Crib Sheet: The motherhood-as-misery exposé

In the first of a new regular series looking at parenting books, Glosswitch takes on Jessica Valenti's "Why have kids?" and other miserable-mummy manuals.

Expecting your first baby? Then allow me to patronize the living daylights out of you! I already have kids, you see, which makes me wise and all-knowing, whereas you don’t have a single clue about what awaits you. You might think you do, but you don’t. It’s not all gurgles, cuddles and fluffy bootees. Here, for instance, are some of the cold, hard facts about kids:

  • Newborns are, basically, rubbish at everything
     
  • Toddlers are marginally more interesting than newborns, but make crap conversationalists
     
  • As soon as your children can communicate fluently, you will embark on a lifetime of exchanging knowing glances with other parents before noting sagely that it was so much better “before they could answer back”

It’s not that I don’t love my children; they just don’t fulfill and complete me as a person. However, admitting to this involves breaking a massive taboo. So look at me, everyone! I’ve just gone and said the unsayable! What’s that you say? Betty Friedan and Marilyn French got there first, followed up in more recent times by Rachel Cusk? Gah! Is there nothing sacred for the likes of me to piss all over?

The motherhood-as-misery exposé should, of course, be essential reading for any woman planning to reproduce. Unfortunately, you’re unlikely to find the motivation to read such a book unless you’re already pregnant, at which point you find yourself in some terrible no man’s land, having already taken the plunge but unable, as yet, to confirm whether or not motherhood is as bad as they say. You half suspect that it can’t be all that terrible, otherwise no one would ever have more than one child. But then again, perhaps by the time you’ve had one you’ve ruined your life to such a degree that there’s nothing left to do but plunge headlong into further misery. Who knows? I do, obviously, for I have bred. But so too has Jessica Valenti.

In the somewhat plaintively titled Why have kids? Valenti seeks to explore, yet again, “the truth about parenting and happiness”. Unfortunately this truth is based on the assumption that before she actually experiences motherhood, every single broody woman is a complete idiot:

Women expect to get pregnant relatively easily […]; they expect to have a healthy baby, to breastfeed without complications, that their significant others will pick up half the slack, and that their children will fill them with happiness so pure that they’ll be content staring at their wee faces for hours without regard for life, limb or bathroom breaks.

I read this and can’t help feeling grateful – albeit briefly – that I’m one of life’s pessimists. I sure as hell didn’t think that. My feelings were more “well, I really, really want a baby, but I don’t know why, since they’re dead tiring and expensive. Oh well. Probably hormones or something”. Then I spent most of my first pregnancy panicking that I’d made a terrible mistake, usually because colleagues who were parents already seemed to take a huge amount of pleasure in sauntering up to my desk just to let me know how terrible their lives were and how I’d got “all this to come”. And it’s true, many things about the day-to-day practicalities of parenting are rather rubbish. Valenti writes of “the ennui, the feeling that this could not possibly be it, all that parenthood is cracked up to be”, and while it’s a step up from the “shit and string beans” depicted by French in The Women’s Room, life as a parent is far from perfect. It’s nothing like in the adverts, but then nothing ever is.

Valenti traces her own dissatisfaction as a parent to the traumatic premature birth of her daughter and her early fears that her daughter would die. I can identify with this; one of my children was very ill in the first few weeks of his life, and it did make the initial bonding far more tentative and fearful. All the same, the most miserable parenting memory I have is far more mundane than that. It involves sitting in a room with two children, one two, one seven months old. The two-year-old is obsessed with playing with wooden trains but continually tearful and frustrated at not being able to make incredibly long trains turn corners without coming off the tracks. The seven-month-old wants to stand up, all the time, but obviously he is unable to do so, so he insists that Mummy holds him up with both hands. He screams whenever she puts him down to do something else (such as put some wooden trains back on the track). Mummy is sleep-deprived, bored out of her mind and spends hours, days in fact, in the two-year-old’s bedroom with the wooden trains and the screaming baby. It is Hell, and it’s not even exciting Hell. It’s other people, sure, but Sartre never mentioned that said others would be your own kids.

