Motherhood is so derided today, writes CRISTINA ODONE

10 mins read


Cristina Odone (pictured) heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice

Cristina Odone (pictured) heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice

The woman in front of me, waiting to cross the road, is pushing a pram. She is in skintight jeans and a figure-hugging jacket and I can’t help a pang of envy: I didn’t look that slim when I’d just had my baby.

As we wait for a gap in the traffic, I peek into the pram. I’m ready to coo — but stop. That’s no baby. Staring back at me is a chihuahua.

I used to think of young women who treated their pets as children as taking a first step on the ladder to motherhood. The truth is, many have kicked away that ladder altogether: for the first time, half of women at 30 are neither pregnant nor have ever had children, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Look among the Mother’s Day cards this year and, apart from the collection implying the only way mum can cope with her lot is by indulging in ‘wine o’clock’, you’ll see a host of coochy-coo images of a young woman hugging a pooch under the banner ‘Happy Dog Mum’s Day’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve trashed motherhood so consistently I wonder how anyone still considers it.

Mothers used to inspire devotion. Children were crucial for survival — an extra pair of hands — and the women who bore them considered ‘blessed’. Artists from Raphael in the Renaissance to the Impressionist Mary Cassatt lovingly captured maternal moments.

The cult of motherhood so defined our culture that having children was a given for girls who, like me, were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.

My daughter, Izzy, 18, sees motherhood portrayed as difficult, dull and draining women of all energy and drive. I try to model positive motherhood, but once outside our home the messaging is deafening: being a mother compromises your career, sex life . . . and pride.

Things have got so bad one UK law firm has appointed a ‘fertility officer’ to try to dispel the notion that becoming a mother will be career suicide.

Watching the popular BBC TV series This Is Going To Hurt, I grew furious at the portrayal of childbirth as torture — the mothers in this dark comedy are almost universally spineless, moaning minnies.

No wonder women’s groups lambasted Auntie for mistreating mothers: if this is what the BBC makes of us, who can blame our daughters for thinking twice about giving birth?

I was equally enraged by the lavishly praised film The Lost Daughter, which won two awards at this month’s Baftas and starred Olivia Colman as Leda, a college professor on a solo holiday in Greece. Leda is portrayed as brave and independent, a rebel with a great cause — self-fulfilment. She found it by dumping her young daughters (and her husband) for her career and an affair.

Whiny and clingy, the little girls are seen as obstacles to mummy’s true self. The worst bit? This film was directed by a woman: Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The pandemic took its toll on both fathers and mothers, who were suddenly multi-tasking 24/7. But media attention focused predominantly (and unflatteringly) on the mothers who waged war against the restrictions imposed by the state, on everything from vaccinations to home schooling.

Cristina Odone pictured with her daughter Isabel, now 18, when she was just four months old

Cristina Odone pictured with her daughter Isabel, now 18, when she was just four months old

Covid also turned childbirth into a trauma, by banning partners from hospital. Doctors Elizabeth Rapa and Louise Dalton, two psychiatrists at Oxford University, have carried out a study showing many young mothers could not emotionally attach to their babies properly because they had felt abandoned as they gave birth.

Even before Covid, they note, two in ten mothers suffered postnatal depression. Forcing them to go through childbirth on their own was bound to stoke mental suffering.

As if all this were not enough, employers have not exactly rolled out a red-carpet welcome for working mums. Three-quarters of mothers now work, but in the full knowledge they will earn about 7 per cent less than male colleagues — more than 15 per cent less if they work part-time.

We working mothers get used to living a double life. I’ve kept shtum about being up all night with a colicky baby, preferring to stifle my yawns in colleagues’ presence rather than admit the reason for my fatigue. I’ve faked a dentist appointment because it’s more acceptable than picking up a feverish six-year-old from school.

And I’ve edited stories about my weekends, pruning children from the image I painted of my free time, lest the (male) boss think I wasn’t ‘serious’ about my career. (Alton Towers? Never! Disneyland Paris? Not in my free time!)

And stay-at-home mums tell even more white lies. In 2022, a mother prepared to forsake her job to raise children lives in fear of social exclusion, says my friend Emily (who won’t let me use her full name for this reason).

‘It was so excruciating going to a dinner party and admitting I’m a stay-at-home mum now I pretend I work full-time for the charity I volunteer for two hours a week,’ she says.

The journalist says we've'trashed motherhood so consistently I wonder how anyone still considers it' (stock photo)

The journalist says we’ve ‘trashed motherhood so consistently I wonder how anyone still considers it’ (stock photo)

Men look resigned if placed beside her, as though dreading two hours’ exposure to ‘nappy brain’. But the catty remarks come from career women: ‘housewives’, ‘hausfraus’, ‘homeworkers’ — ‘what do you call yourselves these days?’

The treatment meted out to those who see themselves as mothers first strikes me as an own goal. Neuroscience shows the first 1,001 days of a child’s life — from gestation to two years old — are critical for cognitive development. Shouldn’t we be praising the mother who invests in raising her child, recognising her sacrifice as an investment in all our futures?

I don’t want to conceal the fact that raising children can be challenging. Teacher, playmate, mediator, cook, IT engineer, wailing wall… mothers must be all these and more.

But these days a mother’s self-sacrifice seems as old fashioned as a music-hall tune.

No wonder some young females prefer the comparatively light responsibilities of raising spoilt and cossetted ‘fur babies’ (formerly known as pets) to the daunting task of motherhood. But I want to reassure them that though the status of motherhood may be undermined, its rewards can never be overstated.

Your child’s expression when you walk into a room; rocking them to sleep after a nightmare; chanting multiplication tables on the way to school; watching your teenage daughter pirouette with joy in your long-discarded party dress that fits her like a glove . . . For sheer joy, nothing matches being a mother.

Even if none of that convinces you, for purely selfish reasons we must put a stop to the mother-bashing. In the UK, women have on average just 1.92 children — which means a shrinking population.

This demographic trend is worrying: the number of pensioners is set to increase by 10 million within 20 years, creating a social care timebomb.

Let’s be practical: if women stop having children, there will be no one to look after us in our dotage. Mum’s the word.

Cristina Odone heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.


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