By JO CASE
When I was thirty years old, the first of my friends became pregnant. My son was seven. At last, I thought.
The other mothers in my son’s schoolyard mostly left me alone: I was different. They had mortgages and talked about renovations; they swapped recipes and tips for avoiding traffic. I rented my house, didn’t enjoy cooking, and rode my bicycle everywhere (because I didn’t have a driver’s license).
I longed for a friend I could talk to about the foreign land of motherhood, from the inside.
My pregnant friend had been my manager when we both worked at a city bookshop. Since then, she’d moved into publishing. She was hard-working and ambitious; that person who was always the first to arrive at (and last to leave) the office, who talked about work over drinks and on weekends.
My first clue that we would not, after all, be companions in motherhood came when she showed me the room she had prepared for the baby. There was a carefully stocked bookshelf, bursting with children’s classics. (So far, so familiar.) The room was colour-schemed and decorated with lovingly sewn cushions and appliquéd lamp covers. A cupboard was stacked with cunning little hipster clothes, ordered by colour and artfully arranged, as if for a photo shoot.
“I know it’s silly,” she said, her pride dissolving into embarrassment. “I’m sure it’ll be a mess once the baby arrives.”
But when the baby arrived, she remained composed and organised. If I came to visit, she invariably presented cakes, quiches or scones she’d baked while the baby slept. When she confessed to having a bad day, it was because she really wanted to clean out the kitchen cupboards and hadn’t been able to manage it. The sewing that had started with the cushions in the baby’s room became a creative outlet.
“She’s channelled all her ambition into doing motherhood perfectly,” I told a mutual friend, laughing. I spoke with an edge of scorn, but privately, I was envious. She did seem to be doing it perfectly.
And if her way is the right way, then I must be doing it wrong.
I suspect that thought is at the centre of the so-called ‘mummy wars’ – the hyper-competitive sniping between different ‘tribes’ of motherhood.
Helicopter versus free-range parenting, stay-at-home versus working mums, organic-everything-loving earth mothers versus mothers who embrace pop culture and i-devices.
Motherhood is a huge responsibility; the stakes are nothing less than the health and happiness of our children. It’s not surprising there’s such pressure to get it right – and that we experience such guilt when we feel like we’re failing to do so.
Outwardly, we all seem obsessed with picking holes in what other women are doing – at least, if the opinion pages and women’s magazines are any barometer. If you stay home to bake and sew and parent full-time, you’re endangering feminism. If you work full-time, you’re endangering your children’s welfare.
But I wonder if secretly, what we’re really concerned with is distracting from our own perceived failures by pointing out where others might go wrong. Or proving the value of the choices we make by denigrating alternative paths.
Because women can’t have it all. No one can. What feminism delivers, to the lucky ones, is the ability to choose what we will have – based on what we value the most. And this necessarily involves assigning a lesser value to the things we let go of.
I think many of us fear the possibility of having made the wrong choices. And so we emphasise the rightness of our path by criticising the ones we didn’t (or couldn’t) take.
My child was born into a house that had been rented just a few months before his birth. His father and I had just reconciled from a separation, deciding to try to ‘make things work’. (They didn’t.) After we broke up, before my son was a year old, I lived in a flat with furniture mostly sourced from hand-me-downs from friends. My mattress was rescued from hard rubbish. I bought my son’s clothes and toys second-hand.
When I saw the room my friend had lovingly prepared for her son’s birth, I felt sick with guilt at the comparison. And envy of her uncomplicated happiness.
When she served me cakes still fragrant from the oven and handed me her baby, dressed in clothes she had sewn him, I thought of my sink full of dishes at home and the way I send my jeans to be hemmed by my mother.
And so I scoffed at her achievements.
I have never excelled at keeping a clean home or serving impressive meals. But I taught my son to read before kindergarten, by reading to him at every chance I got. I nurtured his impressive imagination, by helping build toys from cardboard boxes and toilet rolls, and drawing stories together on butcher paper. And whenever he has been treated with unkindness or injustice, I have defended him with the force of a thousand suns.
He is kind and smart and generally happy.
When I remind myself of these things, I feel less threatened by my friend’s household prowess. I can tell myself – and believe – that we are both good mothers, in our own ways. I can lower my defences, can reach out across our differences to rediscover the things we have in common.
When my son was a toddler, while we were living in the flat full of hand-me-downs, I would take him on long daily walks. We would stop in parks along the way and play among the grass and trees. One day, as I bundled him back into the stroller following a vigorous game of chasey, an older woman approached me.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I was just watching you and your son.”
I braced myself. Being a young mother, I was used to unwanted advice from strangers.
“You were having so much fun together,” she said. “It was beautiful to see. Well done. You’re obviously a great mum.”
And do you know what? She was right. For the record, my friend is too.
Jo Case is the author of Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger’s (Hardie Grant). Her online home is www.jocasewrites.com.
Have you ever been made to feel like you weren’t parenting the ‘right’ way?