Tuesday 20 February 2018

Embracing motherhood... why modern women have it worse

Ahead of Mother's Day, Barbara Scully gathers her mum and friends to reflect on their parenting experiences and why modern women have it worse

Sharing a laugh: Barbara Scully and her mother Noirin reflect on their parenting experiences over tea and cake
Sharing a laugh: Barbara Scully and her mother Noirin reflect on their parenting experiences over tea and cake
Preparing a Mother's Day card
Bonds of friendship: Noirin, Barbara, Hetty Doyle and Rita Conroy. Photo: Mark Condren

There are times when I seriously envy my 81-year-old mother. Mainly on Wednesdays, when she is holed up in a cosy café, enjoying the best coffee and pastries in the company of a coterie of female friends.

The number varies from week to week but they are all women in their late 70s and early 80s and their conversations can range from the consequences of Brexit, to Trump, to their own health issues and a smattering of gossip, no doubt.

With Mother's Day on the horizon, I decided to gather a trio of these matriarchs to my own kitchen table to chat about mothering and what it all means. I baked scones and even made a Victoria Sponge in a feeble attempt to recreate the quality they are used to of a Wednesday. Joining me were Hetty Doyle and Rita Conroy, both of whom are in their late 70s, and Noirin Scully, my own dear mother. Rita and Noirin have been neighbours in Blackrock for nearly 50 years but formed a deep friendship when they both worked for the pharmaceutical company Warner Lambert in Dun Laoghaire in the 1970s, where they also met Hetty.

So, are they looking forward to Mother's Day? In a word, no, they aren't.

"My son will phone me up to wish me 'Happy Hallmark Day'," says Rita. Hetty adds that it's a nuisance of a day when families are put under pressure to buy flowers and cards. "If it's a spontaneous thing, not on Mother's Day, you really appreciate that more," Rita says.

But Hallmark aside, how important has the experience of being a mother been to them? "Oh, nothing compares with it," says Rita, who has a son and a daughter. Hetty and Noirin have four children each, and are prompted to recall the moment they first met their babies.

"I remember your birth very clearly," Noirin says to me, her firstborn. "Although I don't remember the birth of the others. But that could have been because on your three brothers I was knocked out, just before the birth." Yes, apparently, that was a thing. Rita had a similar experience. But she does recall being handed her firstborn when she came to. "It was wonderful," she says, adding that she then phoned her husband who was working in Galway at the time. Hetty laughs as she remembers waiting to call her husband as she didn't want to wake him in the middle of the night.

These women all gave birth in the 1960s without their men by their side - none of whom were even in the hospital. Seeing my somewhat shocked expression, Noirin says she was quite happy her husband, my dad, wasn't there.

"Oh God, I'd have died having him there," she says, bringing to mind Robbie Williams' infamous description of watching his wife give birth as akin to watching his favourite pub burn down.

However, Rita and Hetty disagree. "They should have seen what we went through," says Hetty.

Births aside, was motherhood what they expected it to be? "I didn't think too much about it," says Hetty, "I just got on with it, as I had my second baby 13 months after the first - because I hadn't a clue about contraception or anything like that."

Noirin had a similar experience of 'Irish twins' and felt torn between the attention she had to give the new baby and feeling that she might have been neglecting the older one, who still needed lots of care.

"What about your husbands?" I ask, assuming they weren't as 'hands on' as men are today. But my assumption is wide of the mark as Rita tells me.

"My husband was very hands on. He changed nappies, pushed prams, no problem. He also minded the kids every single Saturday so I could have the day off to go shopping." Hetty agrees that her husband of 56 years was equally very good at sharing the caring.

My dad died in 2001. He was 11 years older than my mother, and was most definitely old school when it came to the children. "But I got used to it," she says, "and I liked that I knew the garden would be done and the cars looked after and the bins put out. There was never an argument about whose job was whose." I can certainly see the attraction of that.

These women are all now matriarchs of large families. Noirin has seven grandchildren ranging in age from 29 down to 13. Rita has six, from 10 to 20 years of age and Hetty is now a four times great-grandmother while having 10 grandchildren ranging in age from 33 years to 10. So what advice might the matriarchs give their daughters or granddaughters today? "Be tolerant," says Rita, "both of each other and in general."

Noirin is more specific stating that she would always advise against criticising the in-laws. She also feels that teenagers today should be encouraged to follow their own star more and that there should be a radical lessening in society's obsession with points for college. "Kids might be under less stress if we allowed them to do that," she says. Hetty is altogether more sanguine, preferring not to offer advice, saying: "Life is very different nowadays. I wouldn't feel right offering advice." Then, laughing, she adds: "Besides that, they don't listen to me anyway."

These women all began their adult working lives in an era when they were expected to give up their jobs when they married; something they all did in their early twenties and with only a very hazy idea of how to control their fertility. But as the times changed through the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, they changed too, and that makes them rather unusual for their generation. They all went back to work while their children were still in school and faced some disapproval from other women for that decision. They struggled, as families still do, but none regret going back to work and rejoiced in the freedom it brought.

Do they think that young women today have it easier than they did? "I think they have it harder," says Rita. "They don't give in to becoming a mother. They want to retain their own identity. And I think that can lead to a bit of a battle in their heads. They want to give everything to their children but also everything to themselves. Not in a selfish way. But they feel more under pressure to do everything."

Noirin agrees, saying that today there seems to be huge striving for perfection.

"We bumbled along and it generally turned out fine."

As we drain our coffee cups, the talk turns to how important their female friendships have been, throughout their lives. And they give thanks that Hallmark hasn't cottoned on to that fact yet.

Irish Independent

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