Why won’t women shut up about motherhood?

It’s amazing how motivating mild irritation is, isn’t it? I have been struggling with various quite complicated life-and-mental-health issues, which got to the point where I really couldn’t manage words on paper. Which was quite a big deal, considering I do rely rather a lot on words on paper.

But things are starting to look up, slowly, and now, like divine inspiration dawning in the east, comes the faint sun-ray blush of Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s new column on motherhood for the Guardian. Ah! Can you imagine anything more exciting? This redoubtable feminist scholar has no hesitation in placing herself in the company of those other writers with whom we so often associate her: Rachel Cusk, Anne Enright, Maggie O’Farrell, Rebecca Walker, Adrienne Rich, Elena Ferrante and Audre Lorde. But why, you ask, has she felt the need to set pen to paper at all? Why, because Cosslett lives in a ‘unique societal moment’ where, for the first time, people are anxious about the rising birthrate (I’ll just sneak in a link to the infamous book The Population Bomb, which is surely in pre-press and poised to spring onto our unique, societal bookshelves). Snarking aside, it seems that to Cosslett, it comes as a tremendous surprise to find that people flog expensive tat to pregnant mothers. She speaks of her shock that the writers of aspirational lifestyle porn situate their thinly-disguised adverts in large Victorian terraces and try to get people buying expensive cots. None of this is new, of course, and there is something a tiny bit painful in watching a middle-class woman with a white-collar job expressing her shock at being part of ‘generation rent’.

I came to Cosslett’s first column (written, she explains, at 29 weeks of pregnancy, because writing about motherhood does not require an actual infant) straight after finishing reading Revolutionary Mothering, and I’ve got to admit the transition probably didn’t allow Cosslett’s work to show to its best advantage. Written by a collection of mostly black, often queer mothers and with a truly radical sense of intersectional inequalities, Revolutionary Mothering is also startlingly rich, tender, and powerful. I found myself lingering over sentences and bombarding my friends with quotations. Before that, I’d read Finn MacKay’s writings (both published books and newspaper pieces and twitter threads) about (m)otherhood and the experience of nurturing a child when society is not at all sure that your family constitutes a recognisable family at all. I’d read Confessions of the Other Mother, in which MacKay’s terminology is rooted. I’d read Claire Lynch’s brilliant, traumatic, hopeful and helpful account of motherhood and trauma. And I’d taken in a huge, huge, huge volume of conversations that weren’t published in books or even in newspapers, but were jotted down on facebook or posted on twitter or shared in the snatched moments before nursery pick-ups.

Having lamented the regrettable lack of writing about motherhood for ‘her generation,’ Cosslett went on, in her next piece, to identify an absence of conversations about the decision to have, or not to have, children. These things, apparently, should be discussed ‘more openly’. As a 37-year-old woman in a lesbian relationship, I can assure Cosslett that if she really wants an in-depth interrogation about her decision to have children, she’s welcome to skip off down the nearest fertility clinic and pay a few grand for the privilege. She could be asked intrusive questions about her mental health, her genetic history and her relationship status. She could try dealing with the Byzantine ridiculousness of the benefit system while fielding nasty, clumsy stereotypes about working class women’s decisions to reproduce. Or, if what she means is that she wants to have a nice, supportive chat about having children with other non-Victorian-house-owning peers, she could … just do it. Or are actual women with children too boring to approach?

Reading this, I felt a familiar sense of rage. The problem is not that women don’t talk enough, or that mothers don’t talk enough.

These conversations happen. They happen everywhere. They happen between mothers, and between those who hope to be mothers, and between those who never wanted to be mothers, and all the permutations in between. They happen between people of different genders, too, and people who parent in all sorts of different ways. How do I know? Because I fucking listen.

But it was the third column that really pushed me over the line. Having complained long and loud about the lack of voices discussing motherhood, Cosslett moves on to complain about another subject. That is, the excess of bloody women, yammering on, when you’re busy being pregnant. The gist of this article seems to be that, while it is a vital feminist act to break the silence on one’s tragic lack of a mansion during pregnancy, it is just plain ‘negative’ to talk about things like stillbirth, birth trauma, or sepsis.

Yes, you read that right.

Cosslett does include the requisite disclaimer that these subjects were, until recently, ‘cloaked in shameful silence’. My research, over the past two years, has involved bashing my head up against that stereotype time and time again – for, while it’s true that stillbirth has at some points in history been silenced, over the past decades there has been a truly heart-wrenching volume of campaigns and articles and attempts to break that silence. And what happens? Again, it’s not that women don’t speak. As the Ockenden Review, released last month, makes heartbreakingly clear, it’s that people don’t listen. Bereaved parents who efforts resulted in the discovery of over a thousand cases of bad practice in maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford hospitals found, over and over, that no one was listening when they tried to talk about stillbirth and trauma. And in this situation, I’m one of those who didn’t listen, because when my own daughter was born with the infection that led to sepsis, I had no idea how serious it was. I wish I’d listened more, because the information is out there, and we do need to hear it.

In all of my irritation at this hypocrisy, this refusal to even consider other women’s voices, I had a personal and doubtless small niggle, too.

Cosslett acknowledges that ‘pregnancy and birth can be dangerous and traumatising, particularly for women but also for men’. It is no doubt boring for me to feel a prickle of irritation to note that here, what Cosslett really means is ‘particularly for women who give birth, but also for, y’know, them other ones … whaddaya call them dykey ones again?’ because, naturally, men make up the majority of birth partners and their trauma is the one that matters. But that’s ok: in case I’d thought to speak, Cosslett has an answer here too, ending her article with a thoughtful, inclusive meditation on the diverse ways one might form a caring relationship, and the beautiful, generous expansion of the idea of family to incorporate many types of non-biological or non-maternal nurturing. The last line? Birth partners, just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean you should say it. Or to put it another way: shut up, while I tell you how hard I’m not listening.

If you would like to read some genuinely thoughtful, non-self-centred views on pregnancy and motherhood, I have included links to several books above (Claire Lynch’s comes especially strongly recommended, though it is not easy to read). For a small fraction of other voices I’ve valued, I also recommend Rachel Moss’s recent, thoughtful post about forging less selfish models of motherhood. On Instagram, Ali Pember shares snippets of advice – sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, often encouraging – about moving away from the idea of ‘perfection’ in mothering (something we could all do with when we look too long at lifestyle motherhood adverts). The wonderful Birth Better organisation campaigns for, and shares awareness of, birth trauma in its broadest senses.

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