Monday, 1 December 2014

On motherhood and viciousness

Mother: serene archetype of blissed-out altruism, right? Selfless, nurturing, loving, she is the graceful heroine of catholic theology, she is the earth, she is nature, the great universal, connecting us all up into one great loved-up family. Right?

I wonder how many fathers, how many mother’s mothers and most of all, how many mothers-in-law would (truthfully) corroborate this picture?  See the thing is, and here I'm going to say the unsayable as only a signed-up member of the said-about can, new mothers aren't in fact very nice at all. We are, at least some of the time, grumpy, irrational, self-important tinder-boxes. In our worst moments, we are paranoid, resentful, hateful, defensive, vicious bitches. Especially to each other, although I'd wager the poor old mothers-in-law come a close second. Any casual glance at mumsnet will confirm this for the uninitiated. Just try typing 'I don't want to breastfeed' into google to see how quickly the mummy trolls come out to play.

My thought for the day is, How come motherhood wields so much power to bring people together, but also to push them apart?

Sure tiredness, hormones and exhaustion explain why many mothers are a walking land mine, primed to take every comment the wrong way, every glance as judgment. When a mum at the playpark commented that my son is small for his age I went from reasonable to internally-calling-on-the-gods-to-wage-war-against-this-woman-and-all-her-kin in an eyeblink. I felt attacked, physically assaulted and primed to unleash brutality in revenge. The truth is I am rather small and so is my son, it was just an everyday observation. A different time an older lady told me I needed to use reins to stop my boy running into a many visions I had of doing unkind things to her with reins. I'm honestly not normally a particularly hot-headed person. Why are we so quick to become vicious scratching hell-beasts when someone (usually another woman, lets be honest) crosses us? It can't all be about tiredness.

According to Avi Tuschman (about whose work I’ll blog more later)there are various physical changes associated with childbirth that predispose us mothers to become a bit of a pain in the arse (my words, not his). More precisely, having children makes us suddenly become hypervigilant, which creates an ‘illusory increase in external dangers’ – because we focus more of our attention on dangerous things, we mistakenly believe them to have become more prevalent. New parents tend to report that crime rates have increased, for example, compared with before their transition to parenthood. One of the underlying causes of this is oxytocin: well known as the love hormone, involved in child birth and breast-feeding and mother-child bonding. Much less well-known, its also implicated in our tendency towards ethnocentrism. High rates of oxytocin make us more suspicious of outgroups, and to prefer to interact with people of our own race and class. New mothers, according to psychologists, are less trusting of strangers, more supportive of corporal punishment, and more prone to experiencing disgust. The upshot of all this, according to data gathered on voting habits, is that motherhood tends to push our political views to the right. We turn into Tories!

These are ugly truths. I heard the thing about parents getting more conservative before and thought it was weird. How could parents not become more interested in making the world a better place, more caring of children starving in third world famines, for example? More empathetic and nurturing. More lefty. Instead we just turn into paranoid nepotists.

The fact is, parenthood is a peculiarly divisive thing. Different folk have different norms and assumptions about how it should be done.  The clash between parent-led and baby-led philosophies turn mums into the most judgmental and self-righteous of discussants. Its not calm dispassionate evaluation of the pros and cons of breastfeeding, for example, or controlled crying. Its troll-like character assassination of Gina Ford.  Its abuse. I have to say, I think the baby-led camp are worst in this regard, presumably because their trolling comes packaged as moral indignation in defence of children. So they don't recognise the vindictive aspect of their claims that, for eg, using a naughty step causes physical harm.

I guess it’s natural for parents to be protective of their children, but is it so obvious that they should be protective of their own particular way of parenting? After all, none of us first-time mums have done it before, very few of us have any claim to expertise. Why are we so hostile to the idea of being given advice? Imagine going into a house purchase or moving to a new country determined to barricade ourselves against any possibility of being given advice?! It would be deemed insane.

Part of this probably has historical underpinnings...women at various times have been controlled and blamed and attacked through all stages of pregnancy and beyond. Against this background, there is a strong and important movement for mothers to take back control of their bodies and their babies and to avoid the sometimes horrific consequences of well-intentioned state and medical intervention. But, again, why is so much of our defensive weaponry aimed at one another? Why are we - mothers - seemingly determined to pile more onto the back-breaking load that each of us is already carrying?
I react most emotionally, of course, against advice that tickles one of my insecurities. I get angry when I feel guilty because someone has touched a weak I damaging my son by sending him to nursery, not letting him co-sleep etc. I turn my anger on the person who inflamed the guilt.

The real bastard here is evolution, of course. Mothers are fucking obnoxious because evolution primed them to spend every waking moment worrying and feeling guilty about every possible thing.  We're horrible  because we all love our babies so much.

Before I became a parent I believed that I would stay sane, reasonable, not take things personally. Turns out I'm not as open minded as I thought. Or at least, I get really worked up about some others people's views (even when I paid money to read those views.) I've gotta admit that reading them back now, some of the posts I wrote earlier into this motherhood game strike me as embarrassingly shrill and hostile now. Maybe I was a bit unfair to Oliver James, for example (there, I said it). It was a bit over the top, because I was feeling rather defensive and *ack* conservative. It wouldn't surprise me if a skin galvanisation test  revealed slightly higher levels of distrust of strangers, for example, or general fear. I find I get very upset very easily reading the news, reading about beheadings and child abuse cases. In fact, in an unreflective moment I could even believe that the world has become a slightly scarier, more dangerous place since Orson was born. I was marching in protest at the last Iraq war, but these days I feel quite reassured that we are carrying out airstrikes against ISIS....those beheadings are terrifying! Have I gone all pro-establishment in my old age?

I'm not about to start voting conservative or anything, not in this lifetime. But this is all rather unsettling. My political psychology has always felt like a constitutive part of who I am. One pregnancy later and its different? Am I still me? Is ISIS really more scary than the Taliban or am I just more right-wing? Am I turning into Sarah Palin?

I'm not really allowed to say any of this, for good reason: being a new mother is just so hard, and the sleep deprivation so genuinely torturous that anyone adopting any attitude towards new mums other than 'Of course, yes you're right, anything you say' is, well pointless. But to any mother who I did ever and will ever make to feel judged, criticised, insecure, or whatever, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Let's be friends!

And on behalf of mums everywhere who, upon leaving the twilight tired months behind them, look back and think 'God I was a bitch', to all the long-suffering partners and mothers in law: We are sorry! We actually appreciated much of your help and advice even if we treated it like a rain of napalm at the time! Thank you for your infinite grace in ignoring all the times we huffed and stropped and generally acted like unevolved ogres. We weren't feeling quite ourselves at the time.

No comments: