Posts Tagged ‘Motherhood’

Recently, my husband and I burned through S1 of¬†Orphan Black, which, as promised by virtually the¬†entire internet, was awesome. But in all the praise I’d seen for it, a line from one review in particular stuck in my mind. The reviewer noted that, although the protagonist, Sarah, is an¬†unlikeable character, her grifter skills make her perfectly suited to unravelling the mystery in which she finds herself. And as this was a positive review, I kept that quote in mind when we started watching, sort of by way of prewarning myself:¬†you maybe won’t like Sarah, but that’s OK.

But here’s the thing: I fucking¬†loved¬†Sarah. I mean, I get what the reviewer was trying to say, in that she’s not always a¬†sympathetic¬†character, but that’s not the same as her actually being¬†unlikeable. And the more I watched, the more I found myself thinking: why is this quality, the idea of¬†likeability, considered so important for women, but so optional for men – not just in real life, but in narrative? Because when it comes to guys, we have whole fandoms bending over backwards to write soulful meta humanising male characters whose actions, regardless of their motives, are far less complex than monstrous. We take male villains and redeem them a hundred, a thousand times over – men who are murderers, stalkers, abusers, kinslayers, traitors, attempted or successful rapists; men with personal histories so bloody and tortured, it’s like looking at a battlefield. In doing this, we exhibit enormous compassion for and understanding of the nuances of human behaviour – sympathy for circumstance, for context, for motive and character and passion and rage, the heartache and, to steal a phrase, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to; and as such, regardless of how I might feel about the practice as applied in specific instances, in general, it’s a praiseworthy endeavour. It helps us to see human beings, not as wholly black and white, but as flawed and complicated creatures, and we¬†need¬†to do that, because it’s what we are.

But when it comes to women, a single selfish or not-nice act – a stolen kiss, a lie, a brushoff – is somehow enough to see them condemned as whores and bitches forever. We readily excuse our favourite male characters of murder, but if a woman politely turns down a date with someone she has no interest in, she’s a timewasting user bimbo and god, what does he even¬†see¬†in her? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some great online meta about, for instance, the soulfulness and moral ambiguity of Black Widow, but I’ve also seen a metric fucktonne more about what that particular jaw-spasm means in that one GIF of Cumberbatch/Ackles/Hiddleston/Smith¬†alone, and that’s before you get into the pages-long pieces about why Rumplestiltskin or Hook or Spike or Bucky Barnes or whoever is really just a tortured woobie who needs a hug. Hell, I’m guilty of writing some of that stuff myself, because see above: plus, it’s meaty and fun and exactly the kind of analysis I like to write.

And yet, we tend overwhelmingly not to write it about ladies. It’s not¬†just our cultural obsession with pushing increasingly specific variants of the Madonna/Whore complex onto women, such that audiences are disinclined to extend to female characters the same moral/emotional licenses they extend to men; it’s also a failure to create narratives where the women aren’t just flawed, but where¬†the audience is still encouraged¬†to like them¬†when they are.

Returning to¬†Orphan Black,¬†for instance, if¬†Sarah were male, he’d be unequivocally viewed as either a complex, sympathetic antihero or a loving battler with a heart of gold. I mean, the ex-con trying to go straight and get his daughter back while still battling¬†the illegalities of his old life and punching bad guys? Let me introduce you to¬†Swordfish,¬†Death Race, and about a millionty other stories where a father’s separation from a beloved child, whether as a consequence of his actual criminal actions, shiftless neglect, sheer bad luck or a combination of all three, is never couched as a reason why he might not be a fit parent. We tend to accept, both culturally and narratively, that men who abandon their children aren’t automatically bad dads; they just have other, important things to be doing first, like coming to terms with parenthood, saving the world, escaping from prison¬†or otherwise getting their shit together. But Sarah, who left her child in the care of someone she trusted absolutely, has to jump through hoops to prove her maternal readiness on returning; has to answer for her absence over and over again. And on one level, that’s fine; that’s as it should be, because Sarah’s life is dangerous. And yet,¬†her situation stands in glaring contrast to every returning father who’s never been asked to do half so much, because women¬†aren’t meant to struggle with motherhood, to have to try¬†to succeed: we’re either maternal angels or selfish absentees, and the idea that we might sometimes be both or neither¬†isn’t one you often see depicted with such nuance.

Which isn’t to say that we never see mothers struggling – it’s just seldom with their desire to actually be mothers. Maternal angels struggle with the day-to-day business of domesticity: how to deal with teenage chatback and those oh-so-hilariously forgetful sitcom husbands, how to balance the bills and keep everyone fed, how to find time for themselves amidst all their endless finding time for others. By contrast, selfish absentees are usually career-oriented single mothers in high-stress jobs, either unwilling or unable to find the appropriate amount of time for their children. Looking at the gender disparity in the characterisation of TV detectives who are also parents is particularly interesting: not only are the men more likely to have wives at home (to begin with, at least), they’re also more likely to be granted reconciliation with their children later. Contrast obsessive, depressive detective Kurt Wallander, who slowly rebuilds his relationship with his daughter, with obsessive, depressive detective Sarah Lund, who steadily destroys the possibility of a relationship with her son. Compare single fathers like Seeley Booth and Richard Castle, whose ability to parent well is never implied to be compromised by their devotion to the job, with single mothers like Alex Fielding¬†and Gloria Sheppard, whose characterisation is largely defined by the difficulties of striking a balance between the two roles.¬†Orphan Black’s Sarah is a rare creature, in that she falls outside the usual boxes for maternal categorisation, and in so doing forces us to re-examine exactly why that is.

