Maternal Ambivalence and Choice
How do we choose, and how can we choose really?
A short-ish newsletter today because things have been tough recently. I was recording an audio of my book (the first time I have recorded my own audio book) and was stuck in a studio for 4 days with terrible cough and cold. My sound engineer was a trooper for sitting through all my grunting, sniffling and snorting every five minutes. But it is done, and I am waiting to see how it pans out.
I have been ill, possibly facing burn out (we don’t really talk much about it, do we?). If you follow Abigail Bergstrom on instagram, I have really found her posts on this very enlightening. But mostly I think I am struggling mentally and emotionally right now. I have been doing a lot: a few talks every week for the last year, consultancy work, and I have written approximately 500,000 words in the last couple of years. That is a lot of words (for me). They are not all good words, some of them are completely rubbish. I have been trying to work my way through anxiety and stress and the uncertainty of everything happening around us through writing and keeping busy. But, the important thing is that I realise this now while in the past I would have completely ignored or dismissed it, or felt guilty (or lazy) for feeling like this. I was also recently diagnosed with ADHD and so lots of things and behaviour patterns have started to make sense. Perhaps the way I work intensely but then also get overwhelmed by very simple things such as emails, letters and bills makes sense. The clutter makes sense, the tendency to sometimes bury my head in the sand makes sense.
Rebecca Schiller’s book Earthed which came out recently has dealt with her adult ADHD diagnosis so articulately and in a clear-eyed manner. I am yet to read through the whole book, but I admire Rebecca for her honesty and her beautiful writing. I also remember our conversation about ADHD at one of her first Mothers who Write retreats that I attended in October 2019. It was there where I first started writing (M)otherhood even as I was writing a different book when I first arrived there. I miss that space and time that allows me to be creative just for the sake of it, without having to explain, excuse and justify it.
I have been thinking a lot about maternal ambivalence. Ambivalence in general.
Ambivalence: the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.
Did I always want to be a mother? Definitely, maybe.
How would I describe motherhood? Bittersweet.
Ambivalence about having children. Ambivalence about enjoying mothering and motherhood. Ambivalence about being a mother. All of it at times.
Again, an extract from (M)otherhood:
What happens outside this mainstream narrative in which every woman desires so deeply to be a mother, to serve a life’s work? Guilt, anxiety, conflicts between our own desires and society’s demands from women, and our own internalised conflicts and ambivalences, are rarely documented. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote privately in her diary and then went on to publish these words in her much-acclaimed Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution:
“My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence, the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves and blissful gratification. Sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings towards these tiny guiltless little beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance.”
Much with any decision about women and women's bodies, I think there's not much room for women to navigate ambivalence in any choice that they (we) make. There's always a very black and white image, so to speak, around this or the other. There are two choices that are given, you have to choose one or the other very quickly. And it's almost like, we don't have the luxury to change your mind or we don't have the luxury to say that, 'Yes, I'm not sure. Maybe I'll change my mind later. Maybe I won't, but I just want to live with this ambivalence.'
In recent years, we have had more discussion about women being child free. And maybe some taboos have been broken down. I wrote about this in my previous newsletter issue too.
But, there's always this kind of ticking body clock and time's running out. So there is no time to dwell on this ambivalence or to live with this ambivalence, because it's almost like you have to make this very important decision very quickly, very rapidly before time runs out. And I think men have more luxury to be ambivalent. There's no constant pressure. There's no constant questioning from family, friends, well-meaning relatives to say, 'What are you going to do? Are you going to become a father or not?' They don't feel this pull and pressure of impending menopause where they're not born with a certain number of sperm, so it's not going to die out.
I have a piece on male body clocks in next issue of Grazia out on 17 May on the newsstands so do check it out.
So all those kinds of pressures are there, which means that it seems like time becomes compressed within a few years where you have to make this decision.
Women feel this pressure more than men, of course, and they internalise it. So we never know whether it's the pull of the hormones or whether it is the societal expectation that we've internalised, but since a young age, there's always this notion that child birth, or having children and a family, that kind of standard traditional narrative of a family, is the norm or the ideal that everybody has to aspire to. And that's kind of the end goal: to have children. And so, even if we reject it, there's always this notion that we're rejecting the norm, right? Like we're rebelling against something. And so even when we think that we're making a choice, it's not often our choice to make because there's a lot of societal expectations and pressures and norms and ideals around which we have to navigate.
Like I say in my book, from my own experience, as well, there's never this notion that you're allowed to change your mind later; there's always this notion of 'What if? What if you change your mind? What if it's too late?'
I think there is this idealisation of motherhood; there is of course, a loss of identity that you feel because there's this pressure to be a good mother, to be a perfect mother, to perform, and to never say that you regret being a mother. And I don't think when we're making a decision, we really know how motherhood is going to shape out to be, what kind of mother we're going to be. So we only go by what we see around us in the media and social media, and the narrative that we read in books, and there is this black and white thinking again, like there's these two notions of a good mother and a bad mother.
