Happy Mother’s Day

Last year Mother’s Day was the first day we woke up at home with our baby, after a week of living at the hospital after her birth. It felt unimaginably luxurious to wake in a queen size bed and drink coffee there while Dorothy snoozed, a swaddled bundle camouflaged amid linen sheets. That bed was heaven after the antenatal ward, where the nights were one long unbroken wail of other newborns and the nurse call bell. 

I feel like a real deal mum this Mother’s Day. I have the laminated bookmark, daubed with paint by Dot at daycare, to prove it. Not to mention the card where my husband has forged her signature and proclamation of love for me. The best gift of all? My beloved baby was at home with her dad while I wrote this at the library, alone in noise-cancelling headphones, in a room sparsely dotted with strangers. I had an urge to write, words stringing into sentences in my mind while I pegged nappies onto the clothesline for at least the 150th time this year.

Mother’s Day raises mixed feelings. Because motherhood is so loaded. Heavy with expectation, guilt, judgement, emotion, pleasure and pain. It’s a bit of a cult, and never is that clearer or more opaque than this day of all days. 

For one, there’s never been more information available to new parents. And with social media, we’ve never had so much insight into how other people do it (or, how they say they do it). Somehow all this data and curated performance only makes it harder to feel like you’re getting it right. It’s an industry, professional mumming on Instagram – and it comes in every flavour from organic crunchy earth mama to data-driven optimise-my-child mother to hot mess wine o’clock mom. 

Even the word motherhood feels like a trap. So much of parenting can be completed by either parent — and not all families have two parents, let alone cisgender heteronormative configurations. The romanticised mythology of the all-knowing mama traps women in the expectation that they alone can soothe and solve. It lets co-parents off the hook for a lot of labour — and excludes them from so much joy.

My argument is all over the place here, like my stance. Sometimes I want to be venerated as the long-suffering, all-sacrificing paragon. Sometimes I actually want to make all her food from scratch and wash cloth nappies every other day and load each interaction with best-practice scripts from child psychologists on the internet. And sometimes I just want to burn it all down.

Becoming a mum has made me feel whole and purposeful in a way I now realise I was searching for for many years. I have never loved so much, never felt so much joy or laughed so hard. I have never loved my partner more. I have an entirely new appreciation for my own mother, my grandmothers, the lineage and legacy of all the women who’ve paved the way for how we live as women today. 

But I also feel like I haven’t given a conversation my full attention in a year. I’ve read entire books that I have no memory of. Creativity is an uphill battle, an out-of-body experience. Grinding out sentences that feel like dross, mining back through them weeks and months later to chip out small gems that can be polished and strung into something meaningful. Like my brain, I’m making peace with a body that will never be what it was before. And why should it? 

Motherhood is a physical feat that launches you into immediate solidarity with billions of others around the planet. Motherhood is a club you feel like a pretender in. Motherhood is a billion small decisions, both active and passive, that add up to a whole new human being’s existence in the world and psyche (no pressure). Motherhood is exhaustion. Motherhood is exaltation. Motherhood is scraping literal shit from places you never imagined. Motherhood is performance. Motherhood is being broken down to action without artifice, only survival, only instinct. Motherhood is creating and sustaining a life with nothing more than your body. Motherhood is domestic routines ad nauseum. Motherhood is being moved to tears by a smile from someone who made you cry with frustration minutes early. Motherhood is a hundred running mental lists of things that need doing or remembering.

But how much of that can actually only be done by mums? Why do we perpetuate this myth that women have to do it all, submitting to status quo structures both systemic and informal that keep us stretched to breaking point? Systems that hobble our financial security for the rest of our lives, that push us out of career paths into cul-de-sacs, while men’s earning potential improves when they father children (so long as they don’t change their working hours to actually spend time with those children). Why are any of us putting up with this system when it robs all of us? 

I feel lucky that our daughter is growing up seeing her own father work toward an equitable division of labour in our home, and observing peers who have highly involved dads. But these shouldn’t be exceptional. Every one of those dads I talk to in the playground who is experiencing being primary caregiver would not hesitate to encourage other men to do the same. But they are privileged to make the choice to do so by employers with progressive HR policies, or by partners with great incomes.

For all my labouring here, Jia Tolentino managed to articulate what I’m trying to say in a couple of sentences in an Instagram caption: “I am constantly amazed and sorrowful, understanding how many people have to make this work on poverty wages or without stability and help. With eyes on the day that structural support replaces the distraction of gift guides and takes the burden off our strung-together safety networks, here’s to care and caretaking work and less-than-visible labor in all its forms.”

Recommended reading:

All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers, and the Myth of Equal Partnership, Darcy Lockman

Men At Work, Annabel Crabb

Parenthood the Swedish Way: A Science-based Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, and Infancy, Agnes Wold and Cecilia Chrapkowska