Books: Mum's the word on feminism

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LIFE AFTER BIRTH by Kate Figes, Viking pounds 12.99

GIVING BIRTH is still one of the most dangerous things a woman ever does," the obstetrician cheerily informed me shortly before my second child was born. Twenty-four hours later I was coming round from a general anaesthetic, several litres of blood lighter, ranting incredulously "Am I alive? Am I alive? Am I alive?"

Caught somewhere between the delight and the devastation of motherhood, most of us keep our heads down and concentrate on surviving. A growing number of women are beginning to ask why this is. Why are we not told and why do we not talk about the realities of mothering?

Kate Figes's new book is subtitled "What even your friends won't tell you about motherhood". If your friends won't, she will. It trashes your body, ruins your sex life, blights your career, exhausts you beyond belief, makes mush of your brains and putty of your emotions. It transforms everything from the shape of your navel to your pension prospects. "You know you have really flipped your lid," Figes writes, "when you are the only one in the car singing along to ... 'The Animals Went in Two by Two' while the children stare mindlessly out of the window."

Life After Birth combines personal opinion, anecdote, medical information, social history and (a few) statistics. If it suffers from an occasional blast of matronly no-nonsense, it is far more often a sanctuary of revelation about the bafflingly contradictory experience of becoming and being a mother. She devotes a whole chapter to the subject of exhaustion, in which she manages to convey how murderous we can feel towards wakeful infants, but also how tender as we take their small, warm bodies in our arms. In places I laughed aloud in relieved recognition.

Figes's book is billed as "the first thoroughly honest book to chart the changes that motherhood brings". This year, maybe. But hers is only the latest in a recent spate of books that tell it how it is. Maureen Freely got the ball rolling with What About Us: The Mothers Feminism Forgot (Bloomsbury). Melissa Benn's Madonna and Child (Cape), published in January, also set out to re-evaluate motherhood and locate it in a more overtly political context. Last year saw the publication of The Mask of Motherhood (Vintage) by Australian journalist, Susan Maushart, a book very similar in tone, content and message to Figes's. Of all these recently published books, perhaps the most subtle and the most powerful is last year's The Time Bind (Metropolitan) in which American sociologist Arlie Hochschild catalogues the daily lives of employees at all levels of a typical American company to reveal the trade-offs made by working mothers (and fathers) as they struggle to balance the demands of work and home. Only Natasha Walter's The New Feminism (Little, Brown) is out of step: her assertion that the personal is no longer political is absurd, and, combined with her silence on the subject of motherhood, exposes the naivete of her argument.

Taken together, these books present a powerful challenge to the feminist thinking of the Seventies and Eighties. As Maushart says: "The impoverished expectations and life choices of women a generation ago have given way to an embarrassment of riches. The women Friedan described felt as if their lives had been tranquillised. For women in the 1990s ... life is going so fast that we can't assimilate it, let alone enjoy it."

In concentrating on the world of work, feminism has unwittingly devalued motherhood, reducing children to the level of inconveniences and squeezing family life into the margins of our lives. And it has remained silent on the imperative of love and care that binds women willingly to their children. The black American women's movement, by contrast, has long emphasised and celebrated the centrality of motherhood, and is highly critical of white liberal feminism for its failure to do so.

Motherhood can only remain depoliticised so long as women can split themselves and their lives into separate parts. Increasingly it looks like they're not prepared to do so. Surveys of working mothers reveal a high level of dissatisfaction from women who are exhausted by the effort of pushing mothering to the periphery. Women are increasingly unhappy seeing their children becoming the guinea pigs in the social experiment of sexual equality. Creches, 24-hour nurseries, afterschool clubs and holiday play-schemes make it possible for parents to work, but they do little to address their desire to parent. The working environment into which feminism has so successfully led us locks men and women into a structural inequality that cannot be overcome without our children losing out.

Figes writes: "Work is a release from the chores and demands of motherhood. But a working mother often feels her identity as a mother threatened unless she can cram all the hands-on quality time delights associated with 'good' motherhood into every waking hour when she is not working. But then someone has to do the washing, cooking, shopping, cleaning, ironing and hanging up of children's clothes ..."

Despite feminism's best and worst efforts, the experience of mothering remains at the heart of most women's lives. Increasingly, it looks as if women want both feminism and society as a whole to address the toll that mothering under modern conditions is taking on women.