Then There Were Two: Essays on Motherhood

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Much praised, much hated on its publication in , her book provides a visceral account of the loss of any sense of social personhood, of herself as a woman in the world, which followed the birth of her first baby. For the same reason, Denise Riley concluded in War in the Nursery , her pathbreaking study of maternal social policy after the Second World War, that feminism has nothing to gain from a validation of motherhood in the name of female creativity or power.

They have just chosen to do things differently, to live other lives. Women like Rich and Cusk, and also Rozsika Parker and Lisa Baraitser, who lay bare the complex run of emotions to which motherhood gives rise, are issuing a political corrective, sourced in but reaching far beyond the domain of motherhood itself. The idea of maternal virtue is a myth that serves no one, neither mothers nor the world for whose redemption it is intended. Or to put it more simply, no woman who has ever been a mother can believe for a second that she is only ever nice virtue and terror both.

If anything, it seems to intensify. As austerity and inequality increase — the Conservatives are promising that if they win the election, austerity will continue well into their second term — more and more children will fall into poverty.

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More and more families will be fighting a rearguard action to protect their children from inexorable social decline. Social unrest is likely to increase. In this context, as in so many moments of social crisis, focusing on mothers is a perfect diversionary tactic, not least because it so effectively deflects what might be far more disruptive forms of social critique.

Mothers always fail: the point of most of the writing I have mentioned so far is to make that not catastrophic but normal, to allow failure to be seen as part of the task. This so obviously contradicted the supposed humanitarian ethos of New Labour that he had to back down immediately. But his move was symptomatic of the way lone mothers are singled out for punishment. In troubled times, the most vulnerable are always the easiest targets.

A single mother stands as a glaring rebuke to the ideal. Throughout the s and s, the number of single mothers in this country rose faster than at any other time in history, seemingly unaffected by an increasingly strident Conservative rhetoric of blame. The most pervasive image was of an unemployed teenager who had deliberately got herself pregnant in order to claim benefits, although as Pat Thane and Tanya Evans point out in Sinners? Over the past century, single mothers have variously been accorded one or other, or all three, of those epithets, the first and last stringing them between opprobrium and holiness neither of this world , the second more prosaically casting them as objects of moral contempt.

It is also worth noting how far her vulnerability and her needs, not to speak of those of the children for whom she has sole responsibility, seem to count against her — lone parents, especially unmarried mothers, are still today one of the poorest groups in Britain. As if genuine neediness — being, or having once been, a baby — is what this Conservative rhetoric most hates. Perhaps when right-wing politicians wrinkle their noses at scroungers, asylum seekers and refugees, it is their own vaguely remembered years of dependency that they are trying, and instructing us, to repudiate.

The one who most loudly proclaims the ideal of iron-clad self-sufficiency must surely have the echo of the baby in the nursery hovering in the back of his or her — mostly his — head. The complaint that so many of the present cabinet went to Eton — where life is already nicely regimented — as if there were no life before schooling, while true and worth making, would also be something of a decoy. There is a feminist point to be made here. It is then immensely reassuring to register the occasions when women organise against the forms of prejudice and social exclusion directed at them. The story includes moments of unlikely solidarity.

The report was never published. It is another common assumption that a single mother is a woman who puts her sex life ahead of her social responsibility. Manipulative or sexual, she exhibits either too much self-control or not enough what is never mentioned in relation to teenage pregnancies is the possibility of child abuse and rape. A mother is a woman whose sexual being must be invisible. She must save the world from her desire — a further projection that allows the world to conceal from itself the unmanageable nature of all human sexuality, and its own voraciousness.

Even in the years leading up to the s, when there was more sympathy for the predicament of single mothers, the basic assumption was there. Nor is the childless woman immune from sexual taint. In this context, ancient Greece and Rome are again refreshing. Cleopatra, deemed the most desirable of women, was the mother of four children, one, she claimed, by Julius Caesar and the three youngest by Mark Antony, something most representations of Cleopatra conspire not to remember or talk about no one I have mentioned this to had the faintest idea she was a mother.

In fact the silence began with Octavian in a bid to prevent his conflict with Mark Antony being seen as a civil war, with his offspring potentially in arms against hers in a battle for the keys of the city state. Was I doing the internalized-misogyny thing where I refused to focus on a woman, Midge in this case, as a whole person and saw her only as a mother?

In her essay in response to Horn , writer Sara Fredman likens this to attending a panel on Virginia Woolf and then wanting to talk about whether the revolutionary author should have had children. And who could blame her? At that time there was no alternative cultural script to being a mother, not to mention no legal birth control. Maybe this is simply a show about a comedic genius who unfortunately, but understandably fell into motherhood; who neglects, albeit rather benignly, her children in single-minded pursuit of her artistic goal?

