And does it matter?
It does, according to American academic Katie Roiphe, who wrote an article called Disappearing Mothers in the FT last week. It’s deliberately provocative, and has stirred emotions sufficiently on my Facebook page for me to want to examine it more comprehensively and thoughtfully here.
The central gist is that women who choose photographs of their children to represent themselves instead of their own image are victims of a societal attitude which places the child at the forefront of the family, to the detriment of the mother’s identity as a separate individual.
It’s a flawed article (I’m not convinced that the child’s squeaky shoes she mentions are evidence of anything other than the fact that a lot of kids’ stuff is annoying – Hello Puppy, anyone?) – but I do think her main argument has merit.
I think the way you feel about being a mother has a lot to do with your own childhood, the way your parents treated you, and the role you held within the family unit. Parents have always reacted to their own upbringing and, consciously and unconsciously, this colours their parenting of their own children. If you were brought up in a very strict, hostile environment you will (hopefully) want to bring up your children in a more loving manner, putting their needs first. In the same way, those who were given plenty of freedom may crave structure and discipline.
Societal trends about parenting also fluctuate. From the austere, “seen but not heard” attitude in our grandparents’ day, to the “anything goes”, pleasure seeking instinct of the baby boomers, there tends to be a characteristic parenting style of each generation. And of course, many other factors influence this such as the economics of the day, levels of employment, whether the country is at war, etc.
Thanks to increased understanding of developmental psychology and scientific advances that enable us to see exactly what goes on in children’s brains, we have more information than ever about parenting. And, with the advance of the internet, we can not only access this information, but also share it, opine about it, etc. Alongside these developments we have witnessed an increasing fetishisation of mothers in Western society. Celebrities, once interviewed about their acting roles or meanings of their songs now gush about how nothing is more fulfilling than motherhood. (It’s also a cunning way of stopping them getting too big for their boots and getting really good jobs at the highest level, but that’s for another blog.)
Motherhood is big business. Those of us in our thirties and forties who have become mothers in the last decade are surrounded by a barrage of information and expectation. Now we know what could negatively affect our child, we have to make damn sure we don’t do it. Stay at home or go to work? Sleep with your child or do controlled crying? Encourage lots of activities or let them do what they want? Screens or books? Whatever our choices, there is someone wielding a study that shows we have probably damaged our children and will pay the price in bad behaviour/ low achievement/poor attachment, etc.
The majority of mothers I know are doing the absolute best they can for their children and their families under a huge amount of pressure. Everyone has an opinion on our parenting, from what we feed the children, to what they can or can’t watch on TV. Amongst all this noise and decision-making, it can be very easy to lose sight of the people we are. We spend so much time “outside” ourselves, meeting the needs of others (be they our boss or our children) that we can forget we have a few of our own.
Of course I’m not saying we should neglect our children – their needs, especially when they’re small, will always and instinctively take priority. But even when they are young, we need to carve out space for our own lives as well. Not only for us, but for our children – it’s important that they see we have other interests and opinions, and they are not included in all of it. They need us to see us as mothers, but also acknowledge we have a role as partners and as individuals.
For this to happen, we need to give women more options when they become mothers. A good place to start would be more highly subsidised childcare, and of uniformly good quality (we also need to pay our early years workers a lot more than they are currently getting). We already enjoy a good, long maternity leave in the UK, but I would also be in favour of introducing a “papa” day, as they have in the Netherlands, where men are legally allowed to work a four-day week and spend one day looking after the kids.
Not all mothers want to work when the kids are small, and my point is that there should be genuine choice. Make it viable for women to work if they choose – more part-time jobs, more job shares. If not, no problem. But lets acknowledge that there’s more to being a woman than being a mother. It might be the most important thing, but it’s not everything. And being aware of our external representation of ourself (a Facebook profile pic or something else) – if only just to make us question how “mummified” we’ve become – is a good place to start.