other hand, there were some women I knew who ignored my pregnancy as if it were an unpleasant secret, a failure or a lapse.
By accident, on the same day three acquaintances learned of my pregnancy. The first was a social worker whose eyes narrowed and whose first question was an incredulous ‘Will you have it?’ She thoughtfully pointed to the benefits to her own health of sterilisation, and suggested one could always adopt a child from a Third World country at a later date.
The second was a well-meaning friend who instantly outlined all the ‘options’ of available childcare, and who looked more than a little scandalised when I suggested I might want to do the looking-after myself.
The third was a Polish working-class woman who had, alone in her family, survived the Holocaust. She was overjoyed for me, and bubbled with enthusiasm. She listened, puzzled, to my ambitious plans for the following year, and then said firmly, ‘Anne, you will have no time or love but for the baby.’
Of the three it was the third who came closest to the truth.
For many men as well as women, the experience of becoming a parent is a revelation of what is deepest in us, of our humanness and our mortality. Many women, distinguished, homely, exceptional or ordinary, have described the process of bonding as a kind of ‘falling in love’.
There is of course the other aspect, more spoken about these days than the lyrical meaning of the event—the mundane aspect of the care of one who, as Virginia Woolf put it,‘leaks from every orifice’, and who refuses to sleep. (The first law of parenthood it seems is the renunciation of sleep!)
It is time we restated a truth, acknowledged by maternal feminists like Sara Ruddick, that the full-time care of a baby is not, as one early women’s liberation pamphlet put it, ‘Like spending all day, every day in the exclusive company of an incontinent mental defective.’
When I considered going back to work, it was not only that my children, having not read the equal opportunity handbook in the womb, had other ideas. It was also that my priorities, for a time, changed radically. What had seemed a reasonable course of action before birth— using daycare in those weeks and months after birth—now seemed unthinkable in relation to this tiny vulnerable human being that both of us as parents spent so long, and with such intensity, trying to ‘read’, to understand the language of gesture, to find what things or actions soothed her or made her happy.
That shift in perspective revealed something else. Our contemporary emphasis on work and public achievement obscures a central human reality: one cannot live by a curriculum vitae alone.
The philosopher Michael Oakeshott speaks of the moral narrative that is someone’s life. In this moral narrative, but not in one’s curriculum vitae, what ultimately matters is not just the things of ambition, but more deeply the question of how one is to live. And especially, how one is to live in relation to those one loves. A curriculum vitae is something that always looks forward, to the next public achievement, to the next career move.
But there is another perspective that sees life lived instinctively, if not explicitly, from the point of view of death. That is to say, one thinks about things, after a certain age, in terms of how one might see one’s life when facing death.
Did I do what should have been done? Did I give love as it should have been given? For women who are mothers and for men who are fathers, there come other questions as to how one has lived. In some deep sense, the feeling that one has done wrong in relation to someone you love is a feeling for which there can be no consolation.
I did work part-time after the first few months, leaving our baby in the care of her father. Although I found the morning in my favourite haven—a well-equipped university library—a welcome break, by the afternoon I experienced an overwhelming desire to be with my baby. There was a kind of bodily anguish to it. It felt right when we were together and wrong when we were separate. If my children’s instinct was to keep me close, mine was to keep them close.
I remember feeling estranged from the preevailing public conversations about children; the tone was resentful, emphasising only the burdens, the obstacles that children presented to the realisation of public achievement.
One day—deep in that ‘in love’ stage of the nursing mother—I was sitting on our verandah with my baby blissfully asleep after breastfeeding. A French painter was talking on the radio about her life, her painting and motherhood. I was not in the mood to listen to resentment; I just wanted to glory in the very being of this child. To turn off the radio, however, I would have had to move and disturb her.
Unexpectedly, what the painter said gave me heart. She was not dishonest about the fatigue or the lack of time when her children were small. But she gave us another way of seeing it. Being a mother had opened her to a kind of love so deep, made her confront her own vulnerability so profoundly, that this love worked not against but with her creativity.
I also recall, just in the first few months, being intensely preoccupied. An old friend came to visit. He had always relied upon me as a kind of touchstone on whom he could sound out his opinions, and normally we spent many hours pleasurably arguing over what might be true. On this occasion he wanted to discuss US foreign policy. I found myself unusually remote from his intensity, and felt relieved when he finally drove away.
