Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s column on the importance of telling stories of motherhood focused on Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which Cosslett notes was criticised on publication, mainly by mothers (Writing honestly about motherhood still provokes anger, but we must tell our stories, 6 June). Cusk noted in 2008 that many of her critics exhibited a “hunger to express themselves not as women, not as commentators or intellectuals, but as mothers”.
Honest stories of motherhood are essential, but so too are identities beyond the maternal, for both mothers and non-mothers. We must come to know women as more than nurturing caregivers. Although truthful stories of motherhood are gaining traction, our culture tends to see all women of child-bearing age as potential mothers. Any thirtysomething can tell you about a time they were asked when they would have children, told they’d make a wonderful mother, or condescendingly advised that they would change their mind about not having children.
The choice to not have children should be free of judgment in the same way that mothers who complain about their children should not be vilified. We see examples of this unshakable expectation every day in popular culture – even in this publication, in which a columnist once implied that if it were not for financial woes or fear of commitment, millennials would of course be having children instead of pets. Many people want children, but not everyone.
I remember devouring Rachel Cusk’s book. A friend recommended it when I was struggling to look after a three-year-old and newborn in a new city, and I was so grateful to find I wasn’t alone in finding motherhood boring as well as immensely joyous. She opened the door to more honest writing about the huge change that occurs in a woman’s life when she becomes a mother.
However, having now been a mother for more than 20 years, I would make a plea that we need to hear more from those who’ve been mothers for longer. Pregnancy, birth and those early months are the start of a long journey. My experience of motherhood has changed as my family expanded and as I and my three children grow older. Motherhood becomes more isolated, as there’s no equivalent of baby and toddler classes or the school gate for parents of teenagers. There are new and – for some – harder challenges: faced with a sobbing teenager, I thought wistfully of the days when I could solve most of their problems for them. More stories from mothers of older children and young people would help us all along the long road of parenthood.
In this modern, enlightened age, there are probably few more taboo aspects of motherhood than the older mother’s experience of having an adult child (and possibly grandchildren) emigrate to the other side of the world. Having lived through this over 10 years ago, I was shocked by the expectation, often from other women, that I must be outwardly positive about it, and suppress my profound sense of loss. It seemed that to be open about my pain was to be a “bad mother”. Yet a 2012 study found that in older parents whose children emigrate, it “is mostly experienced as a vast loss, almost akin to a death”, which is exactly how it felt to me.
Is it ageism that requires older women to keep quiet about this aspect of motherhood? Is there any stage of life when a mother has the right to tell her own story?
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