Now I have an actual baby (and seem to be writing about it more than I expected), I have to observe that it has not changed my feelings about the whole “motherhood” business. If anything, it has made me even less keen to own the label. I wrote a bit about it before birth but the inevitable post-birth stuff has only made me more strongly aware that it doesn’t suit me at all. I’m really enjoying being a parent, but not for a minute have I felt like a “mother”, whatever that feels like. Yes, I have a uterus & I grew a baby in it, but contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that automatically makes me a mother & I simply refuse to accept the label. It’s just not me.
I didn’t always want children. Shock, huh? When I was a teenager, I had miserable abdominal pains & hyperemesis and was very keen on having a hysterectomy as soon as I could legally make the decision. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of my lack of desire to parent was down to a combination of my mother’s stories of what an appalling child I was (thanks for that fairy curse, Mother) and a deep discomfort with everything about being A Mother, and most feminine stuff in general. As I got older, I used to say, only slightly sarcastically, that I’d like to be a father if someone else wanted to be the mother. While I realised even in my teens that these roles are not biological necessities and are as socially constructed as everything else, the implications of that hadn’t sunk in to the point where I realised that I simply don’t have to accept other people’s definitions of me. I know myself best, after all.
Equally unsurprisingly, I don’t really identify with “woman” much either, and identify with it as a political/class terminology if anything. I sort of am one, I suppose, in the sense of not identifying more strongly with anything else (bar possibly “femme”, onto which I shan’t diverge), but the idea of feeling “like a woman” baffles me; being “a mother” is, after all, meant to make you feel like one if nothing else does. I know that’s dangerous nonsense which hurts all kinds of women, and just plain doesn’t work even for many who are both, but I’m not even sure I had a horse in this race to begin with. I suppose I’d rather be something else if there was an option which suited me better, but there isn’t a common one. I wonder how many people’s seemingly conventional gender identity is less “man” or “woman” and more “not the other one”? Yes, I suppose I will refer to myself as cis because I don’t feel trans to be a realistic description of my life. I don’t think I experience much of what most trans people I know experience, and to imply that I do seems wrong to me. I don’t experience significant dysmorphia about my body, only discomfort with social roles. OK, so I’d swap my crappy squishy human body for that of a giant robot in a New York minute, but where on the DSM does that fall? I mean, wouldn’t everyone?? I have in the past identified as genderqueer, but even that seemed a bit appropriative, as if i was demanding attention for an identity I hadn’t earned. Now, while there’s a whole other debate about whether genderqueer should privilege androgynous presentations (one quite well laid-out here) , I still feel that even if I go with genderqueer, I can continue to recognise that I’m closer to the cis end of the spectrum, hence my tolerance for “woman”. (All of which makes me particularly enraged by the “don’t call me cis!” whiner feminists; if you’re going to bitch about being given a description you didnt choose, why arent you starting by complaining about “woman”? I mean, most of you seem in agreement that patriarchy is A Thing, and that women-as-a-class are oppressed by it, so why are you so willing to buy into a category patriarchy likes and get upset about one it doesn’t? I genuinely don’t get it.) At any rate, while I was grudgingly willing to put up with “woman” if I had to, in the absence of an alternative, “mother” was something I had a bit more choice in, I hoped. It’s only in later years that I realised just how much it was the identity of “mother” putting me off from parenting, and it’s only quite recently that I realised that the identity isn’t just highly gendered, it’s its own particular kind of gender. And it can fuck right off.
Yet I can’t help feeling that even if I were more inclined toward womanness, I wouldn’t find the culturally lauded concepts of motherhood much more appealing. You don’t have to be gender-nonconforming to spot that almost everything about it is staggeringly twee, deeply reductive and so faux-laudatory as to stick in the craw. If society so loves mothers, why doesn’t it also love things like affordable childcare, pay equality, child-friendly spaces & oh, not blaming mothers for every social ill imaginable? Maybe when women had fewer choices, mothering was genuinely more respected as a separate sphere, but I doubt it; it was always a fake tribute, crumbs from the table of power. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that’s expected to do lots of other work for free as well. Yet I do think that recognition of the hard work of parenting has diminished (there is a general assumption that modern life has made this substantially easier, a fine theory which fails to note that our brave new world has not yet given us the 3 day week or the jet pack), while the number of potential ways for parents to fail has increased. And the burden for this falls disproportionately on mothers. I get angry about all of this, I really do, and opting out of it in my head doesn’t mean it it doesn’t affect me, but conversely, I see no reason to pretend to be part of a group just because others perceive me to be. That’s not an original observation by any means, but it happens to apply. Interestingly, Bronwyn Clune wrote about not being a ‘good mother’ for CiF only yesterday – fabulous timing!
This is not biological, it is cultural. Women are not naturally better at parenting, they just tend to end up doing the lion’s share of it and thus get “better” (ie more adapted to it) through experience. I am not a better parent than my partner (often the opposite, I feel!). I am not naturally more in tune with my child’s needs. I do not have some kind of special intuition which makes me better able to determine what they’re thinking. I think my child is great and I love being around them, but I’m actually a bit less keen to do that full-time than my partner is, and it pisses me off that people assume I should be. Recently, I was having a similar conversation with a sex worker parent that I met at the London Justice For Jasmine protest; they expressed their own frustration with “mother” and talked about “the motherhood” as a sort of dull ghetto where women and small children are isolated from everyone else. Spot on, in my opinion. It’s not that people aren’t attacking the stereotypes – take, as just one example, My Mother Wears Combat Boots (on this theme, see also: Rad Dad. And many thanks to the lovely @notahappyhooker for pointing me at Donald Winnicott and his theories of ‘the good enough mother’. But for me personally, I don’t think that better concepts of ‘mother’ are good enough. The word actually bothers me, on a physical level: when someone uses “mother” or “mum” about me, my stomach feels downright uncomfortable.
I’m not really advocating anything here, nor do I wish to take anything away from people who are and love being “mother” – many are also pushing at and stretching the boundaries of the term, and more power to them. Even if you’re happy in a very conventional maternal role, I’m glad for you if that’s what works in your life. The world can handle a hell of a lot more diversity of opinion and practice than some seem to think. I suppose if I was going to ask my friends to do anything, it would be just to avoid using the M word to or about me as much as they can; I use my actual name to my baby and I expect them to call me that, not “Mum” or any variation thereof. It’s not a really big deal, I just feel weird as hell when I hear it. So thanks in advance, my dears.