How irritating, I felt, to be forced to discourse on such matters when one has something as important as a newborn baby to think about! And I caught myself in the thought, and laughed aloud to think of the distance I had travelled.
Many women have written truthfully about the dividedness they feel between the fulfilment of their talents and the power of their love for the child they have brought into the world. Even working part-time, I sensed what this division could mean. There was not only the painful sense of not really answering the demands of either as well as I wished.
Suddenly all time spent at one task was simultaneously time spent away from the other. Time with my child, particularly, was no longer uncomplicated. I felt ambivalence in everything I did. I admired those women I knew who managed that dividing better than I did, though none found it easy. I did not feel, just for the moment, that I had room in my heart for both.
My way of resolving this dividedness was to choose, for a time, one part of life over another. I never considered this as a renunciation, but as a postponement.
Being plunged into parenthood can be a central transforming event in someone’s life, for men as well as women. One becomes someone else. Often we feel, on bringing a child into the world, as if a great question has been asked of us, and we feel unsure how to respond. Some feel it to be more a burden than an honour. Parents of a newborn baby can find themselves overwhelmed by its fragility, by the importance of the task that confronts them. Yet their effect upon us goes even deeper than this to something Simone Weil called attention to:
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of the crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.
Deeper even than the ‘social construction of motherhood’ or patriarchy, are children’s faces, full of hope and expectation that you will treat them well. Some feminists have written of the false and oppressive ideal of the ‘good mother’ as socially imposed, or something dreamt up by men; yet in wishing to be a good mother or a good father, we are also responding to children themselves. It is not just the ‘social construction’ of motherhood that makes us feel guilty. It is the expression on the face of a child.
The first parent
Tim Winton in The Riders writes lyrically of a man’s experience of being the ‘first parent’. Through the character of Scully he describes what it is to feel the raw helpless gratitude for a child’s very being, the deep pleasure of being the first parent a child will run to, the one who has ‘most of their days’.
The matter goes even deeper than that. For a mother or a father, being the ‘first parent’ can be felt just as deeply, as a kind of ‘work’, and at the centre of life’s meaning. This is no less true of at-home fathers than it is of the many women who have taken on that role. Taking on the role of ‘the first parent’, however, should not make others invisible.
From the first moments of our children’s births their father was there. My mother found him in the hospital nursery walking up and down hugging his baby daughter close, her flat little nose pressed into his neck. He was no stranger to caring for bodies not quite in control of themselves. As a teenager he had looked after his mother, who was crippled with multiple sclerosis; he’d get up several times a night to give her painkillers, or to bathe her ulcerated legs. He already knew what it was to sleep lightly, to live in that state of half-alertness to another human being whose body has betrayed them. The broken sleep of these small human beings was not an alien experience to him.
He carried them in his arms or on his back, their small fists twisted around his black curls. And because he was so intimately involved in their physical care I never feared leaving them with him. He invented different stories, ones that went on for years, ever more elaborate, for each child.
For our eldest he created a little girl called Isobel with bright red shoes who lived in the moon and had wild adventures. For our second it was an ancestor fairy called Princess Pearl, who lived in the bush gully below our house, who watched over her, gave her little presents and wrote her messages of love from the past.
Children can have their own preferences, however, as to who should be the first parent. When our younger daughter was born, my husband had a year of leave. I felt at its end very strongly that we were the twin pillars of her life, almost interchangeable, although she still turned to me when upset. s a newborn baby she had a ‘reverse cycle’. She slept all day and was awake all night. She woke up at 10 or 11 p.m., and stayed wide awake until falling into a deep sleep at 6 a.m., just as my older daughter got up. She did not cry; she just looked with a calm interest at the world. I was so tired I began to hallucinate. We took shifts.
On the first night I left instructions. Her blankets were to be just so, the baby was to lie this way, and so on. When I awoke for my shift at 2 a.m., none of my instructions had been obeyed. Our little daughter was lying on her back, her legs crossed, arms flung back as if she was sunning herself on the beach in the Riviera. Her blankets were humped up in a kind of messy, improper tent, but she was sleeping blissfully. When I gingerly tried to move her into the right position I was rewarded with an ear-splitting shriek.
