Feminism shouldn’t mean lying about motherhood

Mothers must never be made to feel guilty

Hands on: childcare and guilt, there’s no avoiding it.
. Madison Lawlor in the "Messy Room" during a recent visit by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald to the F2 centre in former Fatima Mansions area of Rialto in Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller

Hands on: childcare and guilt, there’s no avoiding it. . . Madison Lawlor in the "Messy Room" during a recent visit by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald to the F2 centre in former Fatima Mansions area of Rialto in Dublin. Photograph: Frank Miller


As a feminist, I’ve discovered there are certain things you are not permitted to say. And the most dreadful crime in the book, the very biggest no-no, is to say something – however indirectly – that provokes an attack of maternal guilt.

Mothers must never, ever be made to feel guilty. Oh, you’ll be sorry if you do, sister. The spittle-flecked shrieks of outrage will make you wish you had never dared to open your traitorous mouth.

Increasingly, and absurdly, it seems that the role of a feminist – if she is to be tolerated at all – is enthusiastically to applaud any decision that any woman makes, whether she agrees with it or not. The trouble with such witlessly indiscriminate cheer-leading (you go, girl!) is that it comes at the expense of honesty and authentic debate.

So, if you dare, come with me into the churned-up battleground that is childcare. It is an inconvenient truth that young children do best with consistent, one-to-one daily attention from a loving parent, usually the mother, as opposed to being rounded up in packs and deposited in full-time daycare from dawn to dusk.

A 20-year research study from the University of Pennsylvania, published last year, showed that the more mental stimulation a child receives from parents by the age of four, the more developed their language and cognitive abilities will be in the decades ahead. You only get one go at this, and it may mean the difference between a bigger life for your child and a smaller one.

Bringing up baby
Before the missiles start flying, let me make it clear that the question of who brings up the baby is not the sole responsibility of the mother. (It sounds obvious, but it’s important to spell this out clearly, because one of the main symptoms of maternal guilt is a stupid, bloodhound-like tendency to selectively sniff out offence, and react with hysteria, regardless of what has actually been said.)

A committed father, prepared to put in the necessary hours of talking and explaining and playing and cuddling, is just as equipped to do this vital job.

It’s also self-evidently true that there are many, many families who do not have the luxury of one parent opting out of work, for at least part of the time, to devote themselves to their child’s early years.

Yet the fact remains that plenty of parents do have that option open to them. I’m not saying it’s easy, or convenient, or without repercussions for future career advancement and earning power. But for these mothers and fathers, it is a choice, and it comes down to a toss-up between what is best for them, as individuals, and what is best for their child. They are entirely free to make this decision.

We need to be honest about that choice and its implications, and not obfuscate it with comfortable lies.

Ironically enough, it is this wilful denial of the truth that increases a full-time working mother’s sense of guilt when she drops her baby off at the baby-farm. If she could simply admit that she has chosen to put her own needs first, instead of repressing that socially inadmissible thought, I bet she would go off to work feeling a lot happier.

Bottle or breast?
Another topic fraught with high emotion and maternal reactivity is the question of how we feed our children. Bottle or breast, which is preferable? The answer is clear; there is no need for debate. It is a matter of established scientific fact that breastfeeding is best for both babies and mothers, protecting them against all manner of diseases.

Almost every mother is capable of doing it, given the right support, guidance and encouragement. It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike; once you grasp it, you’ll never forget how to do it.

A recent UK study by Unicef brought the point home definitively: it found that if 45 per cent of babies were exclusively breastfed for four months, and if three quarters of babies in neonatal units were breastfed at discharge, each year there would be 3,285 fewer babies admitted to hospital with gastroenteritis. There’s no arguing with this kind of evidence.

But that doesn’t stop some people trying. The aggressive anti-breastfeeding backlash, led primarily by authors and academics in the United States, claims that women are fed up with hearing that their decision to feed their babies with formula milk – as the vast majority of women here do – is second best.

Strike back
Campaigners urge bottle-feeding mothers to strike back against the intolerable sense of guilt and socially imposed shame that comes with not feeding their babies the natural way.

Of course women should not feel ashamed of feeding their babies whatever way they choose. But neither are we doing them any favours by pretending, in the face of cold clinical fact, that formula milk is just as good an option.

We do mothers a profound discourtesy by treating them like children, seeking to obscure unpalatable facts in a cloud of hyped-up emotion. The answer to the pervasive problem of maternal guilt is not to tiptoe around it, but to trust women to be able to handle the truth.