I recently spent some time looking at cartoon strips by the agitprop photography collective, the Hackney Flashers – currently showing at Tate Britain’s “Women in Revolt!” exhibition.
In one, drawn in 1978, a mother needs a job – but who will look after her kids? She goes to the state nursery. No luck. So she visits the community nursery. No – they’ve suffered cuts. Next, a childminder. No, she’s full. The strip ends with a choice: should she give up and take the GP-prescribed valium or fight with others for change?
Another exhibit is a documentary called A Woman’s Place (1971). At the first Women’s Liberation conference in Oxford in 1970, attendees talk about the need for equitable child-rearing and about their desires to have families as well as to pursue fulfilling work and rewarding connections: to be people in the world.
It’s over half a century later, and I could have been eavesdropping on conversations among mothers on Instagram. Similar stories of isolation and the stress of trying to work while raising children are common, if not endemic. How could so little have changed? Today, these conversations are often whispered in private, even though feminists have been writing and organising for decades. How could motherhood have become so depoliticised?
I thought my husband and I were equal in our social freedoms and status – and then in 2016 I entered the institution of motherhood. For the first year or so, I believed my difficulties were my personal failing. I was head over heels in love with my baby daughter but I also found elements of pregnancy, childbirth and the social conditions of early motherhood isolating, sometimes impossible and often oppressive. At first, this felt shameful.
When I started to realise many others were also in crisis, I saw it for what it was: the most socio-political experience of my life.
It took a while to peel back the layers and understand what was happening. I had marinated in traditional Western cultural ideas – of the self-sacrificing maternal ideal within a nuclear family; of the psychoanalytic notion that a “maternal deprivation”, separation from the mother, is destructive to a baby’s developing psyche; of the societal denigration of caregiving and the lack of value ascribed to unpaid work.
In modern motherhood, “feeling rules” – Arlie Hochschild’s phrase for social norms that tell us how to feel – keep women silent. These rules are not a coincidence: they prop up the political status quo. Since publishing a book called Matrescence last year, I have been struck by messages from readers who feel that they can’t express their reality, and are often suffering from stress, burnout or mental illness.
We can learn a lot about a society’s values by looking at how it treats new mothers and babies. It offers us a glimpse inside the machine that powers its wider structures and systems.
The maternal death rate in the UK has increased this decade, according to the most recent MBRRACE-UK report. Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. Women from Asian backgrounds are twice as likely to die than white women. Women who live in deprived areas remain twice as likely to die than those in the least deprived areas. Suicide is still a leading cause of death for new mothers. This is a gruesome injustice and a stain on our society.
It is partly an outcome of political decision-making. The maternity crisis is one of understaffing and underinvestment. There is currently a shortage of 2,500 midwives with almost two thirds of maternity services rated inadequate or requiring improvement for safety. The Royal College of Midwives warned the government in 2021 that midwives were leaving because of fears they might not be able to deliver safe care. This month, the midwife Hannah Williams told the BBC that staff shortages meant she could only keep women safe “by the skin of her teeth”.
The Conservative MP Theo Clarke has set up an inquiry into birth trauma, which affects an estimated 200,000 women every year. This is welcome. The impacts of birth trauma can be complex, long-lasting and negatively impact a woman’s matrescence (their transition into motherhood). Birth is an experience complicated by factors that exist outside the delivery room. For example, 22.9 per cent of adult women in England and Wales have experienced sexual assault, which can impact the experience of giving birth and receiving perinatal healthcare. This horrifying statistic is connected to our legal and justice system, and a politics that does not take violence against women seriously.
The emerging science of matrescence is showing us what most cultures across the world know: that it is a vulnerable time for baby and mother. Landmark work by neuroscientists in the past decade has shown how significantly pregnancy and early caregiving changes the parental brain. Stress caused by social factors can negatively affect this tender developmental stage, including lack of social support, racism and socioeconomic disadvantage.
In the first year of a baby’s life, most mothers will return to paid work. As the UK has one of the lowest maternity payment rates of all countries that constitute the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), many women have to go back to work sooner. It could be different. Most OECD countries offer parents the opportunity to take extended time off work through paid parental and homecare leave, as well as maternity and paternity leave. Other countries have “use it or lose it”, or non-transferrable, paternal leave policies to encourage a more equitable division of care work.
Many parents struggle to find affordable childcare in the early years because the government-funded hours for most families don’t kick in until the term after a child’s third birthday. Pregnant Then Screwed – an organisation leading the fight for change – found that 76 per cent of mothers who pay for childcare said it simply doesn’t make financial sense to work. Almost a third of parents who use formal childcare rely on debt. The government has announced plans for more “free” hours, but the infrastructure simply isn’t there and the offering has so far been shambolic. As the writer Ann Crittenden has said, the egalitarian office party is truly over once you have a baby.
In the wake of austerity, our politics looks as careless and mother-phobic as ever: benefit cuts for single mothers; a failing system for children with additional needs; a lack of civic infrastructure, including the shutting of libraries; and the penalisation of part-time workers through the pension system.
It is no coincidence that the political order conceals what it truly takes to raise a child – and there is radical, transformative power in bringing our shared natality and dependence out of the nursery. The ideal post-industrial citizen – self-sufficient, machine-like, supposedly disconnected from the rest of nature – was created after the disavowal of the maternal. By obscuring the work of birthing and raising children, our society exploits women. (With a housing, cost-of-living and climate crisis, it is no wonder the UK’s birth rate is declining.)
Decades of injustice, cruelty and exploitation – of people, land and the rest of the living world – have been justified by this post-Enlightenment civic ideal of the independent self-reliant individual and his various spawn, through unfettered capitalism, imperialism, neoliberalism.
What kind of society could we become if our fundamental dependence was brought out of the shadows? Could we grow out of these bogus and inadequate ways of thinking, and instead prioritise care, cooperation and human and planetary well-being above financial interests?
My experience of birthing and raising children has been interesting, rewarding and joyful. But the conditions of isolated modern motherhood have sometimes brought my nervous system to the brink, and, at times, like many thousands of new mothers, resulted in ill-health (such as burnout and depression).
I have significant relational and material privilege and still I feel in my bones that we need each other, more than a neoliberal framework allows. The modern pressures of “intensive motherhood”, as sociologists call it, have never been higher and, combined with high rental and mortgage costs and a working culture that hasn’t evolved to accommodate the lives of caregivers, the guilt and strain that many mothers feel is often intolerable. I know, for example, that my experience of early motherhood would have been easier with a more equitable maternity compensation, a care wage or a basic income, through a more honest redistribution of capital.
Many are doing crucial work in this area, creating oases of connection and fighting, for example, inflexible work culture, hostile transport networks and economic injustice for caregivers. Matrescence activism and matricentric feminism, developed by Andrea O’Reilly, is spreading.
In her 1976 book Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich distinguished between the experience and the institution of motherhood. That distinction is just as relevant today. The children? Perfect. The institution of motherhood? Failing us all.