I've been feeling quite emotional recently. When my youngest child starts school in September, the 'early years' will be behind us. I have to be honest: I wasn't prepared for experiencing a feeling of loss at the prospect.
Friends and women in my family are having babies - and I am overjoyed for them. Some are becoming first-time mothers at the age when I am finishing up on pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding.
Naturally, we look back to the baby stage and how nothing prepares you for the reality of it all - not when we live our lives as ostensibly equal beings in a man's world. Educated in all things and competing in all things as unencumbered, economically independent women.
A baby does have a habit of bringing that all back down to earth. We realise that birth is a feminist issue. That women's power to nourish their babies on their bodies alone throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding has been veiled. That work done (reproduction, birth - labour, anyone? - breastfeeding) when it is exclusively female, and care work which is predominantly done by women, simply does not count and is not valued.
Motherhood is apt to leading to financial penalty throughout our lives and a higher risk of poverty in old age. We are forced to be dependent on men or the state if we want to care for our young children - or forced out to work to do our duty to the economic god in order to put food on the table. If we return to the workplace, we face a very clear and persistent penalty in pay, conditions and prospects of promotion. None of this is acceptable. It is the reason I started the Purplestockings movement and wrote Liberating Motherhood. It is why I support Mothers at Home Matter and All Mothers Work.
The least we could do for the women who reproduce the human race and nurture children in their vulnerability is to ensure that they are not hung out to dry alongside the muslins and babygros. We could recognise our interdependence and see that having children is not a lifestyle choice up there with keeping puppies. Our children are everyone's children: the future of the human race. And caring for them? Someone has to (and many of us want to) do this valuable and essential work. Until we recognise the validity of mothers being free to do so without penalty, but with proper support, we will never achieve equality.
It starts with ourselves. Often from the very beginning. We might criticise ourselves for being tired in the first trimester and from that moment on, we might think we are failing in all matters of motherhood - 'how hard can it be?' Well, that's a well kept secret. One which prevents us from demanding that women be treated better: to value what we bring to society and our children. It is not good enough to demand that men do more of the care work without also seeing a shift in how we value care and support it as a society through financial and community measures. Abolition of the family tax penalty is a start. A homecare allowance is another, as seen in Finland. A stop to tax and benefits measures which are compelling women to separate from their young children against their wishes is a must. We have to challenge patriarchal and capitalist values that freeload upon the work of mothers.
As I write this, I'm thinking how I would have done certain things differently had I known then what I know now: most importantly, to allow myself to stop, slow down and enjoy those days of 'doing nothing'. When 'doing nothing' was growing my baby on my milk alone, caring for my baby night and day, holding my baby and nurturing new life. It took a while to shed the cultural skin that women should aspire to more than that, that we must be seen to be doing 'something' - whether it be cleaning while the baby sleeps (I should have slept), or shopping for food (I should have slept), or cooking (I should have slept), or going to the gym (I never did that). We are under increasing financial or social pressure to be returning to 'work' as though the work of raising children is not essential and demanding work of itself. When we care for our children we have not been handed a pretty wooden spoon, we are holding a fine china in our hands.
Right now, I am preparing for the next chapter in my life and I am returning to 'owning' a period of time during the day where it is me. Just me. No baby at the breast. No toddler tugging on my arm. No pre-schooler asking ten thousand questions a minute. Me. I've asked myself recently: 'remember her?' Of course I do. I'm right here.
Happy Mother's Day, Mum.