Monday, 28 September 2009

The Thing About Mothers

Here’s a thing: why do we never ask even our closest friends whether their mothers worked? One friend’s mother – Mother Marjorie as we know her – is the wellspring of constant motherly wisdom to all of her daughter’s friends, not to mention the source of rallying pre-party expressions such as ‘tut tut, eleven o’clock and not a sausage pricked!’

It’s a weird thing, but I have no idea whether most of my friends’ mothers ever went out to work (apart from those I grew up with). We just don't ask our friends what their mothers did in the way we might enquire about their fathers – to them and to us the role of mother always seems enough. Simply by existing, our mothers matter to us. Simply by being, we are of mind-blowing importance to our children.

The problem for women today is that we’re educated for the workplace, not for motherhood. Motherhood flies in the face of all we have learned, because it is not about doing, but about being; it is not another project, but a whole way of life. Annoyingly, it’s a way of life that totally undermines and overturns all our former values and assumptions.

Motherhood is a great leveller, but it’s also full of different possibilities. Feminism might have given us choices, but it failed to solve the contradictions they posed. I’m fairly sure feminism would work better if it were designed for men. Men wouldn’t attempt all this multi-tasking and run themselves ragged trying to ‘have it all’. No, men would make a simple choice about whether to outsource the parenting role or the bread-winning role and respect each other’s different decisions. They certainly wouldn’t spend endless amounts of emotional energy on the feelings of guilt and envy and incompetence that mothers do.

In an incomparable expression of writerly genius, Helen Simpson once wrote of 'the deep romance and boredom' of motherhood. Having a child is like having the most intense, addictive, emotionally turbulent love affair of your life. And it's also like having a job where the rewards are great, but the day to day work is as tedious as hell. A bit like banking perhaps (one does get the occasional bonus even when times are hard).

So it’s no wonder that motherhood often doesn’t seem enough to us when we are faced with the mind-numbing tedium of it. But as mothers, we owe ourselves a daily reminder that we are insurmountably important, that our role is totally unique and impossible to delegate, and that even if we’re one day forgotten for everything else we’ve done, we’ll still be remembered for being someone’s mum. To our children at least, that is enough.

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