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29 August 2018updated 06 Sep 2021 2:56pm

I’ve had a baby, but please don’t call me a “mother“

The word actually bothers me, on a physical level: when someone uses "mother" or "mum" about me, my stomach feels downright uncomfortable.

By New Statesman

Before having my baby, I knew that “mother” was not a label I felt completely comfortable applying to myself. Now that I’ve had my baby, it’s hasn’t changed my feelings about the whole business. If anything, it’s made me even less keen to own the label. 

I’m really enjoying being a parent, but not for a minute have I felt like a “mother”, whatever that feels like. Yes, I have a uterus and I grew a baby in it, but contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that automatically makes me a mother and I simply refuse to accept the label. It’s just not me.

I didn’t always want children. When I was a teenager, I had miserable abdominal pains and hyperemesis and was very keen on having a hysterectomy as soon as I could legally make the decision. In hindsight, I have to wonder how much of my lack of desire to parent was down to a combination of my mother’s stories of what an appalling child I was (thanks for that fairy curse, Mother) and a deep discomfort with everything about being A Mother, and most feminine stuff in general.

As I got older, I used to say, only slightly sarcastically, that I’d like to be a father if someone else wanted to be the mother. While I realised even in my teens that these roles are not biological necessities and are as socially constructed as everything else, the implications of that hadn’t sunk in. Later, I realised that I simply don’t have to accept other people’s definitions of me. 

Equally unsurprisingly, I don’t really identify with “woman” much either, and identify with it as a political/class terminology if anything. I sort of am one, I suppose, in the sense of not identifying more strongly with anything else (bar possibly “femme”, on to which I shan’t diverge), but the idea of feeling “like a woman” baffles me. Particularly since being “a mother” is meant to make you feel like one, even if nothing else does.

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I suppose I’d rather be something else if there was an option which suited me better, but there isn’t a common one. I wonder how many people’s  gender identity is less “man” or “woman” and more “not the other one”? 

I have in the past identified as genderqueer, but even that seemed a bit appropriative, as if i was demanding attention for an identity I hadn’t earned. At any rate, while I was grudgingly willing to put up with “woman” if I had to, in the absence of an alternative, “mother” was something I had a bit more choice in, I hoped. It’s only recently that I realised just how much it was the identity of “mother” putting me off from parenting.

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Yet even if I were more inclined toward womanness, I don’t think I would find the culturally lauded concepts of motherhood any more appealing. You don’t have to be gender-nonconforming to spot that almost everything about it is staggeringly twee, deeply reductive and so faux-laudatory as to stick in the craw. If society so loves mothers, why doesn’t it also love things like affordable childcare, pay equality, child-friendly spaces and oh, not blaming mothers for every social ill imaginable?

Maybe when women had fewer choices, mothering was genuinely more respected as a separate sphere, but I doubt it; it was always a fake tribute, crumbs from the table of power. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that’s expected to do lots of other work for free as well. Yet I do think that recognition of the hard work of parenting has diminished (there is a general assumption that modern life has made this substantially easier, a fine theory which fails to note that our brave new world has not yet given us the three-day week or the jet pack), while the number of potential ways for parents to fail has increased.

And the burden for this falls disproportionately on mothers. I get angry about all of this, I really do, and opting out of it in my head doesn’t mean it it doesn’t affect me, but conversely, I see no reason to pretend to be part of a group just because others perceive me to be. That’s not an original observation by any means, but it happens to apply. 

This is not biological, it is cultural. Women are not naturally better at parenting, they just tend to end up doing the lion’s share of it and thus get “better” (ie more adapted to it) through experience. I am not a better parent than my partner (often the opposite, I feel!). I am not naturally more in tune with my child’s needs. I do not have some kind of special intuition which makes me better able to determine what they’re thinking. I think my child is great and I love being around them, but I’m actually a bit less keen to do that full-time than my partner is, and it pisses me off that people assume I should be.

Recently, I was having a similar conversation with a sex worker parent that I met at the London Justice For Jasmine protest; they expressed their own frustration with “mother” and talked about “the motherhood” as a sort of dull ghetto where women and small children are isolated from everyone else. Spot on, in my opinion. It’s not that people aren’t attacking the stereotypes – take, as just one example, My Mother Wears Combat Boots (on this theme, see also: Rad Dad). But for me personally, I don’t think that better concepts of ‘mother’ are good enough. The word actually bothers me, on a physical level: when someone uses “mother” or “mum” about me, my stomach feels downright uncomfortable.

I’m not really advocating anything here, nor do I wish to take anything away from people who are and love being “mother” – many are also pushing at and stretching the boundaries of the term, and more power to them. Even if you’re happy in a very conventional maternal role, I’m glad for you if that’s what works in your life. The world can handle a hell of a lot more diversity of opinion and practice than some seem to think.

I suppose if I was going to ask my friends to do anything, it would be just to avoid using the M word to or about me as much as they can; I use my actual name to my baby and I expect them to call me that, not “Mum” or any variation thereof. It’s not a really big deal, I just feel weird as hell when I hear it. 

This is an edited version of a blog from “Hunter Not The Hunted“, cross-posted here with permission.