I decided he understood this baby at least as well as I did, and from then on I left his methods well alone. Whether it was because of that early time they spent together, or because she had a temperament very like his own, I sometimes felt her father was ahead of me in understanding her. If ever I suggested something was not quite from motherlore, he would reply, with finality, ‘But she likes it.’ And so she did. He found out her rhythms and ways just as I did, and understood her calm quietness where I was sometimes temporarily puzzled. Her first words were together, on the same night, Mama and Papa. We have photos taken by a friend at the beach when she was about two, which capture the exceptional closeness of father and daughter.
For our elder daughter, however, it was a different story. On the days I spent at the library, by afternoon she became increasingly unsettled, fussing, restless, and finally crying, refusing comfort. According to the childcare manuals, she was too young to be upset by who was caring for her. Was it possible she was missing me? One afternoon I came home a little early and heard her crying. I rushed in to find my husband cradling her, trying to soothe her. When I picked her up she turned her head towards my shoulder. She took a long, deep, suspicious sniff, turned her head to one side, smiled and fell asleep. She smelt her mother.
The rhythms of childhood
The choice that I made for us to be together, rather than separate, was dependent on the new understanding I came to of the importance, the centrality to human existence, of children. I certainly knew that no one I could hire would love my children as I would. I had always felt at home in the world of achievement and work.
When my first child was born, I had the sense of stepping from that world into another, as if into a different culture, where the values and priorities were quite different. It was an egalitarian world in which few bothered to ask the question, ‘What do you do?’ It was in general an unapologetically female world, although many of the women in it would have welcomed more contributions from the men in their lives.
Even the sense of time was different. Child time is outside what the sociologist Jules Henry calls ‘the austerity of time,’ but inside Slowness. It was not routine or regular, moving sometimes chaotically, with astonishing speed, sometimes as if in a slow-motion film. It can be frustrating and difficult, particularly for those parents trying to keep a foot in both worlds. I was reminded of the mental adjustment I once made when travelling by Indian railway, where the trains never arrived on time.
It is certainly possible to do other things within this period. Many women I knew were very enterprising. They worked alongside their babies, in small business, farming or from home, or reorganised shiftwork so that their child would never be without one parent. Others were lucky enough to have a devoted grandmother close by and willing to help out. Women who are able to keep one foot in the door of work— lest that door slam completely shut—are better placed when this period of early childhood comes to an end than many women who opt out completely.
The issue for me, then, and for these women, was not work as such, but the kind of work that separates children for really long hours from those who love them most.
Watching children, I came to feel that childhood itself has its own rhythms. The most powerful limit comes from separation anxiety, that aching desire to keep one’s parents close, which is at its peak from the age of seven months to around two years. In terms of an adult lifespan, it is very short-lived. It generally resolves itself quite naturally after the age of two or so—sometimes earlier, sometimes later. Children’s capacity to do without their parents grows steadily as they get older. The temporary limits imposed by separation distress can be borne more easily by being shared between two parents. It might mean as little as a few years of cutting back a little out of a working life of forty-five years.
Observing children, I noticed that often those who were not pushed into early ‘independence’ go on to become the most independent children later. It was certainly true of my children. For children allowed to move through this period at their own pace, that primeval anxiety seemed to lessen more easily and with less difficulty, and was perhaps more permanently resolved, than if they were hurried.
Children move through distinct stages in early childhood, at different speeds. The balance between their deep need for their parents and their need for their peers changes, so that the group care in which preschoolers can flourish may well be an alien and distressing experience for a nine-month-old baby.
The term ‘separation anxiety’ does not really give a powerful sense of what is experienced by a baby or a toddler when parted for long hours from the people it loves most. It is an emotion closest to grief. Children have a different sense of time to adults, and may experience a period of time as forever that we, as adults, consider quite short. Not all children experience separation in the same way; some respond more intensely than others. As with all things there is the imponderable of temperament. Certain things may mitigate the distress felt, such as the attentiveness of the caregiver, their loving kindness or lack of it, and what degree of attachment the child has to the substitute. But not always.
One friend put her baby into full-time care when the baby was nine months old. Meeting me in the street, she anxiously assured me that the baby was ‘quite happy’ in care. But the baby told a different story. When the caregiver’s name was mentioned, she put her arms around her mother’s neck, and with a look of indescribable sadness, laid her head down on her mother’s shoulder.
What must be understood here is that childcare for a baby intrudes into the midst of an intense love affair. Adults may think that because little is said, little is felt. But there is both force and delicacy in what babies and young children feel. Their emotions are complex and deep long before language. They grow into an ability to express what is already felt, more than in the ability to feel. Sometimes no one will do except the loved one, and the only remedy is restoration to the company of the person they love. We do not expect an adult to easily replace a beloved person with another. It violates our sense of the preciousness of individual people, and even our sense of what love is. Yet we expect this of a baby.
