Text by Heather Edwards
Motherhood is lonely. There, I said it. It feels like there is some stigma attached to discussing motherhood as anything less than perfect. As if somehow by saying that being a mum isn’t all sunshine, and rainbows and perfectly posed photographs in monochrome nurseries uploaded to Instagram, that I am ungrateful for the miracle of life that has been bestowed upon me. And, honestly, that couldn’t be any further from the truth. I truly love being a mum and couldn’t think the sun shines out my daughter’s, admittedly gross pre-potty trained, ass any more than I do. But that doesn't stop an overwhelming feeling of isolation from creeping in at times.
In this essay, I will be exploring the areas of Labour, Loneliness and Sisterhood to describe my personal experiences of being a mother thus far, and more wider, the damaging effect when we limit the narratives of motherhood.
During my pregnancy I worked for a company that, like 2.5% of the workforce, only offered zero hour contracts for people in my role. Zero hour contracts are especially prevalent in the socio-economic band I fit into, that being low paid service work, and are also particularly common for young women. I had worked there for two years with steady hours and so I had, perhaps naively, never questioned zero hour contracts. I had no reason to believe that my hours would change when I became pregnant. It was a desk job and I planned to work right up to my due date, to take full advantage of my maternity leave once the baby had arrived. Sadly, after announcing my pregnancy to my manager, my hours steadily reduced until I had none. I ended up unemployed at four months pregnant with no real explanation from my former employers, which alarmingly seems to be a pattern for women in zero hour contracted work.
Maternity pay is calculated on the amount of hours you do per month, making it “beneficial” for the company to keep hours for women - i.e. potential or expecting mothers - to a minimum. I applied for and got interviewed for numerous jobs that I was more than qualified for during this period, but as soon as I mentioned my pregnancy, even the most enthusiastic of employers suddenly lost interest in me. Despite it being against the Sex Discrimination Act of 2010 to turn someone down for a job based on pregnancy or intended pregnancy, employers either failed to give me a reason for not employing me, or gave thinly-veiled excuses. My partner and I decided to move from our home near London to Manchester. Our reasoning was purely so that we could afford to live on one wage. As a result of this, I moved to live in a new city, with no way of meeting people and no job to throw myself into.
Not working, it was hard to ignore the societal views of what motherhood should be and should look like in terms of familial roles and homemaking. This was amplified when I chose to stay at home beyond the year afforded by maternity leave. This was in part due to not being able to afford childcare, but also in part due to simply enjoying being home with my child. I felt it was important for both her and myself to experience bringing her up. I wanted to protect her from the micro-aggressions of language and the wider world, things that I could not control away from my home. Different women have different opinions on this subject, this was mine.
However, I did start to feel the weight and guilt that comes with not working. It was so ingrained in me that the only way to be a “successful” person was to be one who makes a financial contribution. Within a capitalist society, paid work absolutely seems to hold more value than the unpaid labour involved in motherhood. Financial Times calculates women’s unpaid domestic labour at £259 a week, with an additional £15.28 for women in roles as child care providers. The idea that as a “non-workers” you are not considered to be a valued member of society can weigh heavy in terms of feeling guilty and removed from society. This entirely undermines the importance and significance of child rearing, domestic duties and the role the household plays. “Workers” and children who go out during the day to jobs or schools then return to the household, maintained by the unseen worker doing the unseen and endless duties, to enjoy the benefits that essentially sustain them, i.e. dinner and cleanliness.
In the years BC (before child) I was active, socially conscious, travelled a lot and my world revolved around socialising, activism and being surrounded by people. What seemed to happen very suddenly was my big, wide world became one little room filled by this overwhelmingly, massive presence in the body of my tiny baby. The outside world became a terrifying entity in which to protect her from. Between me isolating myself from those outside influences, and others becoming completely uninterested in me, and my brand new label of ‘mum’, my life became very insular and repetitive.
My only real snapshot into the outside world and what motherhood should look like was social media; where there are reams and reams of photos of adorable children in incredible houses with mums dressed perfectly. Meanwhile I sat, phone in hand, while baby napped, wearing sweat pants I’d worn for three days. The basement flat we lived in was that was full of damp and I was in a constant battle to prevent the mould from reaching the baby’s room. This only further alienated me, scaring me away from meeting other mothers in fear of judgement. My old friends were far away or uninterested, and my route to new ones was peppered with anxieties and insecurities.
