Modern motherhood: isolating problems

Rachel Cusk and Naomi Wolf have provoked a reaction with their new books on the downsides of motherhood. But is housework really the biggest issue?

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

Motherhood – taken for granted for centuries – is now the subject of heated debates. As Rachel Cusk and Naomi Wolf bring out high-profile new books detailing the problems with the processes of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, being a mother has never seemed so complicated.

In our child-centred times, it is almost taboo for mothers to say they do not enjoy staying at home and looking after their children. So working mums rarely claim that they work because it is fulfilling and rewarding to have a career, but are quick to point to the financial necessity of their jobs. And because Cusk and Wolf have dared to point out some of the negative sides to being a mother, they have sparked quite a reaction.

What do Cusk and Wolf see as the downsides of motherhood? They both point to the physical drudgery of housework – the relentless nappy-changing, cooking and cleaning. But nothing new there – in fact, you could argue that these arduous tasks have become less of a burden in recent years. In my house, the dishwasher, tumble-dryer and super-absorbent disposable nappies relieve much of the sheer physical work that would have been part of motherhood only a generation ago. Likewise, a Bob the Builder video gives me 50 minutes’ guaranteed peace at the push of a button – a luxury my own mother didn’t have.

Naomi Wolf is proud of her feminist credentials – yet her feminism has become child-centred. In the past, many feminists who took up the issue of motherhood argued for wages for housework or 24-hour free nursery provision. Child-centred feminists, by contrast, cannot make the case for these demands. After all, arguing for 24-hour nursery provision would be like admitting that you don’t want your child at home all day – so the new feminism argues for more male involvement in child-rearing and for a better work-life balance for both men and women.

In my experience, it would seem that the biggest problem facing new mothers is not housework but a general sense of isolation. Many new mums live far away from family, and often from friends. This means that when new mothers are concerned about something, trusted sources of help are not always at hand – and this can add to a new mother’s stress levels.

But there is more to it than that. As some commentators have pointed out, you rarely see children playing out in the street these days – which also means you rarely see mothers standing around chatting. As a result, some of the crucial support networks (not to mention the joys of having an adult conversation) born out of meeting other new mothers are on the decline.

When I speak to women of my parent’s generation about their experiences of motherhood, they often talk of friends and the children of their friends. Recently, I was in a local shopping precinct with my mother when she said hello to a woman I had not seen before. When I enquired who she was, my mother told me it was somebody she met in hospital when she was giving birth to me. Twenty-seven years of shared experiences later, they still kept in touch. Health visitors, social services and charity groups offer today’s new mothers a formalised selection of support groups – but it’s just not the same as a gossip over a cup of tea.

Cusk and Wolf only hint at the problems of isolation. Cusk says, almost proudly, that she hasn’t ‘made new friends who have children, but I have two old friends who had children and we email each other endlessly’. But when it comes to adult conversation and emotional and practical support, emailing two old friends is like drinking lemonade when what you really need is a neat whisky.

Wolf claims that one of the biggest problems is the way that gender lines are redrawn after giving birth – with men going back to work and women staying at home, literally left holding the baby. But her solution is not to give women the kind of support that would enable them to get back to work as soon as possible, but to get men to play a bigger role in domestic chores and child-rearing. She writes: ‘I had wanted a mother and a father raising children side by side, the man moving into the world of children, the woman into the world of work, in equitable balance….’ Cusk, too, has changed her relationship, so that her ‘partner is at home and he shares the childcare’.

I’m sure no woman would turn down more help with the housework. But even if we were all in the fortunate position of being able to have both partners working from home, I don’t think it would resolve the problems of isolation. In fact, with both partners constantly focusing on house and child, the sense of the family unit being isolated from the rest of society seems likely to deepen.

Rather than projecting parenting outwards, Wolf and Cusk suggest removing the father from contact with the outside world and drawing him into the insular family unit. This might provide temporary respite for mothers at home with small children – but it’s no long-term solution.

Buy Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

Buy Naomi Wolf‘s Misconceptions from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

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Topics Politics


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