Monday, 7 January 2013

Reading Motherhood

2012's life-changing gift to Vipul and me was our daughter Shabdita, born at the end of the year. A friend asked me if I was now going to write blog posts on motherhood. "No", I'd said complacently. What I've realised, though, is that to not write about the things I'm thinking of, and instead write an 'objective' book or film review is playing at being a blogger rather than blogging. So that resolution, and that complacency, goes out of the window as I write this post.

Ever since we got Shabdita home from the hospital, I've been incessantly reading in whatever little spare time I've had. Reading books, magazine and journal articles, Internet articles and forum posts, blogposts and debate pieces - all on parenting, or usually, on mothering. As I navigate my way through an ocean of information, I realise that parenting, like everything else in the world, is a socio-political and ideolgocial minefield. And just like everything else in the world, the various shades of conflict within it acquire greater resonance as you enter the spectrum.

One of the earliest books I read was The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Everything and Why We Pretend It Doesn't by Susan Maushart. It is available in India here. Greedily, hungrily, I devoured the book page after page. The argument of the book is as follows: motherhood changes everything, in that one's life, after becoming a mother, becomes devoted to the care of a tiny creature that is intially entirely dependent on you for everything. This is invisible labour, in that you can spend an entire day looking after your little one, and many such days like that, and have very little to show for them. Susan is not saying that this is wrong. Most mothers do this out of love. This love involves a loss, that of one's sense of self. What Susan does point out, however, is that this loss of self is undervalued and downplayed by all participants in the process, including the mother. As women talk less about it, most new mothers have to resolve their emotional ambivalnces out for themselves, keep reinventing the wheel, as it were.

Current discursive framing of motherhood conceptualises it as 'one more option that you have', which will not, in any essential way, affect the tenor of your life. You will go on, you will manage everything, and if you can't, then this is because of some individual failure on your part - lack of organisation, lack of time management skills and so on. What this does is that it leaves women (and some men) on a treadmill, running all the time to stay in the same place. I too was part of this rhetorical framing. During my pregnancy, I worked harder at my workplace than I have ever done in my life, just to show myself that motherhood would not change me. I rarely talked about my pregnancy, even with my closest friends, because I did not want to become that woman who could only talk about her pregnancy or her kids. Rarely does anyone say "What I am currently doing is valuable, challenging, exhilarating, frustrating and absolutely exhausting. I do it while majorly sleep deprived, with little ability to focus on anything else, and everything else I do is an achievement that I should be applauded for". Instead, we drive ourselves to do more and berate ourselves for all that we cannot do. To catch up with work, for instance. To write blogs :)

There are also arguments in the book that I disagree with. For example, Susan argues that women of earlier generations expected less from their lives, and so the loss of self did not bother them as much as it does us. This seems to me to be a facile argument. It also marks the book's ambivalence towards feminism. On the one hand, feminism is applauded for having made a lot more choices available to women, and on the other hand, it is critiqued for how hollow these choices turn out to be. I have seen variations of this argument crop up with reference to feminism very often. I feel that this kind of circularity leads us nowhere. Our choices are framed by our being in our world, as they have been and always will be. Feminism is one way of making certain arguments and fighting for certain positions. I believe strongly in some of those positions, and that is why I would call myself a feminist. I will not accept that feminism, and by extension, the choices it offers, are outside social construction, outside human discursive practices.

The good thing about social construction is that we too are small builders in there somewhere, and we can help construct and reconstruct our feminisms. I want to take on motherhood and do it in a feminist way, for myself. I will not stay silent about it and let other women keep reinventing the wheel. I will talk to you about it, as long as you want to listen.