There's an old saying that one should never talk about religion or politics in polite company. When I became a mother, I discovered a similar conversational embargo among new mums. In my world, birthing, breast-feeding and childcare must be treated with extreme caution.
We hear a lot about "mummy wars"; the idea that modern mothers are at odds with one another. The most acute example is the supposed tension between stay-at-home and career mums.
Read one commentator and you'll be told that stay-at-home mums are wasting their lives, coddling their already spoilt children. A rival pundit will insist working mothers are sacrificing their offspring to the tender mercies of a child-care system resembling a concentration camp for under fours.
Much of this is media hyperbole. But there really do appear to be tensions and resentments among many mothers about basic parenting choices.
While natural birth mothers gloat about their healthy, drug-free labours, the epidural enthusiasts deride those who, in their eyes, suffer needless pain. Where one new mother talks about her positive breastfeeding experience, there's likely to be a bottle-feeding mum who feels she is being implicitly criticised. And if you doubt that there's heat in the child-care question, try starting a discussion of the issues at a dinner party with a group of new parents.
Part of the problem is that many new mothers are acutely sensitive to other people's opinions. No one wants to be seen as a bad mum.
But the really polarising thing is these issues are all popularly depicted as a choice between the interests of the child and the interests of the mother.
This logic is often implicit, not explicit, yet it permeates many discussions; the idea that one group of mums (the electively caesared, bottle feeding, career girls) selfishly put themselves before their children, while the others (the natural birthing, breastfeeding, stay-at-homes) submerge their personal identity in their all-consuming over commitment to mothering.
Crucially, it's the "choice" part of this equation that adds the emotional fuel to the fire - the idea that mothers freely join one camp or the other.
"Choice" has become a buzzword in our neoliberal world, a supposed precondition to achieving everything from economic prosperity to personal fulfilment. And the contemporary mother is frequently depicted as having more choices than any who have come before her.
But the truth is complex. When we look at her "choices" critically and examine the circumstances under which most parenting decisions are made, we see mothers still acting under various kinds of duress and constraint, particularly as economic circumstances tighten so relentlessly.
Consider: how much of a choice is it when a woman puts her six-month-old into the only crèche with an available place, so she can return to work to pay her mortgage? If this same woman is unable to continue breastfeeding because her workplace does not accommodate for it, is she really making a "choice"? The pressures go both ways. For women who earn significantly less than their partner, taking on the role of sole carer may seem like an economic imperative, rather than a feel good, pro-maternal choice.
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