In my own life I came up against separation distress in my children as if before an invisible barrier. It did not last for long. Somewhere during their third year, my sense of that invisible barrier lessened, and over time finally dissolved. But before that time, there was no mistaking its power.
Crying on the inside
I also observed it in other children and found myself profoundly moved by it. Although my mother quite often came down from the country to stay, we needed some kind of supplementary childcare. I decided that a regular part-time arrangement would be better than an infrequent and maybe traumatic experience with a near stranger. I did my homework, talking to other parents, local infant welfare nurses and caregivers about what was available, but above all spent quite a lot of time observing different childcare settings.
The local daycare centres were quickly ruled out. They described themselves, naturally, as ‘quality’ care, whatever that might be. In one, all babies who were mobile were usually confined to their cot or playpens, and the ratio of caregivers to children was poor; in another the caregivers were insensitive, with crying children left unconsoled.
I then explored family daycare, and spent considerable time watching the children with different caregivers. The usual advice was to select a caregiver, visit once or twice and then to leave your baby without a backward glance so as not to encourage protest. This extensive time I spent with different caregivers contributed to changing my views on my pre-motherhood, rather thoughtless embrace of the childcare solution for the youngest age groups. There was a general rule of thumb: the older the child, the better they coped.
Some people told me that their particular caregiver ‘loved their children as their own’. Sometimes they would shake their heads reverently, as if disbelieving their luck in finding someone whose mothering skills, they felt, far exceeded their own. There was the occasional truly exceptional individual, perhaps an older woman who had finished raising her own children, who became a cherished person in the child’s world. But in other cases I was puzzled by the idealising process that had gone on, since the carers seemed to me adequate, perhaps, but very far from wonderful.
So I rather naively asked the caregivers the obvious question: ‘Did they love these children they cared for as their own?’ Not one said yes. Rather, they pointed to the benefits they felt in the ‘management’ of the children that came from what they felt was their ‘professionalism’, or skill, or experience. They even felt they were more ‘objective’ because they were less ‘involved’. They did become fond of the children, and of some more than others, though they tried hard to be fair. They found the idea that they loved the children in their care as their own rather startling, and quite false. Many of them were kind and warm, and often very experienced and skilled with young children. Despite that, I observed a natural coolness, with fewer interactions between caregiver and child than when children were with their mothers. There was an absence of the relaxed expressiveness that you see in relations between parents and children. This expressiveness ranged from passionate love and embraces, to irritability and anger, with frustration and rage being expressed just as freely with parents as love and tenderness.
One woman was a gentle, placid and kindly person with three children under four in her care. The children were generally cared for in a small family room, close to the front door. Every time the doorbell rang there was a tumble of excited children to the door. ‘Mummy, Mummy!’ they all shouted, their voices raised in unison. It was, quite simply, pitiful.
My next move was to look for a caregiver to work in my home. I had friends who had used this form of care. Some found exceptionally good people, a nanny or perhaps a retired grandmother who enjoyed the company of a young child. I remember seeing the child of a friend greet his carer, an older woman whose children had grown, with a cheeky grin and the open affection normally reserved for grandma. In such circumstances the children, too, seemed genuinely attached to these caregivers, though not in the same way as to their mothers.
Such observations made me feel that childcare could be a very different experience for different children. These mothers were at the top of the occupational elite, however, and could afford the expense of this kind of care, as well as enjoying generous maternity leave and flexible working hours, not to mention supportive partners.
While this was eventually the long-term arrangement I came to, it was not without its problems. One former childcare worker, an impressive and dedicated young woman, spoke of her frustration over the number of children she was expected to care for; she felt she rarely got beyond the most mundane physical care to the emotional relatedness she felt the babies needed. She told stories of pathetic notes from parents in lunch-boxes, asking for a little extra attention, of poor hygiene, and of children looking vigilantly out the window during the long afternoons while waiting for the arrival of their mother’s car. Sometimes both mother and child reacted to separation with profound sadness.
