If you had asked me before I had kids, whether I believed in equality for women I would have said that yes I did, I did absolutely believe in equality, but I also would have described myself as someone who already had it.
People don’t really like to describe themselves as feminists.
I think sometimes we are afraid.
I asked a family member if she would describe herself as a feminist. She said that, ‘yes’ she would ‘but only if feminism acknowledges that men and women have different lives.’
What she said really made me think for a minute.
Then I stopped ‘really thinking’ because my baby started to cry and I couldn’t think any real thoughts apart from what I might do to stop my baby from crying.
Before I had kids I would say that as a white, kind of working to middle class woman living in England, feminism wasn’t something that I felt I needed. I already had equality, or at least, enough equality to lead the life I wanted. I had, at least on paper, equal opportunities in education and in work and when me and my husband got together we were equal. We earnt about the same, we shared the housework equally, we were equal players.
When I was pregnant with my first child I could not wait for our lives as parents to start. I had longed to start our family and to be a mum. When I imagined what life would be like as a mum I imagined it in the same way that my life played out before parenthood; I imagined that I would be an equal player in a team effort between me and my husband.
My experience of childbirth with my first baby was quite traumatic. It was an induced labour that was long and hard followed by an awful third stage in which there were complications with delivering the placenta. I ended up in theatre to have the placenta removed and before they transferred me to theatre there was this truly horrible ten minutes when they attempted to manually remove that placenta with no pain relief for me. It was an excruciating bloody mess. I lost a lot of blood. Each time I moved on the bed I remember kind of splashing around in it and it spattering off the bed onto the floor, like I was kicking around in a too-full bath. When I read in my notes how much blood they estimated I lost I remember thinking that I had almost lost enough to fill up one of those family size bottles of coke.
After I came back from the operation the afternoon passed in a haze with people bringing flowers and chocolates and various checks for the baby. The whole way through my husband was amazing and so supportive and was obviously going through the wringer himself, but it was time for him to go home. Visiting hours were over. If there was a way for him to stay with us in hospital then I think he probably would have done but there wasn’t, so what happened was that he went home.
As he gave us each a kiss and walked off the ward, they turned down the lights for the night shift and I felt the divide between us open up;
We are different now. Our lives are different now.
What’s weird about post birth care is that you have to try and get your head around the fact that despite having gone through what is often very physically and emotionally traumatic, ie childbirth and all the pain and complications and sleeplessness that comes with it, you then are expected to care for a newborn baby which is something that a) you don’t know how to do yet and b) involves very little or no sleep.
Also, because you are in hospital you are effectively on your own in the experience of caring for your newborn. Apart from the occasional injection into your stomach or blood pressure check you just lie in your curtained off cubicle wishing for it to be morning again and trying to figure out things like breastfeeding and how to use an empty sick bowl to hook your babies’ cot-on-wheels over to your bedside so that you can reach her to lift her in and out despite your legs still not being moveable.
At one point a midwife took my baby so that I could sleep but brought her back fifteen minutes later because she would not settle. I was learning my new place in life. I was learning that my comfort or sleep or feelings of isolation were not important. All that was important was that I kept caring for my baby. That any other feelings I had were to be soaked up under a blanket of gratefulness and maternal love for my baby.
I did feel love for my baby. I did feel happy. The only problem was that I also had a lot of other feelings like physical pain, exhaustion, shock and a generally great sense of inadequacy and stress.
And the loneliness.
There is something about having a little person to care for that creates an instant distance in your relationship with other people, partner included.
Now, let me get one thing straight, my husband is an excellent father and husband. He does his share of the parenting and the housework, but when his paternity leave was up and he went back to full time work after a week or two at home with me and our baby, I watched him get into his car from the lounge window and thought,
‘You are going back to your normal life, but mine has changed forever.’
Of course, his life had changed too, right?
Yes, it did. We both became parents and would forever spend our time when not in work, looking after our children. But our lives, although both changed, had not changed each into the same kind of thing. Before we had kids our lives were the same. They were not the same anymore.
He was smartly dressed and was carrying his lunch to eat on his break. He got into the car and turned his radio on, fastened his seatbelt and gave us a wave before driving off for the day. I rocked back and forth on my heels in my sick stained dressing gown with the baby crying on my shoulder. I hummed whatever I could think of and patted her gently on her tiny back. I wasn’t sure what I would do with myself and the baby for the rest of the day, except try to make her go back to sleep somehow so that I could sleep.
I wasn’t angry with my husband, but in a lot of ways, I was jealous of him.
He was going back to something straight forward really. He was going back to a job that he knew how to do where he would work in a team and chat to people. He would have a lunch break and read a book and eat a sandwich. He would end his day at work with a few frustrations but generally would feel that he had achieved something. He would feel good for it. That would be his life for the bulk of his day and the bulk of his week and the bulk of his years.
