You may hate any individual mother you wish, but as soon as you speak of hating a particular 'type' of mother I get suspicious.
This is because, since becoming a mother seven years ago, I’ve discovered that it’s remarkably easy to find yourself labelled. In fact, here’s a game we could play: name any commonplace activity you do as a mother, and no matter how innocuous it is, I’ll be able to tell you the 'type' of mum you are. And here’s a clue – you’re always the 'smug type'.
Push your baby in a pram? I hope you’re not the smug, footpath-monopolising type. Breastfeeding your toddler? Oh, save me from this visual assault. And are you trying to prove something by feeding your child like that, or are you trying to steal my husband's attention? Or what if you’re bottle-feeding your little poppet? You must be the smug type who’s too proud of her breasts to use them for breastfeeding. How selfish, your child will grow up with allergies.
One reason it’s easy to label one another is because we, as a culture, are so very good at criticising women. We spend a lifetime identifying physical flaws so we can spend half our income on products to address them. It’s little wonder, then, that we are also adept at criticising a part of women's lives as uniquely female as mothering.
Examined like this, the smug mother is ubiquitous; she’s any one of us on a bad day. But I get it: you know an actual smug mother, she is real, and you’ve had the misfortune of sharing playgroup or a P&C meeting with her. She’s the mother who’ll tell you all about her parenting style, and why it’s better than yours, in monotonous detail. She’s smug and she’s boring. And I agree.
We can endlessly divide – between the stay-at-home and paid-work mothers, between the breastfeeders and the bottlefeeders – or we can talk together
But can we hate her? Is she any worse than the workaholic who corners us and talks incessantly about spreadsheets? Do you hate that person too? Mothering is real work, and perhaps there’s no greater proof than this. It deserves the same esteem as paid work because it’s just as consuming for those doing it, and just as tedious for the rest for the rest of us to hear about. And, like any job, your innovations and breakthroughs are hard-won and you want to brag about them, just a little. The only difference is that instead of being seen as overly enthusiastic about your career, you’re seen as smug.
However, there’s one mother for whom we reserve a special place at the Table of Hatred, and she is the 'militant mother'. A woman proud of her intervention-free birth makes us feel … what? Guilty, less-than, unwomanly, judged? One thing I know for sure: the militant mother makes us angry. She was recently derided by Mamamia’s Mia Freedman as a “birthzilla”, someone who cares about her birth more than her baby. Except Freedman set the benchmark curiously low for a militant mother; she was anyone with a birth plan. Consequently, a whole bunch of us were forced to consider ourselves “birthzillas” and wonder whether other militant mothers were similarly misunderstood.
The militant mother feels strongly about what happens to her body during birth – and to her baby's – and she wants women to know about their options. She’s also readily marginalised by powerful institutions. In pro-choice circles we otherwise call the women fighting for rights like these 'activists'. As a feminist, it concerns me that we’re so intolerant towards birth activism when abortion activism is core to our understanding of bodily autonomy. The activist mother's beliefs are dismissed as inflexibility, but I’ve had just as many mothers recommend an epidural to me as I’ve had women recommend drug-free births, and they all did so with equal enthusiasm.
So is it the activist mum’s bravado that troubles us? I confess that I have found this alienating, and in spite of my best efforts and experiences with giving birth, I remain a fearful birther. I never found transcendence out of the experience, let alone orgasm. But the sensations of birth were more intense than anything else I’ve known, and I appreciate that this rawness could be compelling. The activist, at her most extreme, is like a mountaineer – enthralled with the challenge of facing a moment of truth and discovering her strength.
There are two types of mother here: one is professionalising her role, and the other politicising hers. Both are displaying a passion we condemn as smug. But the space for public conversations about motherhood is limited. We can have this conversation in one of two ways: we can endlessly divide – between the stay-at-home and paid-work mothers, between the breastfeeders and the bottlefeeders, between the caesarean mums and the homebirthers – or we can talk together.
Lord knows that as mothers we have limited energy; we either stop judging one another's choices and go forward with possibilities of political, economic and social change for all mothers, or we endlessly chase our tails.
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