In the very early years, my own children often reacted to separation painfully, unless they were left with their father or grandmother, other relatives or friends—in other words, people who were deep and familiar parts of their world. Once, my normal caregiver was ill. I was dealing with a serious back injury at the time and needed to swim regularly. I finally took the advice of friends to use the creche at the pool. Leaving my daughter with all her coloured crayons neatly lined up on a table in front of her and plenty of paper, I ignored her pleas for me to stay, and limped off. Something in her face as I walked away prompted me to go back after a few minutes to the railing where one could look down on the
creche. Quietly sitting at her table in the corner, ignored by everyone, was my daughter, quite motionless, staring straight ahead with an expression of desolation, her pencils untouched. I went back in, to the horror of the caregivers, who said, ‘She’s been absolutely fine!’ She was transformed instantly with relief and joy.
Of course, often children do not exhibit such visible manifestations of distress, and leaving them is unavoidable. One day, after attending a medical appointment, I arrived to collect my daughter from her minder, who reassured me that all had gone well. I asked my daughter on the way home, ‘How was it?’ When she responded that she had been unhappy,
I asked, ‘Did you cry?’ ‘No,’came the reply,‘but I was crying on the inside.’
A love of the world
After giving birth I felt alive to the world in a way and with a heightened intensity I had not felt since childhood—alive to its vividness and beauty, responsive to its colours and textures, to the raw pleasure of existence on my own skin. How could I not want to share that with my children? Such a way of seeing can only be offered; and just as a well-meaning gift may lie idle and unused, so too might this one. But perhaps, if it is not at first received gratefully, there might come a time when, like the unnoticed gift, its qualities might suddenly, quite unexpectedly, be valued.
Raimond Gaita has reminded us that we become like what we love, so that what children are given the opportunity of loving matters deeply. In some of the family daycare homes it occurred to me that what they might come to love would be television, since it was the main distraction offered.
What I gave my children the opportunity of loving could be something as simple as a whole day spent in the garden, or a trip to a nearby river, where I could stand my daughter near the rapids in the gentle eddies where the current was not strong, asking her to close her eyes and listen. Or she could learn to love music for the way that it expresses what cannot be otherwise expressed, to have the time to paint and draw for as long as she pleased rather than be hurried off to some new activity. Was it possible, growing up in a beautiful part of the Australian countryside, to make her spend most of her days confined to one yard, even with its expensive plastic play equipment and its supposedly stimulating ‘developmental’ activities? I wanted my children to feel in their bones the power of the landscape in which we live, and to experience the bush as their playground. They could grow up with, and not just experience on weekends, animals they loved. (And some that I did not love, including one guinea pig who was a serial killer, dispatching all of his fellow rodents to the land of never-never.) I was able, in the freedom of time we had together, to read to them, sometimes for hours. Books are not essential in everyone’s life, but they are in mine.
I loved teaching my children new skills, but I certainly did not envisage my time at home as an endless parade of educational games. I expected them to amuse themselves too, and as they grew older we often enjoyed being busy with our own activities alongside one another, or in separate parts of the house.
Mothers at home are often depicted as isolated and depressed. This was not the case in the convivial community of other mothers in my neighbourhood. My children’s first experience of a supportive, connected community was when I was at home. I decided very early on that parenting was like travelling in an unknown country: it is best and most safely done in the company of others. For that reason, I organised, with the help of the local infant health nurse, the first baby playgroup in the area. Playgroups and preschools followed.
I often had reason to feel grateful to those women, not least the former nurses who on occasion late at night helped out with advice when my children were sick! It was often among that local community that one would see babies having their first separation experiences—I would arrive at someone’s house to find one mother with two babies, the other being only a telephone call away when the minded baby had had enough. Interestingly, in this type of shared care I rarely saw the kind of distress that was so visible with the longer hours of formal childcare.
My children benefited too. Children from the earliest age are fascinated by each other; they learn from and model themselves on older children’s behaviour. Other children were for mine a continual source of play, enjoyment and fascinated interest. Yet there were limits: usually a morning or an afternoon was enough.
One of my central objections to long daycare was the lack of privacy: spending one’s entire day in the company of others whom one could not choose, in enforced sociability, without the possibility of withdrawing quietly when needed to one’s own space. Or the thought of them waking up disoriented, as toddlers often do after their nap, to find a different caregiver to the one who put them down to sleep. Or for that matter, the way that even as babies they already had their biological rhythms dominated by the workplace clock, so that they could not sleep as long as they wished if they had had a bad night.
