Part of the magic of having a child for many people surely is underlining a union with a beloved partner – preserving it forever in the double helix, to borrow from a poetic Jewel lyric. The entwining goes beyond the partners to the wider family members. It is marvellous to think that a decision to have a child will mean the creation of many new loving familial bonds; that it means the creation of a grandchild, a niece or nephew, a cousin. Births are to be celebrated: they keep the family tree growing and dynamic; they counter-balance the onward march of ageing and death. Children bring joy because they feed the primary human meaning-making machine that is family, offering new promise of love, connection and growth.
It’s also a scary prospect. Differences and disagreements can come into sharp relief in the raising of a child. Moreover, having a child means a one-way ticket into an important lifelong relationship with a person you haven’t met yet! What if they turn out to be someone quite different from who you imagined? We all know profound relationships are a risky enterprise, that they have the potential to make us very happy or very unhappy – but we keep on taking the risk, I suppose because on a deeper level, they are simply what human life is all about.
Raising children is very resource-intensive. That’s what I find hardest to swallow about it. I have a tendency to feel my resources are scarce (which in many ways they are), and to be terrified of insufficiency. Money, time, energy and sleep are all things I never quite feel I have enough of. I crave security: I want to feel my resources are more than adequate for what is required of me. Going hand-in-hand with this is a craving for calm, order, clean, tidiness; a craving to have everything under control, a futile desire for completion in a life-process of constant flux.
I don’t feel good about these cravings – in fact I feel shame about them. They feel like weakness. But there’s no point denying that having a baby represents a major challenge for me. I catch myself in ridiculous thoughts like “the coat hooks are full of our coats, where on earth would we hang a child’s coats?” I’m continually testing my fitness for parenthood, cross-examining myself and finding myself lacking. For a year I’ve been pre-emptively dealing with all of the stress without getting any of the joy. I’m exhausted already!
These fears fan the flames of my passionate belief in equal parenting. I see the intensification of the mother role and heightened expectations of mothers over recent decades as unhealthy, imbalanced. (Actually, having just read Of Woman Born, maybe it’s not such a recent thing.) It’s hard knowing that I would face an uphill struggle against prevailing culture trying to stave off the worst of its prescriptions – although, part of me also relishes the chance to be at the forefront of change. 😉 But I’m aware that as a woman entering the institution of motherhood, I would all too easily find myself expending more of myself than my partner. I can only be realistic about that.
There is a difference between a mum and a dad. Anyone who has been raised by a mum and a dad knows this. It may not be biologically inevitable, but it is biologically kick-started by pregnancy, birth, and breast-feeding, and culturally perpetuated by the reality that mum will take a long period of leave from work and dad won’t (the new shared parental leave arrangements don’t go far enough to change that), and mum will probably be the one (if any) to work part-time, cementing her status as the principal parent who manages all practicalities and knows how to meet every need of her child. So close is the resulting emotional bond between a mum and child that the child’s happiness becomes a major focus of her life.
Many women want to be mothers precisely because this picture appeals to them; and many mothers wouldn’t have it any other way, saying the rewards along the way are worth every sacrifice. In many ways I’m sure I would love being ‘mum’ – and sometimes I get a glimpse of how amazing that might feel. I don’t feel that love is a scarce resource. I’m just afraid of being overwhelmed by the practical demands of life, and of losing ‘myself’, whoever that is. But then, I suppose I am as well-equipped to find the right balance as I could hope to be.
And I might be fighting a losing battle with an inner uptight control freak, but it doesn’t seem right to discount parenthood based on feeling temperamentally unsuited to the chaos a small child brings. It’s easy to forget that it’s a journey of diverse phases. You think your decision is to have a child but years later that child is gone and a teenager is in its place. You think your decision is to embrace “family life” but in the end that family grows up and leaves, and depending where they go and what they do, your day-to-day life might not look all that different from that of the couple next door who didn’t have a family. But you will have very different memories; you will have an adult child in your life; and you will have learned – and continue to learn – so many different things about the world through witnessing the unfolding of their life, through their presence in yours. A decision on parenthood is a decision on all of this.
There are people for whom decisions about parenthood, religious belief, or career choice are plain sailing. I have never been one of them. I take longer, more torturous routes through life’s questions. But that’s who I am… and it’s OK.