Apr 26, 2013

Motherhood and Autonomy

Here is one of those fantastic one-line quotations that just says so much:

Forced motherhood is a kind of slavery, because motherhood and autonomy can never coexist.

This was in the closing paragraph of Tanya Gold's excellent piece "The Anti-Abortion Lobby is Barbaric" (The Guardian Comment Is Free 22 April 2013).  (Thanks to Glosswatch for the breakaway quote and link to the article).

Leaving aside the abortion issue, just focus on this portion:
motherhood and autonomy can never coexist.

I think that little phrase is perfect.

When I was a kid I never wanted children, and my kids say they don't either. This is a natural reaction: a child sees how hard its parents work and knows kids are all-consuming; a daughter sees her mother weighed down with the burden and responsibility of parenthood in a way her father is not quite - and baulks at taking that on.

Of course kids saying they don't want kids when they grow up means nothing much - most will want them when they're grown just as I did, suddenly and fiercely, in my thirties.

But it does point to the truth that everyone sees: motherhood is all-consuming and forever. Of course I should say "parenthood", and the rise of hands-on dads and fathers taking on primary carer roles and writing and talking about it is a wonderful, wonderful thing which is changing the world.  But all over the world and even in our corner of it, it remains true that motherhood for most mothers takes over a woman's body, mind and soul, her daily life, her working style, her choices and the trajectory of her life, more totally than it does for most men.

'Mother and Child' 2010 - Nationaal Archief via Flickr

I often think of all those writers and painters in the past, married to women who were also writers, painters, sculptors or dancers, and who had children. Funny how the men's art was not much affected, while the women were far less prolific.

'13th Century Mother' by Hans via Flickr

Of course many women, especially writers, weave motherhood into their art. And many find motherhood a source of joyous creativity.  Mothers who aren't artists often feel that creativity too: times when you are in lockstep with your child and buzzing with ideas and happiness and competence.

Sometimes motherhood can feel like a delicious, secret club that men have passed up.

But there is no denying that having children curtails your freedom. Everyone knows this, and you know it before you have them. 

But still, somehow, it is a massive shock when this hits you for real. You might be nursing a fussing baby, or realising you are stuck at home for hours while they sleep, or dragging yourself out of bed when you really, really, REALLY don't want to get up. Then you're suddenly, truly aware that you can no longer do whatever you want to do.

Then there is the even worse realisation, after the first few times you have worried or panicked or seen some horrifying future for your child: this worry and fear is forever. It is never, never lessening, and it is never, never going away. Oh f...., I remember thinking, as this dawned on me. No one would ever take this on if they fully realised what lay in wait. 

If you get some time to yourself, it is limited. Very limited. I still remember the disbelief I felt when pregant while reading some tips for mothers on how to relax and recharge in a 15 minute or 30 minute window while children were occupied. 15 minutes. 15 minutes?? 

Or you get a night off, and you go out for dinner. A grown-up dinner with your friends, or a special night with your partner. And what do you think about? Your kids. (At least part of the time).

'Mother's Day'
Mother and child in Ubud, Bali, 2008 - by purplbutrfly via Flickr

Of course, there is more freedom as kids get older. But you are never "free and clear". You are never a totally autonomous being, ever again.

'A Canadian mother, Mrs Jack Wright, says goodbye to her two sons
Ralph Wright and David Wright, whom she leaves in a day nursery
while she works at a part-time job' - Toronto, 1943.
Library and Archives Canada, via Flickr

But then, who is?

No one wants complete autonomy, because that only comes with no human connections and no responsibilities.  We need both to live and thrive.

'Mother and Son', Rio Juma, Amazon, 2006
by pellaea via Flickr

'Mother Love' by ulfhams_vikingur via Flickr


  1. Even as a work-from-home-r with a thirteen year old at school, the worry and love never ends. Even during arguments, tears and sulks....



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