Catherine Mayer

The motherhood dilemma

Social history which men should read

A single survey, elevated by news organisations to scientific certainty, suggests that air travellers may be more susceptible to tears than their earthbound selves. I remembered this on a recent long-haul flight, when I wept not at a weepy, but over Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History. The last book of similar intellectual heft to make me cry toppled from a bookshelf on to my foot.

The emotive power of Knott’s social history flows from her excellence as a writer and storyteller. Back home, Lorna Gibb’s wonderful Childless Voices: Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice stirred my emotions too. The authors’ subject matter is complementary and overlapping. Knott interweaves her experiences of maternity with deep research into mothering across centuries. Gibb, a biographer, novelist and academic, uncovers the lived realities of childless women in different cultures within a memoir of her own childlessness. Their narratives speak to connection and absence, injustice and resistance.

These books aren’t just profoundly moving — they’re important. In piecing together and making visible a vast sweep of female existence routinely hidden or erased, Knott and Gibb reveal central truths about the roots and continuing drivers of gender inequality. Women, whatever their circumstances, have always been damned to disadvantage. We are damned if we do become mothers, damned if we do not.

This was already known to me, through my own research and political activism, and internalised at an early age watching my clever, creative mother struggle and fail to find satisfaction in the mother-housewife role prescribed for her generation. It certainly influenced my decision not to have children — a decision easy enough to make in a country that enables some measure of reproductive choice. In such countries, as Knott writes, birth rates are falling, and no wonder. ‘Somewhere between the fecund past and the parsimonious present, mothering as dilemma, as question, replaced mothering as destiny.’

Some of the penalties that accompany my decision gain focus with age.

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