Monday 20 January 2020

A candid look at the motherhood contract

Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

How to (really) be a Mother

Emily Hourican

Gill & Macmillan €16.99

'How To (Really) Be A Mother' is a catchy and very big claim, especially when your eldest is 10. The shock of new motherhood was bad enough, but Emily Hourican was assailed by media images of the perfect mother, leaving her feeling hopelessly inadequate in the baking department. However, she has done what most people dream of, but put off, writing about the guilt, the fatigue, the sheer joy of young motherhood and the misery of mothershould (a clever new word).

Hourican blames "society" for a lot of pressure on mothers. But society is often neighbours, co-workers, better-off wives in one's circle, the source of idealised images is often glossy magazines, run by women for women and advertisers. Beautiful faces grace the covers, with their gorgeous babies. Perfectly toned bodies with unwearable clothes and ideal homes are featured inside with the 2.4 children. This is the business of women's magazines, a multi-million euro market. Women are paid to write for them, to celebrate other women, encourage and inspire them. It's a female economy; we need to distinguish between marketing and reality when it comes to our own lives rather than wage a relentless battle to keep up with fashion.

Written in a chatty, easy style with flourishes of self-confessed "angry sociology major", Hourican has divided the book into three parts; the first criticises the "How to" books published before hers, the territorial nature of older mothers and the frustration at not feeling fabulous with a new baby. There is a lot in this part on breastfeeding, its convenience, goodness and anecdotes of when it goes awry.

Part two is a memoir of family life in Brussels, growing up in a large house with lots of siblings to play with and tend; sounds absolutely idyllic. Emily's mother, who had grown up in Africa, encouraged freedom and curiosity, banned sweets and cakes, offered dried figs and almonds at birthday parties while Emily longed for white bread sandwiches with processed ham, like the other kids. It is one of the minefields of generational progress, what bits of our mothers do we take with us, what do we leave behind? We only discover these memories when we have children ourselves and even then it is a work in progress.

Gwynnie and Elle come in for a bit of bashing for wearing skinny jeans and chic knits to the school gate, yet they are mothers too, doing their best for their children with a public image that is their income. The fundamental problem with motherhood, whether you are working at home, out of the home, self-employed, freelance, is the sense of losing your identity. We transmute into parents so abruptly there is hardly time to adjust – gone is the selfish freedom of pre-motherhood, in its place the responsibility for a helpless human being, the altered relationship between you and your husband/partner. The change comes as quite a shock to us, not to mention the physical changes to our once youthful body. This is all normal, and Hourican reinforces this throughout her book.

In the final part, she reflects on the mechanics and etiquette of play dates, dressing the part and extra-curricular activities. Essentially, we have to make mistakes and learn from them, not regret them. Much of this is common sense, for instance, the after-school swimming class, the violin class, the ballet, the horse-riding, if your children are too tired to do any homework, and you are getting cross, something has to go, but at least they've tried. Knowing when to call a halt is the key, because kids have to play.

So, new mothers try what you can, just don't take it too seriously and be easy on yourself. In How To (Really) Be A Mother Hourican rightly guesses that things will change from age 12; yes, teenage boys and girls present an entirely different set of challenges.

Motherhood is a lifetime contract; this book will start you on the road.

Sunday Independent

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