Allow me to begin with an analogy. Let’s pretend you are a cyclist. You’re trying to decide which route to take to your destination. The obvious option is to take the road, to face off against the cars and the pollution and struggle in a game that is based on their laws and their somewhat unique advantage of weighing 1.4 tonne. But you have another option – you can seek out a bike path and ride with other cyclists and friends to your heart’s content.
What does this analogy have to do with motherhood? As it happens, everything. Or, more accurately, something.
Anne Manne’s Motherhood launches a strong argument with a few major targets. Manne targets: ‘sameness feminism’ for ignoring the role maternity plays in women’s lives; the ideology around the childcare industry for causing us to ignore the harm caused to young children in childcare; and ‘new capitalism’ which has seen the loss of invaluable family time.
The first discussion, around ‘sameness feminism’, is where the bike analogy comes in. Manne quotes feminists such as Simone de Beauvoir who are generally down on motherhood, relating their argument that women’s liberation means women assuming men’s ideal of adulthood. That is, success through paid, status-attaining, work. Manne, however, thinks women (cyclists) have another path available (could take the bike path). Drawing upon the thinking of ‘difference feminists’, research, and her own experience as a mother, Manne emphasises the pleasure that many women find in being a mother; a pleasure that, though hardly recognised by contemporary society, can outweigh that of taking on paid work. Manne talks about the ‘motherlove’ she experienced in caring for her two children, the ethic of ‘caritas’ (‘loving-kindness), and the grief both she and her infants felt upon separation.
I greatly enjoyed this discussion. I gained from it an appreciation of of the cultural hurdles faced by feminism. For centuries our dominant paradigms for what it means to be successful or achieve adulthood have been formed within a patriarchy. As women continue to strive for independence and equality, ought they to simply embrace the same paradigm while challenging it to include them? Or is an alternative paradigm required? Does achieving adulthood, or self-actualisation, look the same for men and for women? If it doesn’t, how is an alternative to arise? There is grave risk that individuals fall too easily in to the groove that patriarchy has worn in our culture. Yet the alternative, some sort of inorganic brainstorming, is hardly an honest reflection of how culture is made and paradigms entrenched.
Manne seems to favour leaving the choice to the individual. Despite immense social pressures to become adults in the male sense, many women, perhaps simply victims of biology, opt to invest in children and the experience of motherhood. This, Manne feels, should be reflected by Governmental ‘policy neutrality’ on the question of parental-leave vs. childcare vs. nannycare, leaving the decision up to the individual woman.
Secondly, a lot of Manne’s book examines the issue of childcare. This is the rub: for children under 2 years, childcare, regardless of quality is dangerous. The longer the day (say, 9-5 instead of 9-3) the more dangerous; a lower quality also implies greater dangers. Note that as children grow older this is not the case, and childcare may in fact be beneficial. Unfortunately, however, many women put their children in to childcare before they are 2 – often so they can get back to work.
Manne considers an intimidating volume of research and paediatric knowledge to draw her conclusions, making heavy reference to John Bowlby, a pioneer in attachment theory. It turns out (this may not shock my peers who are educators) that the first two years of a child’s life are, as they are known in the technical literature, “quite bloody significant”. In these years an infant undergoes a long-term process of forming intimate attachments with, let’s hope, its parents, and potentially other careers such as a grandparent. This takes time and love; attachment-forming to new carers at this age also requires the support and attentiveness of established carers such as the mother. That is, a baby may warm to a grandparent if its own parents are present; a baby abandoned at childcare isn’t about to attach itself readily to a staff member (who may, by the by, be unqualified and ‘caring’ for four others to boot). To neglect children’s needs in this tender phase is a risk to the foundation of our society itself; it is also gross negligence to the rights and needs of our children.
I haven’t totally covered Manne’s perspective on this issue, but in total it had the effect of making me greatly appreciate my own upbringing. I’ve just confirmed with my father that my mother’s tendency was to resume work fairly early in her children’s lives, but that she would do this at reduced hours, increasing them only gradually. For example, in the first year of my life my mother worked two four-hour days a week, and I spent this time in the loving care of my godmother. Thus my mother’s children wouldn’t be in insititutional childcare but in the loving supervision of a kindly other. (In fact, I recally one such other simultaneously supervising well more than five children…how did she do this?) In my memory, too, a woman named Erica features. More strongly is an awareness that if I were sick at school, Mum was all too ready to pop down (admittedly, in her lunch hour) and take me home. Jackpot. Not just in terms of missing school, but also in terms of a mother’s attentiveness. (Read more about my lovely mother in this Mother’s day blog post.)
Speaking more broadly now, I was struck by Manne’s critique of the literature on childcare and our society’s attitude to children’s needs. It was clear that, firstly, institutional childcare for those under two is balls. Secondly, in tandem with an increasing focus on women’s rights there has occurred a lessening of attention to children’s rights: children as young as 18 months are now expected to adapt to separation, a dual-income family, and, potentially, a sterile and frightening childcare environment. Manne dissects a contemporary dialogue around our new conception of the child as someone emotionally resilient and independent, who has to learn as early as possible to get by in this dog eat dog world – one paediatrician, T. Berry Brazelton, advises “If you are going to leave your baby to go back to work, you can’t get too intimate with him. It would lead him to expect more than he would get out of life.” Now, while such a sentiment seems disgusting in this context, the fact that it could be advanced by an apparently highly-regarded paediatrician is an indication of just how out of hand things might be. Manne explains this dialogue as the consequence of a society that needs to absolve itself of guilt for the lack of attention it is paying to the needs of its children: we have created a new ideal of the child, she feels, based merely on what we need to believe to help ourselves sleep at night (and work at day!).
Then Manne gets on to the ‘new capitalism’. She isn’t really a fan. Alluding to Clive Hamilton’s Growth Fetish, she sees too many people as having their “noses pressed up against the windowplane of plenty” (a beautifully evocative turn of phrase). It is this, she feels, that is robbing mothers and families of the time they need to spend together. She breaks down the Taylorisation or McDonaldisation of childhood, the contemporary efforts to make childhood more efficient and less time-consuming. By way of example she refers to the vacuous concept of “quality-time” and drive-through childcare centres. Had her prescient book (first published in 2005) been written a few years later, she might have shared her revulsion at the rewriting of children’s classics to make them shorter and easier for the overworked dad to read to his children. In all, Manne sees the new capitalism as having commodified childhood and the act of care, professionalising such love-based and vital exercises as nurturing. Taking the argument one step further and in to brave territory, Manne puts her finger on the contradiction at the heart of this. Right-wing economic values, as they discourage child-rearing and traditional models of family, are degrading their traditional partners, traditional social values. While we haven’t yet seen the religious right split from the neoliberals, this tension is provocative in how little it has been explored just as much as in how irresoluble it may be.
Motherhood is a profound book. It is written in an honest and frank way that contrasts so pleasantly with dispassionate writing – in this sense it approaches the ‘motherwars’ as Howard Zinn has passionately and partialy approached American history. It is intimidatingly researched and well-founded (I can only read in awe and wonder if I could achieve such things had I studied a B.A.). It develops a powerful and challenging argument: that we as a society are failing mothers and failing children. Increasingly ignored children aren’t receiving the care they need, and increasingly over-worked mothers don’t have the options they deserve. Something needs to change.