It was a strange moment in a long, happy friendship: when I mentioned to a mate at the end of a dinner that I had just signed a contract to write a new column. She stopped and said blankly: “But what will you do with the children?” So retro, so enduring is the assumption that every inch forward professionally might be a punch in the face for the ones you love most – or at the least, an unhappy accommodation.
Like many other working mothers, I, too, would like to hoover up the words “work-life balance” with the vacuum I too rarely use, never to be seen again in condescending profiles about women in the public eye.
And don’t even mention “having it all”.
It’s confining, limiting and makes failure implicit in any moments of professional cheer or triumph. Elected to Parliament: “Will this make you a substandard parent?” Composed a great album: “Did you spend hours out of the home?” Wrote a satisfying book: “But what did this mean for your children?”
It’s a line of questioning men have very rarely faced, despite the fact that for all of us, life is inevitably a series of compromises and negotiations.
Which is why I cheered when I read the words of American author Lauren Groff in The New Yorker this week when discussing one of her short stories, featuring an ambivalent mother. She said she wrote it when at home with her sons on spring break, following six months of intense travel due to a book tour. And asked if she meant to write a story about motherhood, these words spilt out. And because they are so glorious, I will quote them at length:
“I’d made the decision before the boys were born,” she said, “that I was going to feel no guilt or shame about my parenting. I’m a good mother and want to spend as much time as possible with my kids, but I travel a lot, I shut myself away from my family to work every day, I do not do birthday parties, and I went to one play-date in my life and wanted to break the Perrier bottle on the floor and stab myself with it.” Ah Lauren, you are not alone.
She continued: “We have intense conversations in my house about apportioning responsibility, because neither my husband nor I wants to assume roles based on messed-up collective assumptions about gender dynamics. I think that, in our society, the idea of motherhood is pathologically ill, and even well-meaning people assume martyrdom in a mother.”
This is such a good point. The idea seems to be that mothers must suffer, just as children must suffer, and mothers suffer more if they work, or assert needs.
Perhaps there is a central paradox, as one friend pointed out on Twitter – what if we like to hear the answers but hate being asked the questions?
But what if you like to work, and love having kids, and frankly having both is excellent? I clearly remember starting a new job in another country when I had a small child and feeling guilty because I didn’t feel guilty. Even if I were a wreck if I ever had to prise little arms from my neck to walk out the door.
Guilt and shame, Groff says, are “tools used to keep people in line”. We police our public figures, our friends and ourselves, forcing each other to justify the way we structure our lives. We all have pat answers, practised responses, from shrugs and eye-rolls to sighs and hand-wringing.
Groff says that when she gives readings, or is interviewed, the questions she gets asked most are about how she manages being a mother while being a writer, and “when I’m expected to do this sort of tap dance of humility that I have no desire or ability to dance. I think people are mostly kind and don’t know that, when they ask these questions of women, they are asking us to perform a kind of ceremonial subjection – that we’re not allowed our achievements without first denigrating ourselves or saying, with a sigh, “Yes, that’s correct, I’m a writer and a mother, and it’s so hard, and, no, I don’t do it well.” The truth is, doing these things is hard because being a good parent is always hard, but the difficulty of parenting is separate from the difficulty of work.” Her children, she says, “are missing out on nothing”.
One solution, suggested by Elissa Strauss in Slate, is to ask women about motherhood but not in relation to their careers: “Instead, treat it like any other biographical detail, like growing up in the south or having a severe peanut allergy – one that may or may not intersect with a woman’s professional life, and one about which she may or may not have something to say.”
It’s not just that these questions are cliched, a well-worn rut in reporting.
It’s that they reduce one of the most spectacularly intimate tasks: holding tiny hearts in your hands, vigilantly herding vulnerable creatures into places that are sunny and safe, while making your own way in the working world to a grim story of perpetual defeat. A story in which, at every point, someone loses out. And one that masks the fact that for a great many women, writing, or working while shepherding children, opens up vast and surprising new worlds, it doesn’t close them.
Julia Baird hosts The Drum on ABCTV.