“Omg, I’m about to take off from Sydney but I need to read this” she texts after I send her another article about one of our favourite subjects.
“Sydney? Did you pop over for the day???”
I had talked to her on Friday. It was Sunday.
“Nah – on my way to Bangkok”
“Yes. I’m presenting at an international surgeons’ conference on Wednesday”.
This is standard text banter with my mate Emma. She is a writer and fifth-year med student. She works part time for a public health organisation, chairs all sorts of events, has three weird cats and texts me regularly about how she’s thinking about doing yet another thing. Her schedule makes me want to lie down for a long time but of all the things she does, I marvel most at her being a mum to a five-year-old daughter.
This is not the sum of her parts, nor am I extolling her virtues to add to the pile of superwoman pressure mothers already face. But as someone who isn’t a mother, I marvel at those of you who are.
I often think doing laundry must be the tipping point for busy parents. On top of everything else people have to do with their lives and all the worry, concern and existential doubt having dependants must cause, the idea of more laundry would definitely be my melting point. I barely cope with my own washing and comfortably co-exist with the laundry mountain that springs up in our spare room every week.
Of course, I don’t know what it’s really like because I don’t have kids – and I haven’t always marvelled at you mothers. At times, I have been made to feel painfully aware of not being one and I’ve resented it. Conversations with women can quickly turn to kids if the majority of the group have them and at times I’ve felt overwhelmingly alien in your world. Sometimes it feels as if there’s an invisible barrier between those who are mothers and those who aren’t but I’m never sure who put it there. Was it us?
A rapid untangling of feminist discourse (I may have fallen asleep doing this, waking up to find three hours and a civilised column deadline had passed) pinpoints second wave feminism as the moment at which this division occurred. Shulamith Firestone, a formidable figure in second-wave feminism, argued that female reproductive biology ‘was a shackle’, and that motherhood was ‘patriarchy’s oldest and fondest ally’. Simone de Beauvoir characterises the female organism as a natural slave to breeding.
My feminist education was hugely influenced by the second wavers. I spent my early twenties rummaging around second hand bookstores for dog-eared copies of the works of Greer, Friedan and Steinem. I haven’t really thought about the absence of positive discussions on motherhood within the feminist texts I read, or the impact that had on my attitudes until recently. As it’s Mother’s Day on Sunday and I am no longer in my early twenties, now seems as good a time as any for a Mea Culpa about some of that.
As much I have felt judged for not having kids, I have judged those of you who do have them. I have felt superior in my feminism because I have been ‘free’ to pursue my own endeavours, unencumbered by the needs of others or the shackles of motherhood. I have smugly breezed past you and your kids at the supermarket to retrieve my brie and chardonnay. I have thought my topics of conversations were vastly more interesting than yours about your kids, without even realising you probably also thought this. I have thought myself a better fit for a job because I wouldn’t be leaving at 3pm and I have rolled my eyes at you as you try to leave work quietly to pick up kids. I’m sorry.
As rare as it might be for so someone who isn’t a mother to be writing about motherhood, I like to think it makes me something of an objective observer. And as I’ve gotten older, I have observed two things.
First, watching my friends become parents and my women friends become mothers and stepmothers has been one of the greatest joys of getting older. Every single one of my friends is different in the way they manage being a mum or step mum and it informs and shapes their identities as women in unique and illuminating ways. It has made them more complex, more interesting and more empathetic and not more boring as I once thought, while eating my smug cheese.
The idea for this column originated out of a night at Emma’s, drinking breezily purchased chardonnay, her daughter doing my husband’s hair. My world is bigger, not smaller for knowing my friends’ kids and for sharing a small part of their whānau life.
Secondly, while I feel like I live under a mountain of judgment (and laundry) because I am woman without kids, I genuinely think mothers live under an even bigger one. But it’s not a competition. Women are pitted against each other enough and I hope this column pokes a hole in that invisible barrier. For all that is great about second wave feminism, there is plenty that can be left behind.
Happy Mother’s Day for Sunday y’all. You’re doing or did great. Especially you, Mum.