And yet, it’s not all that bad, really. I’ve done equally boring things at other times, in other places. I used to do voluntary work for Oxfam, standing behind a till listening to the muzak equivalent of African tribal drums played on a loop for hours on end. Like looking after children, it was worthy and unpaid, but I hated it. That, surely, is more of a taboo than saying that childcare is boring. Working in Oxfam is boring (but worth doing, too, obviously. Not least because you get first dibs on all the second-hand clothes). I suppose none of this matters as long as you don’t feel the pressure to be “fulfilled”. Perhaps that’s the real difference between Valenti and me.

Valenti wants to change perceptions of motherhood (and on that I’m with her 100 per cent)  but she also wants us to be HAPPY, dammit, in a way I find quite terrifying:

But just because parental joy isn’t necessarily a given – or because it can be a dangerous expectation – doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. Or that we can’t put an end to all of the things that are making us miserable. The truth is, we should try to get happy for our sake and for the sake of our children’s sake. Kids who have depressed parents are interacted with less than their counterparts with happy, non-depressed parents; kids of dads with depression have smaller vocabularies at two years old than kids of non-depressed dads. We owe it to our kids – and to the kids who aren’t ours – to ask questions about why parenthood is so hard, what we can do to make it an easier, happier endeavour, and what we’re lacking to ensure that happiness.

Bloody hell. I now feel horrendously guilty and unhappy about having been slightly guilty and unhappy to begin with. Can’t we just focus on valuing parents and children and understanding their needs, without this desperation to banish common-or-garden Weltschmerz? I might be a mummy, but I’m still not ready to throw out my Joy Division cassettes (moreover, I’m not all that keen on suggesting to parents with clinical depression that they’re harming their children simply by being sad).  

The truth is, I have more empathy with Rachel Cusk. When A Life’s Work was published in 2001, I didn’t have children, but the extreme reactions it provoked suggested to me that Cusk might have a point. Having re-read it since becoming a mother myself, I have a lot of time for the view that motherhood is devalued precisely because it is so laborious, so repetitive, and yet so central to our very existence. All the same, there is a part of me who looks at Cusk’s prose and thinks “crikey, aren’t you over-thinking things a bit, love?” Then I feel that I am too stupid, or at least not quite thoughtful enough, to grasp the magnitude of what I am doing, and that I am too selfish to have allowed motherhood to change me in more fundamental ways. For instance, here’s Cusk describing shopping for clothes in Oxford Street without her daughter:

I want to buy clothes, to make up for two years in which I have been as far from fashion as an anthropologist on a long field trip; but the rack of things looks incomprehensible and unrelated to me, like costumes for a drama in which I no longer have a part. I lack the desire for myself that would teach me what to choose; I lack the sense of stardom in my own life that would urge me to adorn myself. I am backstage, attendant. I have the curious feeling that I no longer exist in synchronicity with time, but at a certain delay, like someone on the end of a transatlantic phone call. This, I think, is what it is to be a mother.

Cripes! Looking at my bank account, I really wish I had that problem. Since having children, I have had no problem at all in wandering off on my own to over-spend on garments just for me. In fact, since breastfeeding has left me a bit smaller “on top” and thus a more average size than I used to be, a whole new world of clothing over-spend has opened up to me (wish I’d had that in the Oxfam days). That’s something they never mention in the books.

Don’t get me wrong; I do think it’s important to view parenthood in an honest light, and it frustrates me when mothers in particular are merely patted on the head and told that they’re doing “the most important job in the world”, as though such praise compensates for no one listening to their concerns. Even so, it worries me that parenthood is taken quite so seriously by some. Yes, it’s a huge undertaking, but providing you don’t get too wrapped up in metaphors of transience and loss, it doesn’t have to destroy you. Sure, there will be times when you regret having kids, but you know that if you hadn’t, there’d have been times when you regretted not having kids. It’s just one of many lives that got away.

And anyhow, once they’re there, they’re there. Certainly, I have moments of feeling overwhelmed by it all. My children will be tearing each other apart and I’ll say to myself “okay, it’ll all get easier when - *runs through childhood, fraught teenage years, exams, relationships, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, expensive higher ed and/or unemployment* - oh, actually, I forgot, it never gets easier”. But with moments like that, you just have to push it all to the back of your mind.

It’s rather like being vaguely aware of your own mortality, coping with the knowledge of what having kids really entails. You don’t need a book to help you through it, just as long as you don’t think too far ahead and don’t ever ask yourself what it’s all for.
 

Shopping, mummy-style. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.

Flickr/Zappys Technology Solutions
Show Hide image

Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.