But work is also hard, right? Work is hard too.
I had spent years putting in 50, 60+ hour weeks as a chef. I knew hard, long, stressful, relentless, work and I was soon to know looking after babies and young children.
Work is easy, being a mother is not.
Being a mother is utterly consuming and exhausting. Part of that exhaustion is that the overwhelming love you have for your children squeezes every last ounce of effort out of you as you strive to be the best kind of mother that you possibly can be for them. I believe that this is why we beat ourselves up about every little thing some days and feel we are not doing a good enough job. We want the very best for our kids and we will throw ourselves under the bus in an attempt to push ourselves to be the best carers we possibly can be.
So let’s talk about choice now because this is something that I hear a lot of. Well, if you don’t enjoy looking after children then why did you become a mother?
mmmmm yes, good point
Why don’t I just stop whinging?
Why don’t I just get on with it like I’m supposed to?
Would you believe me if I said that I actually love children and that I love my own children more than life itself?
They are my light in every struggle I have gone through in my attempt to adjust to this thing called motherhood and to do it right.
I write this blog to give a voice to the difficult feelings and struggles around being a mum and at times readers have responded by also sharing their feelings in comments either on my blog or on my facebook page. Inevitably a bloke called something like ‘Geoff’ who has a bulldog with an England flag in the background as his profile pic will wade in with a comment like,
‘Why didn’t you all just shut your legs if it’s so hard having babies?’
Thanks for your input Geoff.
Let’s look into that option for a minute.
Having children is as hard as it is wonderful and at times the hard bits can feel so overwhelming. At times when we are overwhelmed we might like to talk about how we feel. So mums, if you talk about the hard stuff, do you not deserve to be a mum and is it a choice you should not have made? If it is hard for everyone at some point then maybe we should just all ‘shut our legs’ right?
So, in a world where women just stop having babies because no one can handle it when they say they are struggling or are feeling overwhelmed what would that look like?
If women just ‘shut their legs’?
Eventually there would be no babies or children anywhere. For some people like Geoff this would be a massive bonus as there would be no crying children or breastfeeding mums ruining his experience of enjoying a gingerbread latte in starbucks. When Geoff goes to the supermarket there are no badly behaved threenagers threatening their mothers with French sticks for him to complain about on social media later when he gets home, which will be responded to by thirty-three comments from his friends and family calling for children to be hit more often and agreeing that in ‘their day’ children would never have dared to threaten their mothers with a bread roll, wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week etc etc ad infintum
Anyway, if women stopped becoming mothers, stopped having babies, eventually there would be no children. There would be no teenagers. There would be no students. (Geoff would be very pleased about that) There would be no professionals, no doctors, teachers, nurses, accountants, politicians, chefs, roadworkers, train drivers, footballers, aid workers, writers, cleaners, bar staff, police officers, firefighters. There would just be the elderly, with only other elderly people to look after them.
One thing we often fail to recognise is that women having babies is the key to everyone’s future. It is the very existence and survival of the human race. Our children are not merely for our own pleasure. We bring them up to be their own people who we hope will go out into the world and continue making it a better place for everyone long after we have gone.
If women stopped having babies we would cease to exist.
To say, ‘well you chose to have children,’ whenever a woman voices difficult feelings about how hard it is to be a mum only really means ‘shut up,’ because do women really have a choice as a collective group to just stop having children? If it’s something that we all did then eventually there would not be a human race.
So, I guess that my point is, having babies and becoming mothers is something women do that is a service to society as much as it is a personal choice for our own pleasure and fulfilment. It is something that makes our lives irrevocably different from the lives of men, even from the men who have become parents with us. The world of paid work comes with more respect, monetary gain, appraisals, promotions, intellectual stimulation and a bit of a free pass to less housework, more sleep and more ‘me time’ even if that ‘me time’ is just being able to do a poo without anyone trying to get onto your lap or getting to eat your lunch without having to simultaneously feed it to someone else.
It is almost six years since I left the world of full time work to become a mother. I still work but on a part time basis and like the many women that have gone before me, I no longer do the same job as before I had children. It didn’t work with the kids. I have found other, less skilled and less paid work to fit around my life as a mum.
I do not earn the same as my husband anymore.
Not by a long shot.
I still have choices but I feel like I am navigating a different landscape to my husband.
I don’t know if we are really equal anymore.
We may be to each other, we may even be when it comes to the division of labour in the home (outside of work hours) but our actual lives; what they feel like and the choices we are each faced with, no, they are not the same.
Our lives were the same once, we were the same once, but now?
We are different now.