We know about motherhood bias, the motherhood penalty that women have to face in workplaces. We know all this research that mothers have to carry more emotional load and mental load at home, especially in heterosexual relationships, of course, that women have to carry the pressures at home, that women's career suffer more than men's. All those things we know. So women are reading this, women are seeing this, they are fearful of what might happen and how they'll have to sacrifice. It's always a choice between once you become a mother, you have to prioritise the children, you have to prioritise their welfare, their well being, and it's the expectations from not just society, but from ourselves, as well. We internalise those pressures that we should prioritise our role as a mother before anything else or anybody else. And so, again, yes, there is a fear of: you have to choose between ourselves and our role as a mother. We do hear that women can have it all. But we see around us that actually, once they become mothers, you cannot have it all, you have to compromise and prioritise. And it depends so much on what kind of partner you have, what kind of workplace there is, what kind of flexibility you have in workplaces. We know all this stuff about the pay gap in motherhood as well. So yes, yes, the choices are really not ours alone to make. It's not that we're making choices in a vacuum. These choices are being made with all these expectations, idealisation, the pressure, the biases, the prejudices, everything that we see around us and that's why this becomes such a difficult thing to navigate.
There is no rulebook really to tell us how to make this decision, or what kind of things to even consider to make it. It's kind of like shooting in the dark. People try to talk to friends who are in the same position, but in some cultures, people don't have the room to even talk about it, because there's this expectation that as soon as you get married, of course, you're going to have children, how can you not be having children? Because that's not even an option on the table. So there's no rulebook. And so we don't know what factors to even consider. And sometimes it's easier to say, okay, the decision was made for us or taken out of our hands.
I talk about in my book, the whole notion of unintended pregnancy. And sometimes women I've spoken to have said, 'Oh, the decision was made for me. So it was easier in that way. Because I didn't have to find the right time.' Because there's never the best time; what is a good time to get pregnant? How do you know when's the best time to get pregnant? There are more options, now: people can go into single parenthood or single motherhood, you don't have to wait for a partner to be there. So there are all these other options that are there now, and women can make these choices more independently, but I think we still don't know how to make this decision. We don't know what to consider. Nobody can look into the future. And so it's very difficult. If I'm making a decision which is projecting in the future, it's often also very difficult because people are not okay to say, 'Yes, motherhood is hard. I'm struggling being a mother, I'm struggling being a parent.' And when you can't say that, when you can't talk about the fact that some people regret having children, some people regret even becoming mothers, when you can't have the discussion honestly and openly, how do people know what is in store for them?
Disclaimer: I love my children. I adore my children. But this isn’t about how much I love my children but inevitably such a discussion always becomes about that. Why can we not have a discussion about choice and ambivalence, about the sliding doors without making women feel guilty of being a ‘bad mother’. Why can’ they stand side by side? Once again as I say in (M)otherhood:
Is this what I would have chosen if I had given space to my ambivalence?
If I hadn’t gone through with things to make others happy, or lived through some of these decisions like a dream, of letting life just happen to me, and seeing where it took me? I don’t know the answer to this.
Does this mean that I love my children any less, less fiercely, less passionately, less devotedly? I know the answer to this. No.
That’s about it, I think for now. This is not the end of the conversation. This isn’t all that I have to say on this topic, or on motherhood. But for now…
Reminder: I am at Hay Festival along with Caitlin Moran, Joeli Brearley, Laura Bates on a panel called ‘Motherhood’ discussing some of these things, so do find it on Hay Festival website and register to join it virtually!
I hope you can pre-order my book because pre-orders really matter. It is how authors are seen, especially authors of colour and women, who are invisible in mainstream publishing, especially those published by Independent publishers. It is how bookshops decide to support books or not, and how reviewers decide to write about the books. So, if you can share this post, information about the book, or pre-order it for yourself and your friends, it would really help my book (a small drop in the vast ocean).
Here is what some people who read it already have to say about it:
"Absolutely sensational. Revelatory and of its time, challenging myths and ingrained perceptions. I could not put it down. Everyone should read this" -- MICHAEL CASHMAN, CBE, co-founder of Stonewall
"Brilliant, brave, beautiful . . . such an inspiring book" -- ELIF SHAFAK
"Intimate and insightful, Pragya Agarwal expands the meaning of the word motherhood in this brilliant book. This is urgent, essential reading for everyone" -- AVNI DOSHI
"A wide-ranging, searingly honest and timely intervention into the framing of a fundamental and fraught choice, as well as an impassioned defence of ambivalence as part of the human condition" -- OLIVIA SUDJIC
"(M)otherhood is a valuable step towards a literature that acknowledges the breadth and variety of the parenting experience and its cultural meanings. It is touchingly personal and brave" -- ANGELA SAINI, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science
"A book about the disparate forces of duty, stereotypes, pressure, double standards and expectations forced upon women, Agarwal cuts through all of it to examine the multiplicity and complexity of motherhood in all its myriad forms. A moving, urgent and necessary read, ultimately it is a book about love" -- LAURA BATES
"Courageous, tender, painfully resonant and beautifully written - this is such a wise and generous exploration of womanhood and identity, and deserves to be read as widely as possible" -- DAISY BUCHANAN
"A bold, honest and investigative book that aims to empower, educate and normalise much-needed conversations surrounding parenthood, the body and all the bits in between. Smashing stigmas and breaking the silence through the beauty of both science and poetry" -- LAURA DOCKRILL
"Thought-provoking and important. As always Agarwal delves into her self, as well as rigorous research, to open our minds" -- SARA PASCOE
"The book on motherhood we have all been waiting for. Pragya Agarwal has written an essential and deeply moving memoir whose time has come" -- SONIA FALEIRO, author of The Good Girls
Thank you, and much love,