A woman’s work

For quite a while now I have been struggling with the implications of my pregnancy – wondering what it will mean (and already does mean) for my identity, for my future choices, for my body and for my relationships. Now a number of posts, particularly a few recent ones from Ampersand Duck and Pavlov’s Cat (and also a post and comments thread over at Crazybrave), have prompted me to post about these issues.

I have to admit to having been shocked to the core by the impact of pregnancy on my body. I never understood that feeling ‘fatigued’ would involve falling daily into a deep black pit of exhaustion, or that the addition of the word ‘morning’ to sickness was such a cruel joke. Despite years of experience with (admittedly fairly mild) PMS, I also had no real understanding of the power of hormones to influence my outlook. Instead of the pure joy that I had anticipated, I felt sick with worry and doubts about the pregnancy; about my capacity to be a mother; to endure the loss of sleep; to successfully breastfeed; and to keep our child safe – none of which were assisted by feeling as though we couldn’t share the news with anyone except our closest family members. My brain was taken over by thoughts of how to deal with every possible problem and with my evident lack of capacity to cope as well as I had expected. My self-confidence plummeted as I realised that I was not glowing with prenatal health, but rather was a wreck who needed to sleep all day and could only stomach vegemite saladas.

Fortunately, the second and third trimesters have been a lot easier on my body – my blood pressure is stupidly low and so I get faint very easily, but my energy levels are much better and my appetite has returned. I also feel a lot clearer and happier about the pregnancy. The first ultrasound and the first little kicks did fill me with the excitement that I had expected earlier, and suddenly everything did feel OK again.

However, I am still trying to come to terms with the inevitable impacts of this choice on my life. My PhD is just starting to really come together, and I will have to set it aside and will never again have the freedom to come back to it with my full undivided attention. Future career decisions and relocations will also have an added dimension that I do not resent, but am aware of nonetheless.

The real issue for me, however, is identity. For all the real gains that we have made as women over the past decades, there is nothing like motherhood to bring the full force of society’s sexism down upon you. Issues that I have been able to side-step previously, will become harder to avoid and I don’t feel like having the battles that this may provoke. I am not interested in being defined solely as a ‘mother’, regardless of how much I know that I will love my child and cherish our relationship. No man is ever threatened with being reduced to the single identity of ‘father’. Their personal qualities, career ambitions, and autonomous hopes and dreams are rarely taken away from them just because they chose to breed.

I want to make it clear that I do not see this as a failure of feminism – as I know that this has been the belief of some. Instead, I see this of an indication of how far we have to go. The role of mother is still naturalised in a way that thoroughly devalues it – most particularly by those who claim to be upholding traditional family values. Because breeding is defined as a natural act (which it is, but bare with me here), women are expected to blossom in pregnancy, or to at least be stoic when they don’t. Their sacrifices – physical, emotional, career – are also continually undervalued. Men who take time off work to care for their young children are glorified as heroes, while women are placed in a no-win situation where we will be criticised by some for returning too early and by others for neglecting our careers for too long.

This is not the result of feminism – this is the continued impact of a patriarchal culture that remains fundamentally unchanged at its core. Workplaces are still built around the idea that there is a good women at home taking care of the household. Childcare is expensive and waiting lists are long. Maternity leave is not provided for most Australian workers, and part-time work is difficult to secure. Despite all the rhetoric of family values and the (ridiculous) urgings from the government that we breed, no real effort has been made to actually make our society one that is supportive of women’s choices – abortion is vilified, while the choice to have a child receives a ‘baby bonus’ and then nothing.

I say all this as a truly lucky person. I have a scholarship that provides paid maternity leave, a wonderfully supportive husband and extended family, and the freedom to go back part-time and to work from home – and, above all, I happen to love children and to genuinely want to be a mother. All of these things have made my decision easier, and yet I still struggle with the implications for my life. How it would feel to be facing a future without some of those supports is something that I find very difficult to even contemplate.

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