Maybe Fredman is right, and it is arbitrary and sexist for me to evaluate Midge as a mom. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is, at least in part, a story of motherhood. If you need proof, look at how those most intimately involved describe the show to press. In Shit gets real. We rarely see Midge on screen with her children. When we do, she seems largely immune to the emotional toll trying to juggle it all can take, the nagging guilt of wanting to both show up for your kids and for your work and the suspicion that you are not really showing up for either.

Then There Were Two: Essays on Motherhood, Chapter 1 | Mama of Letters

At its heart, this is what really bothers me about the show. Maisel as a place where I could see the dilemmas of my life explored and look for a role model. Midge and I are both moms trying to pursue our creative passions. I look back to photos of him with just a little fuzz on his head, and I am paralyzed with fear that he is growing so fast, and I am missing it.

I have to fight the urge to bolt and go get him. Just like to Midge, kindly looking old ladies on the street begin to seem like a viable pinch option. Maisel only glosses over the surface. You might wonder. Maisel sets are technicolor, more vibrant than real life, the streets are like Disneyland fake town streets.

What It Means to Write About Motherhood, Part Two

The dialogue is rapid-fire and crisp, almost vaudevillian. On more than one occasion minor characters fall into choreographed dance. Who wants to hang out in the real world when you can hang out with prettier, wittier, more pirouette-prone characters?


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We're citizens in a country where 'women's issues' are seen as side-issues, rather than foundational functions of our society. Motherhood is way harder than it should be because for too long, our stories have been pushed to the sidelines. Despite all of this, I am incredibly optimistic. We are living in an era of major consciousness-raising, where women no longer fight one another in some kind of 'mommy war,' and instead are looking around us at the root causes of this profound unfairness.


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And from where I sit, these are major signs of progress for women, mothers, and society at large. It's not a secret that American motherhood is incredibly burdensome. Even before they have children, women sense a lack of support that makes motherhood overwhelming—it's this anxiety that sells books like "Lean In" and fuels a never-ending debate over whether women can ever "have it all.

About one-third of moms said that their mental and physical health is suffering. Society is asking you to nurture in an environment that does not nurture you back. So, let me pause here so you can truly hear me: You are not imagining your burnout. And your burnout is not your fault. Discrimination against women, and women of color in particular, has led to an appalling maternal health crisis—where women's voices are not heard and women's needs are not met.

American mothers die in childbirth at a higher rate than in any other country in the developed world —and the mortality rates actually getting worse, not better. According to research in the New York Times , "Black women are three to four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as their white counterparts," with racism playing a direct role. In the United States, in , sexism and racism interplay in a dangerous mix that puts all new mothers at risk. One in four new mothers return to work out of economic necessity within two weeks of giving birth.

Recent statistics from the U. The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee paid family leave upon the birth of a baby. For all our talk about being family-focused, we refuse to act on it. Case in point, women experience tons of pressure to breastfeed, but little support. Before and after birth, breastfeeding education and support is hit or miss—there is no routine education for new mothers to learn how to nurse. Breastfeeding might be 'natural,' but it is a learned skill. Women routinely are forced to figure it out on their own—a reality that leads to anguish for mom, and struggle for baby.

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Private lactation consultants often cost hundreds of dollars, an expense that is frequently out of reach during this financially stressful time in life. And if a woman formula feeds her baby, for whatever reason, she is made to feel that she has made a lesser choice for her child. Our society expects mothers to be endlessly self-sacrificing, but is unwilling to give her the support she needs along the way. While newborns are typically seen at least four times in their first two months of life, their mothers routinely have no postpartum care from 48 hours after birth until 6 weeks.

And Then There Were Two Good Intentions

During these critical weeks of physical recovery and a psychological transition to parenthood, women are left to figure it out alone. A lack of consistent postpartum screening and support leads to record levels of physical and mental health problems. The incredibly high cost of childcare puts enormous stress on families.

The high cost is a leading reason that so many American women drop out of the workforce when they become moms. It's a barrier to entry for them to start a business.

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It's a massive strain on family finances. Families today pay a huge price to work—one that the federal government nor the majority of employers do much to support. Motherly's State of Motherhood survey revealed that the majority of women scaled down their careers after the birth of a baby, while their partners often scaled up—a split that sometimes happens by choice, but other times happens by default, thanks to a lack of paid family leave, the high cost of childcare, and inflexible work environments for parents. Research shows that American mothers largely blame themselves, experiencing waves of guilt and self-criticism for not being able to accomplish the herculean task of working, raising children and managing a household, entirely on their own.

As Beth Berry wrote in a Motherly essay that has become our anthem, "it takes a village, but there are no villages. We may feel inadequate, but that's because we're on the front lines of the problem, which means we're the ones being hardest hit.