I was sitting at my desk at an hour I should have been in bed when I spied four words tucked into the blurb for my new book, a memoir of family life. Stay-at-home mother. What, I thought, staring at the tiny print of these four words on the pdf, does my publisher mean? Hasn’t she read my manuscript? How dare she describe me as a stay-at-home mother!
It was well after midnight by the time I’d composed my tactful response to the publisher. I pointed out how important work has always been to me, alongside family, and that in my mind I’ve always worked. My book, I explained, is about the conflict between personal ambition and devotion to family. I never meant to suggest that family is more important than work.
Even as I wrote my tactful email, worrying about the sleep I wasn’t having, I knew that I was more upset than I should be. I knew that the more reasonable my sentences the more hysterical I felt. I knew I was staving off the fear that I was being written off as a tracksuit wearing, play-dough making, healthy eating, mummy blogging, stay-at-home mother.
Next morning the publisher emailed back saying that she would take in my comments and send through a revised back cover. That night, still incensed, I mentioned the exchange to my teenage daughter as we sat on the couch kicking each other’s feet after a video. ‘But’, she said, ‘you are a stay-at-home mother’. ‘But’, I replied, petulant, ‘I’m never at home when you get home from school’. At which my daughter gave me her Don’t You Know Anything look. ‘Thanks a lot’, I said, thinking that her insult was the latest in a long line of comments unconsciously aimed at pulling me down so as to make separating from me easier. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it’, said my husband, turning off the television and aiming to console. ‘It’s just one of those terms that stick the more you fight them’.
I let it slide, but those four words didn’t go away. A week went by. Wondering what my manuscript was really about, this morning I sat in a café and read it through. Forcing myself to keep my pen in my bag, knowing that I’d make changes if I had it in my hand, I read on and on – past the time I should have left the café for Yoga. Embarrassed at how long I’d sat reading, I chatted to the waitress who told me some of her complicated feelings about being a single mother of a two-year-old. ‘There’s just so much judgment around motherhood’, she said. ‘Yes’, I agreed.
That’s when it came to me – as I took in the parking ticket on my windscreen and groaned inwardly. The opening paragraph of an earlier version of my manuscript – there have been many – sailed whole into my mind. It was a paragraph that I’d thought better of and deleted. It described my mother – who had four girls in six years – hissing her displeasure whenever the subject of working mothers came up. In her view working mothers – excluding those women who absolutely had to work – were selfish. Working mothers deserved what they got if their kids went off the rails further down the line. So intent was my mother in attacking working mothers that I vowed I’d never sacrifice myself to family in the way that I felt – as a teenager – she had.
Today the boot is on the other foot – mine. Today I am the one telling myself that I haven’t sacrificed myself to family, whatever my publisher and daughter tell me. Sure, I reassure myself, I’ve surrendered to family life. But that isn’t the same as sacrifice – something I couldn’t begin to understand on overhearing my mother hissing about working mothers as a teenager. But who am I kidding? The line between sacrifice and surrender is so fine that it blurs. I have let my kids take me for granted. I have dropped everything when the school nurse called. I have put my work on the back boiler during school holidays and illness. I have let my husband’s career gallop to the slow trot of my own. I have cooked more meals than would like to count, and paired more socks than I thought it possible to pair.
Walking round the city that I moved to with my family for quality of life reasons eight years ago it came to me why I’ve been so upset at being branded a stay-at-home mother. It’s something so obvious that I hadn’t seen it, hidden in plain sight.
The world has changed so much since I grew up that my mother’s hissing at working mothers has flipped into reverse. Now the hissing goes the other way. These days I am the one who is hissed at by my publisher and daughter for being a stay-at-home mother. These days the value of my life feels under attack by a label created by all the pent-up rage of an unrest at the heart of social life that, left unexpressed, takes the form of ongoing sniping between working and stay-at-home mothers. The more rational our arguments about motherhood, the more unconscious affect bleeds into them.
In my mother’s day working mothers were in the minority and stay-at-home mothers were the norm. Now the numbers go the other way. Spending time with your children is encouraged. Staying at home with them – suggestive of passivity and defence – is not. Self-declared stay-at-home mothers use their role as a badge of self-righteous abnegating honour, irritating the pants off the majority of women who embrace the real world juggle that is working motherhood.
What does it mean that one of the most powerful ways we can undermine each other as women is via the way we mother our children? Are we really so existentially insecure that we can only feel okay about ourselves by sticking pins into other women on the basis of the so-called choices they have made about how they look after their children? What does it mean that in surrendering myself to the demands of family I end up feeling humiliated by a taunt as scorching as the names gays and foreigners were once branded with? Once upon a time, a paid-up lecturer at The University of London, I taught Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now I have my very own scarlet letter – S.
Then I remember why I wrote this memoir. I wrote it not for the media to tie me to the stake of stay-at-home motherhood and dance a jig around it. I wrote about family life over a fifteen-year span in order to make sense of an experience that was bigger and far more interesting than anything I’d been led to expect. I wrote it for another woman, equally bewildered by the pace of family life, to read in the bath after a long day. I wrote it because until I’d written about family life I couldn’t write intelligently about anything else. And I wrote it for my god-daughter who I looked after as a toddler, who tells me that she wanders around London in her lunch break noticing the baby bumps of passing women, wondering if she’ll ever have a baby who makes her want to stay at home.