To add to the feelings of inadequacy I felt, there was an immense pressure to “lose the baby weight.” This came from a general cultural assumption that being fat, no matter the reason, is a negative thing. It is insinuated is that your body should never show signs of carrying a child. Some of the features most ridiculed or shamed about a woman’s body, for example: fat, stretch marks, “saggy” breasts, are things that naturally happen to some women’s bodies during pregnancy and postpartum. Beyond the normal societal pressure on all women to be thin, pert and flawless, women who have just had babies are being targeted more and more.
Before I even had my daughter, I had conversations regarding breastfeeding with others, professional and otherwise. I was often told that one of the benefits of breastfeeding was that it burnt calories and made you lose the baby weight quicker - planting the seed that the only good postpartum body is a thin one. During pregnancy, weight is watched throughout with the inclination being that you shouldn't put on too much weight, despite literally growing a human being inside you.
After giving birth, the pressure really starts. The second you dare to use hashtags regarding motherhood on social media you are jumped on by diet industry sellers sliding in your direct messages with offers for the newest weight loss fad. Slimming World accounts coincidentally start to follow you. The newsletters you are encouraged to sign up for (including Emma’s Diary and Bounty) sell your details onto a number of different companies, including diet providers, so your inbox is bombarded with the idea that you should lose weight and fast. I felt like I was slowly drip-fed the idea that I was fat and worthless and would not be relieved of vilification until my body resembled the ideal and unattainable postpartum physique.
Eventually I was diagnosed with postnatal depression (PND), an illness that statistically hits 10 to 15 of every 100 women who have had a baby. It was an incredibly scary thing to come to terms with. The only depiction I had ever seen of PND in the media was manic women who resented their children and that simply wasn’t me. My PND manifested myself in a form of agoraphobia, a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn't be available if things go wrong, and a pretty spectacular inferiority complex. On hindsight, this was hardly surprising when analysing the way that women are treated once in the role of “mother.” I was put on medication and although it helped, I found it hard to be open and honest about what I was going through, due to fear of being judged as a bad mother. I did not want the fact I needed medication to function from day to day be a reflection on my daughter, myself or our relationship.
I have been lucky enough to find a group of other mums online who are a fantastic support system. They have humanised other mothers for me, making me realise that my experiences are echoed by many women.This is a fact that is both comforting but also, in the grand scheme of things, really upsetting. It demonstrates that the pressures and alienation I have felt first hand after becoming a mother are part of the norm, and are something that women are expected to just deal with.
However, I realised that social media could also be my best friend, not just my worst enemy. I found a community of mothers who were into crafting and DIY, who organised meetups across the country. A Manchester meeting popped up and I requested to be added to a group chat. My anxiety reached an absolute peak and I very nearly backed out of going, but with pep talks from the few around me, I managed to go to Manchester Museum and join them. I'm so glad I did. I really connected with one woman in particular who ran a separate mum group. I then went on to join that group and became a very active member, processing a lot of admin as the group grew. Because of this, I have met more and more parents and we are now a sisterhood of 1500 women strong.
To be part of a group of feminist women who happen to also be mothers is something that has made me realise that I don't have to be alienated from the feminist movement. I have realised that you can be both a mother and care deeply about intersectionality, progression and inclusivity. In fact, these are issues that I believe are an integral part of bringing up children to be inquisitive, to celebrate diversity and above all to value others.
It was through this group that I was able to see that I had PND. I had a group of women gently persuading me to see a doctor, who worked with me to break down any internalised stigma I had about my mental health and instead to feel proud of my journey rather than ashamed of it. I had people that I could openly discuss my feelings, medication and therapy with and it has been deeply validating.
Through motherhood I have found sisterhood. I have seen the tenacity and brilliance of the women I surround myself with. I have realised how much the struggles of being a mum are feminist issues and ones that are often overlooked.
The feminist objective concerning reproductivity needs to go beyond the pro-choice campaign to providing support once/if choices are made. Women and the children they may or may not choose to have are entitled to a world that is wholly designed for them to thrive, regardless of their socio-economic background, contribution to labour, social media presence or the physical appearance of their bodies.
Women are most often the primary carers of society, from the next generation to the ageing one. Women are the physical and emotional labourers of the home. In other words, women traditionally and literally do the work that keeps the people around them alive. We can no longer go on pretending that the work women do is not the most imperative and fundamental work to society.