“Aren’t your children enough for you?”
The question was from a father in response to a friend who said she was looking forward to her youngest child starting school this year. After seven years of being a full-time carer, she’s excited about to doing something just for herself.
Nothing major, mind. Just some modest goals: writing, growing her own business, leaving the house on her own without having to lug around a bag weighed down with wipes, snacks and crayons.
But the thought that a woman who’s a mother might have any other goals or desires outside of motherhood was apparently alien to this man.
The idea that “good” women should be totally fulfilled by caring for their children is not uncommon. In our culture, the mere suggestion that you don’t love and relish every single moment of motherhood is akin to admitting that you hate your kids.
A mother’s worthiness is so readily called into question that almost every time a woman says anything negative about her motherhood experience she quickly follows-up with a declaration of love for her children.
Of course, women like my friend who are able to take time out of the workforce to care for their children are privileged. Many women have to return to work out of economic necessity. More often than not, they are then run ragged working a full day in paid work and then come home to a second shift of unpaid domestic work and childcare.
But just like many things we judge women by — such as feeding and childbirth — the reason behind the choice is more important than the choice itself.
You can bottle-feed your baby if you physically can’t produce milk and still be an acceptable mother. But should you choose not to breastfeed for just about any other reason, then you’re a selfish cow who doesn’t deserve to reproduce.
An emergency C-section is met with understanding and even pity, but if you have an elective Caesarean then you’re “too posh to push” and probably setting your child up for a lifetime of obesity/autism/attachment issues/poor grades — or whatever reasons this week’s experts have decided to come up with to scare women off C-sections.
The same is true for mothers who work. The only acceptable reason for women to return to work after having children is financial; a good mother only works because she HAS to, not because she WANTS to.
This attitude belies the sexist belief that women are not fully formed beings. We don’t have the same needs for self-actualisation, financial independence, and social status as blokes.
Imagine if the roles were reversed. How often have you heard a man’s love for his children called into question when he chooses to spend time away from his family?
Has a man ever been asked “Aren’t your children enough for you?” when he continues to play golf every Sunday or go to the football with his mates after he has kids?
Is it ever suggested that a father doesn’t deserve to have kids because he chases a non-essential promotion that requires travel that takes him away from his kids and family?
No, I didn’t think so.
I’d argue mothers have a greater need to have time away from their children than fathers. There’s an embodied difference between mothering and fathering that’s difficult to understand unless you’re a mother. Not only do women give up their body to grow and birth children, we give up our bodies for 10-plus years after the birth as well.
My kids are continually touching me and hanging off me in a way that they don’t do to my husband. Chris is a very hands-on, involved father, yet he can be in our house and still be alone. I can’t even go to the toilet on my own. When our girls snuggle in bed with us, it’s me that they are both lying on. Chris meanwhile lies next to us unencumbered.
Now, excuse me while I add the obligatory clarification that I don’t hate my kids. I love cuddles from my girls, but I also love personal space. I seriously cannot remember the last time I went a whole day without food or snot or blood smeared on my clothes.
To be clear, this isn’t an attack on women who find complete fulfilment in mothering. That choice is just as valid as any other.
But we need to get to a point when questions like “Aren’t your children enough for you?” are considered too stupid to be asked.
And a woman can say, “Well no, actually they’re not” without feeling that she’s a flawed woman or a bad mother.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.