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2 February 2017

Does anyone want to be called an “expectant mother”? I didn’t

When I was pregnant, I felt that I was merely a human being who happened to be having a baby.

By Glosswitch

Pregnant with my first son, I never felt like an expectant mother. To me it was a term that conjured up images of some fat-bellied, smock-wearing hausfrau, sitting in a rocking chair, knitting bootees while waiting to fulfil her feminine calling. I was not that woman. On the contrary, I was merely a human being who happened to be having a baby.

Other women were expectant mothers, obviously. Girls I’d been at school with. The women I saw at the antenatal clinic. My own mother when she’d been waiting to have my brother and me.

“The mother,” wrote Adrienne Rich, “stands for the victim in ourselves, the unfree woman, the martyr.” I knew the type: meek, self-sacrificing, hopelessly feminine. That was not the image I had of myself. I may have been about to embark on raising a child, but I would never allow myself to become one of them.

This was all a decade ago, long before the British Medical Association was to propose that for the sake of inclusivity, healthcare professionals should refer to “pregnant people” rather than “expectant mothers”. Had this taken place back then, I imagine I would have been grateful. I was, after all, a person and I was pregnant. Nothing inaccurate about that.

Yet it’s a recommendation which has caused some controversy and these days – older, wiser, more worn by the realities of parenting while female – I don’t find it difficult to understand why. There’s nothing like years of performing motherhood to make you aware of the difference between one’s inner sense of self and the self the world needs you to be. Is “mother” – or indeed “woman” – really an identity, or is it a role? Contemporary gender politics would claim that gender identity and gender roles are two distinct entities, but into which of these categories would “being Mummy” fit?

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Motherhood does not correspond to my inner sense of self. Like most female people with children, I find there is still a part of me that is waiting for my offspring’s “real mummy” to come and collect them.  I am the stand-in, muddling along despite an obvious lack of basic aptitude. I might have kids, but I am not the one Rich describes as the Mother:

… source of angelic love and forgiveness in a world increasingly ruthless and impersonal; the feminine, leavening, emotional element in a society ruled by male logic and male claims to “objective,” “rational” judgment; the symbol and residue of moral values and tenderness in a world of wars, brutal competition, and contempt for human weakness.

Nope. That is definitely not me.

Yet I am, in a far more prosaic sense, still seen as a mother. There is no way around this. It is the position I occupy, the work I do. What’s more, I am hardly the first woman to have issues with how this fails to represent the person I have always thought of as “the real me.”

Naomi Wolf describes how during her first pregnancy she felt herself “gradually becoming one of those women with whom [she] had always refused to identify”:

My self-sufficiency and independence, two qualities I admired most in others, shut down in me like the lights of a business that had lost its clientele.

Meanwhile the novelist Rachel Cusk describes pregnancy as giving her “the sense of stepping off the proper path of my life, of travelling forwards but at some unreachable distance”:

… as if I had boarded a train and could see through the window the road on which I had always been, a road with which for a while my train ran parallel before gaining speed and moving steadily away to east or west, to a vista of unfamiliar hills, leaving everything vanishing behind it.

Mothers are, in the words of Marianne Hirsch, “the ones who are not singular, who did succumb to convention inasmuch as they are mothers.” It is a defeat of sorts, a relinquishment of the pure, special self one might have imagined one could have been.

According to the BMA’s guide to inclusive language, “a large majority of people that have been pregnant or have  given birth identify as women.” For them, it is implied, “expectant mother” would be just fine. This is to overlook the fact that pregnancy, birth and caring for a newborn can leave anyone’s sense of self in tatters. Motherhood is not something with which most pregnant women simply “identify”. As Wolf puts it, “giving birth is natural – but ‘becoming a mother’ is not necessarily natural. It is a far greater work of stoicism, discipline, patience, and will than the ideology of ‘motherhood’ allows for.”

Patriarchal societies have relied on women in general and mothers in particular to relinquish an individual sense of self for the greater good. One of the greatest failings of gender identity politics lies in its glib assumption that no one should have to do this but – conveniently enough – the majority of women will want to do so anyway. In fact, the opposite is true. No one actually wants to “be mummy” – drudgy, boring old Mummy, stinking of dirty nappies and unwashed socks, fingers raw from peeling potatoes and hanging out cold, wet laundry, voice hoarse from nagging and chiding – but human societies will always have a need for physical and emotional care work. What we need to work out, not just as feminists but as human beings with responsibilities towards one another, is what level of self-sacrifice we all owe one another in order to create a caring, just society. There is a piece of ourselves – our inner identity, our ego, whatever you want to call it – that has to be supressed in order to accommodate the needs of others.

Rebranding expectant mothers as “pregnant people” liberates no one. Instead it simultaneously erases the sex-class specific work of gestation while restricting the meaning of “mother” to “a female person with children who identifies with the social role imposed on her” (which ends up being no woman on Earth). This is pointless. We all have social roles imposed on us. Anyone who is serious about challenging sexism – be it individuals, feminist organisations, or the BMA – ought instead to be asking whether the imposition is distributed fairly across the population.

It’s about time we acknowledged that no woman simply identifies as the breeder, the nursemaid or the unpaid carer. If Mummy has to make compromises with her sense of self, why shouldn’t you?