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The many contradictions of modern motherhood

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

Motherhood: A Manifesto Eliane Glaser

4th Estate, pp.240, 16.99

There are few certainties in life. Death and taxes are the ones regularly trotted out. However, there is another that rarely gets mentioned: the fact that every single human who has ever existed has come out of a woman’s body. This act of creation, while being a marvel, has also become banal. In Motherhood, Eliane Glaser deftly juggles the wonder and boredom, the joy and pain and the many profound contradictions that attend modern motherhood.

Philosophers, child psychologists and anthropologists from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Donald Winnicott and Margaret Mead provide cultural and social contexts for how our attitudes towards motherhood have changed throughout history. ‘There is enormous diversity in the way birth is thought about, treated and understood,’ wrote Mead in 1967: ‘In some societies, births are considered physiologically normal and in others pathological.’

At the heart of Glaser’s book is the idea that nature is often seen to exist in opposition to civilisation and scientific progress. ‘Natural childbirth and motherhood is presented as the counter-cultural “minority” fighting for recognition in the face of prevailing orthodoxy,’ Glaser writes.‘Yet the reality is the opposite.’ She believes our current embrace of natural birth movements means that women are prevented from engaging fully in life outside the domestic sphere:

The attention paid to breastfeeding seems almost totemic, whereas other, more clear-cut improvements to children’s lives — generous funding for state schools or reducing air pollution, for example — seem less of a priority.

This she puts down to our shift from a collective feminism to one whose focus is on personal choice and individualism suited to our consumerist era. ‘Motherhood,’ she writes, ‘is feminism’s unfinished business.’

This conflict for some mothers between a desire to inhabit the domestic sphere and the need to live in the wider world is one Glaser delves into with shirtsleeves rolled up. She cites reports that upend the view — one which so often rears its head in the media — that children’s emotional and intellectual abilities suffer when their mothers work. In fact, studies show that early years’ childcare can be hugely beneficial — if it is good; for many mothers, it is simply out of financial reach. A 2018 study revealed that ‘childcare costs have risen three times faster than wages over the past decade’, and women, Glaser tells us, ‘make up 62 per cent of all low-paid employees’. If we are lucky to have a well-paid job, 45 per cent of us are ‘offered less senior roles’ upon our return after having a child. Glaser sums up: ‘Having children is the biggest obstacle to achieving feminist equality.’ And, to top it all off, according to the Office for National Statistics, women still do nearly ‘60 per cent more unpaid [domestic] work than men’.

Divided into seven sections, Motherhood tackles the big issues which most modern parents agonise over, from the practical problems of striking the perfect work-life balance to the more philosophical debates around attachment theory, neuroscience and child psychology. Glaser is good at placing ideas we have come to take for granted in wider historical or cultural contexts, allowing us to see them afresh, the biological clock being one of these. Women are constantly reminded that they must get started early if they want children, and Glaser does not deny that there is a very real cut-off point for conception. But readers who are trying to get pregnant might feel they can relax a bit when they learn that ‘women who got married between 35 and 39 were 90 per cent likely to have a child’, and that even the stats for women between 40 and 44 are 62 per cent. In fact, by taking the long view on so many fraught issues, from children’s education to their mental health, Glaser encourages us all to relax.

She also remains optimistic that political will can be summoned to make the lives of mothers easier. And true to the manifesto element of the book, she gives examples of solutions, such as the ‘Green New Deal for Europe’ which proposes a ‘care income’ for all carers and statutory shared parental leave. As well as ‘macro state solutions’, she discusses smaller ones, such as at-work day care centres provided by private businesses. One of the most imaginative solutions to childcare, which also has the added benefit of reducing loneliness in the elderly population, can be found in intergenerational day care centres which are popping up in the US and the UK. But, ultimately, Glaser ‘has had enough of policy solutions aimed solely at mums’, and she calls for a holistic societal shift involving everyone, including fathers.

Being a mother, unlike almost any other state of being, sheds a harsh light on the conflict between the personal and the political. It is the locus of tension for many women who cut short their careers and suffer financially or soldier up the career ladder and feel guilty for missing out on their children’s lives. Glaser’s book is a tonic to our overly anxious and neurotic world of Twitter spats and clickbait headlines. Motherhoodis full of up-to-date research and insight. Reading it is like talking to your super-smart and very sensible best friend who has the facts at her fingertips. My childrearing days are long gone, but I wish I’d had this book when I was in the thick of it. I might have managed a few more nights of sleep — and. as any mother knows, this is a high compliment indeed.

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