Most importantly, my decision to look after my children myself reflected the difference that I felt lay between love and care. Part of my Toddlers Bill of Rights would include the possibility of climbing into the lap of someone who truly, deeply, loves them, whenever they wish.
There is in the emphasis that some feminists place on the word care instead of love a shift that is one of the linguistic emblems of our time. Care is a very different word from love. Care is cool and careful, reasoned, a word that implies distance and limits. Love is not. Love is passionate, implacable, intense, unreasoned. Children need most not trained, expert, professional care, but the passionate partiality of parental love. That love is not reproducible, just as to be a mother is not reproducible. Caring is.
Mothering cannot be bought or sold, or reproduced by the marketplace.
But caring can.
It is possible to obscure, for example with tales of the cognitive advantages of creche, or vivid accounts of child abuse by unhappy mothers, the sheer physical love that can exist between children and their parents. In the last year spent at home before school, my younger daughter went through a process akin to sailboat tacking, with apparent reversals in direction between dependence and independence, yet with the movement always heading inexorably towards independence.
She loved her kindergarten, and sometimes I would be banished from the trip to the zoo or suchlike, because she was ‘too big’ to need me. But on other days she would spend the whole afternoon on my lap, being read to, or embracing me, her face buried in my hair, just breathing me in. We both knew that next year all this would change. And it did. The new experience of independence at school for her; the freedom to pick up the threads of work begun in the past for me.
But I cannot pretend that within these gains there was not also, for both of us, a profound sense of loss.
My experience is not universal. I do not claim to speak on behalf of all women. And my point is emphatically not that women should restrict their lives to motherhood. I feel the importance of drawing men, too, into the task of rearing the next generation. But how far we move away from the traditional perception of what the word mother means, matters.
Should we pretend that hired caregivers can give what mothers give to their children? Should we expect women to live like men when a child is just born? Must the old patterns be replaced by new patterns even more constricting—the imposition on all women of that male life pattern? Do we have to pretend that, at least for a time after having children, for at least some women, priorities don’t change?
My journey into motherland was rather like the depiction of illness in Kafka’s wonderful story Metamorphosis—an inexorable descent into social invisibility. So many friends and relations simply gave up expecting that I would do anything of ‘interest’ in the ‘real world’. I was aware that for many around me the period spent undividedly in motherland meant I was forever destined for the ‘Mummy track’. What I knew, however, was that the time would come when I would move back into my own life.
Gingerly, I dusted off my curriculum vitae with the gaping hole. I discovered that two of my referees were dead. I had married the third. It was not a promising beginning. Tentatively, I rang a fourth, a male feminist, who I had not seen in all the time I had spent in motherland. Would he even remember me, I wondered. Remember me he did. Yes, he was more than happy to be my referee, but why, what for, what had I been doing all this time? I told him I had been looking after children. There was an appalled silence.
‘Good heavens. You have been . . . what!’
‘What did you think I would be doing?’ I asked curiously.
‘I’ve often wondered what happened to you,’ he said wanly. ‘But I thought ...you know ...New York ...London ...’
I knew what he meant. A brilliant career. But here I was, down among the children. He sounded terribly disappointed, more embarrassed for me than if I had told him I had been imprisoned for embezzling university funds. I tried to explain but the words melted away and my voice trailed off hopelessly. We rang off and I sat for a few moments by the telephone, reflecting on how hard it is to explain—it is as if one steps back across a threshold into a different world with different values, a different universe.
Everything that is a priority in the other, parallel universe is reversed, turned upside down. The centre of life in one world—children—is invisible to the other. There is no shared language. The most important, meaningful ‘work’ I had ever done counted for nothing. I felt like a bewildered migrant confronted by a culture that turns upside down the values of the world from which I had come.
Then the telephone sprang into life again. It was my friend.
‘You know, I almost fell off my chair to hear what had happened to you. But listen,’ he said. ‘There is some teaching coming up in a course I’m running.’ Then his voice became grim and determined. ‘We’ve got to get you back, Anne. Into the real world.’
I appreciated his generosity. But in what sense had the world I had inhabited—growing up children—not been ‘real?’
In the judgement of the ‘real world’, I suppose I stood still, or was ‘doing nothing’ for all that time, during which I did not ‘progress’. Yet for all that, everything that came after was deeply shaped by my time in motherland. Though I was sometimes impatient to be where I am now, looking back I find I cannot but feel the leaving as a loss.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem