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'Motherhood doesn't require a mandatory personality transplant'


Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

I've always liked Maia Dunphy, but when she recently said she was taking on the "pureed pawpaw and kale chip brigade", I damn near wanted to have a baby with her myself.

Finally - finally - someone has spoken out against the cult of motherhood.

"Some women are just expected to naturally cope, naturally deal with parenthood and the burdens that come with it," Maia has said, launching a blog for "women who just happen to be parents".

"I can tell you from my experience that it's not like that. My identity, our identity, is being blurred from this top-view narrative on how we should behave as women, as parents."

Now, I'm no expert on parenthood or its many narratives lurking online, but I gather this is a novel viewpoint. When women become mothers, they are meant to take the role on with slavish devotion, endless love and supreme gratitude. A normal person's reaction to getting pooed on, feeling lonely or low, missing one's old life, or sleepless nights… well, it doesn't usually get a look-in.

New mums are meant to enjoy, revel in or put up with every fart, tantrum and milk-stained top. Those who don't, often admit to feeling a bit lost at sea.

Sure, these are gripes that have been articulated by new mums in the past, but there has always been an undercurrent of tolerance and stoicism. Until now, no one has ever called our motherhood for what it really is; one part lovely to several parts pain in the arse.

So, why do so many women buy into the idea that becoming a mother makes them a beatific, serene, saint-like creature? I've watched women disappear into themselves, their essences as ambitious, funny, dynamic, slightly naughty women replaced by, as Maia rightly attests, talk of kale chips.

As best I know, motherhood doesn't require a mandatory personality transplant, but several women voluntarily sign up nonetheless.

Maybe, just maybe, it's because of the stranglehold that the Irish Mammy trope has had on our culture: a fearsome, indomitable woman obsessed with the immersion and tea cloths and the weather. Down the years, we've not really come across women with inner lives and careers and plans to travel and have adventures, and "just happen" to be parents. Motherhood takes supremacy over every other role; if not, you may as well be Joan Crawford.

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Recently, I went to a friend's house; she has children nearing adolescence. In front of them, I regaled a tale from our youth, when we went to a music festival and got into all manner of scrapes.

Turns out it was a major transgression to bring up those misadventures from BC (Before Children). The mischievous, lairy young woman I knew did not rub along well with the mother who now has a "thing" for Avoca tablecloths.

Another pal recently said the unsayable: that if she had her chance all over again, she's not sure she'd even become a mother in the first place. "I adore my daughter but… my God, no one told me it was going to be like this," she admitted.

The baby, latched onto her breast, filled her third nappy in an hour. My friend gave me the sort of look that said she'd rather be doing anything - anything - than this. She felt as if she was putting words to something unconscionable; to me, it seems like a normal, fully human reaction.

This code of silence, where mothers sometimes put aside their very human and real gripes, is not just stifling to mothers - it also creates a wider chasm between those who are parents and those who are child-free.

Because people don't talk about it with candour and honesty, there is so much I, as a non-parent, don't get.

Why are children so worshipped and venerated these days? Why is it that four year olds - who can plainly fit on an adult lap - get their own seats on a packed commuter bus or train? Why is it that when I ask a mother how she's doing, she'll respond with: "He's great… two teeth now!"

Why, when I go to a mother's house, it's near impossible to have an adult conversation (we were unceremoniously chucked into the back garden when visitors came over; nowadays, house visitors are expected to applaud and coo at kids as though it's seal- feeding time at the zoo)?

Why do we talk for an hour about sleeping patterns, breast pumps and cradle cap?

Why, when I decline an invite and give seal-feeding time a wide berth, do I get a response along the lines of, "Oh, the baby was really dying to see you"? Great and all company as I am, I sincerely doubt that very much.

And why do other mums post on Twitter or Facebook every gurgling non sequitur out of their child's mouth as though they're raising the Dalai Lama?

We all did and said stupid things as babies. This is nothing new. Prattling on about it ad nauseum is shameless narcissism on a par with duck-faced gym selfies.

What some people think is the all-consuming insularity of parenthood is just self-absorption in a nicer, socially-accepted package.

A word in your shell-likes: the. Rest. Of. Us. Don't. Care.

I'm at a loss when confronted with situations like these. But I wish that I understood my pals who are parents more. Of course, I am thrilled that they've paired off and birthed children: it's a beautiful thing, poo notwithstanding. And I want, more than anything else, for those kids to grow up healthy and happy.

Hopefully a blog like Maia's - honest, candid, human - will bridge the gap. Hopefully a new narrative around parenthood will surface, that encourages parents to remember that there's life outside the baby zone. And for the rest of us, that life inside it isn't all that it seems, either.

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