In fact, though their respective shows and stories are utterly dissimilar in every other respect, in terms of her approach to motherhood, the character Sarah most reminded me of was Laura Gibson, the protagonist of SeaChange, an Australian show about which I have previously waxed lyrical, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Though ostensibly subject to the same stereotyping outlined above – Laura was a high-flying corporate lawyer and newly single mother whose decision to move to a small town and reconnect with her family constituted the titular sea-change – she was written with such complexity and feeling as to defy the clich√©. She was eager and well-meaning, but just as often selfish and oblivious. Though she learned to slow down and listen to others over the course of three series, she never became a domestic goddess or a motherly martyr; nor did she magically lose her flaws or suddenly develop a perfect relationship with her children. Instead, she remained a prickly, complex character, quick to both give and take offence, but also introspective, passionate, sly and caring. Like Sarah, she wasn’t always sympathetic, but that didn’t stop me from loving her, flaws and all.

But what of female villains? Perhaps I’m just not reading the right meta, but it’s always seemed a bit glaring to me that, whereas (for instance) there are endless paeans to the moral complexity and intricate personal histories of the Buffyverse’s Spike and Angel, their female counterparts, Drusilla and Darla, never seem to merit the same degree of compulsive protection. I’ve seen a bit of positive/sympathetic meta surrounding Once Upon A Time’s Regina, but otherwise, I can’t think of many overtly antagonistic female characters whose¬†actions and motives are viewed as complex, and therefore potentially redemptive, instead of just as proof that they’re bad women. We think of men as antiheroes, as capable of occupying an intense and fascinating moral grey area; of being able to fall, and rise, and fall again, but still be worthy of love on some fundamental level, because if it was the world and its failings¬†that broke them, then we surely must¬†owe them some sympathy. But women aren’t allowed to be broken by the world; or if we are, it’s the breaking that makes us villains. Wronged women turn into avenging furies, inhuman and monstrous: once we cross to the dark side, we become adversaries to be defeated, not lost souls in need of mending. Which is what happens, when you let benevolent sexism invest you in the idea that women are humanity’s moral guardians and men its native renegades: because if female goodness is only ever an inherent quality – something we’re born both with and to be – then once lost, it must¬†necessarily be lost forever, a severed limb we can’t regrow. Whereas male goodness, by virtue of being an acquired quality – something bestowed through the kindness of women, earned through right action or learned through struggle – can just as necessarily be gained and lost multiple times without being tarnished, like a jewel we might pawn in hardship, and later reclaim.

Throughout history, women’s legal status and protections have been tied to the question of whether or not they’re seen to be virtuous, whatever that means in context. The sworn virgins of Albania were granted equal status with men – indeed, were allowed to live and act as men – provided they never had sex, owing to a specific legal stricture which ascribed female virgins the same financial worth as men, while valuing women less. The big three monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – all boast scriptures and/or religious laws that have, both historically and in the modern day, allotted specific legal privileges to women provided they remain virtuous; privileges which are invariably retracted should the woman in question be seen to have strayed, or become tarnished, or to have otherwise lost her virtue. We see this echoed in modern rape culture, which puts the onus for self-protection on women to such a degree that, far too often, if a woman is raped, her victimhood is viewed as a consequence of poor character – because if she really was¬†innocent, then how did she let it happen? Why was she dressed that way, or out late, or drinking? Why, if she wasn’t already lacking in virtue, would she have been in the company of a rapist?

And so, our treatment of morally ambiguous female characters ends up paralleling some truly toxic assumptions about gender and morality. Women cannot act to redeem themselves independently, because under far too many laws, our need of redemption voids our right to try and reacquire it. Good women can redeem broken men, but good men can’t redeem broken women, because once we’re broken, we lose our virtue; and without our virtue, we’re no longer women, but monsters, witches and viragos.

Which is why, to come full circle, I fucking love the fact that Orphan Black’s Sarah Manning isn’t always sympathetic; isn’t always traditionally likeable. ¬†She is, rather, an antiheroine in the most literal sense: and with all the Madonna/Whore bullshit we’re still caught up in imposing on women, that’s a class of character we desperately need to see more of.

(Note: I’ve only talked about men and women here, rather than third gender, genderfluid and other gender non-conforming persons, because it’s men and women we usually see depicted in stories, and whose narratives therefore form the bulk of our cultural stereotyping. The absence or elision of narratives concerning other genders, however, along with their own highly stereotyped portrayals when they do appear, is a problem in and of itself, and a contributing factor in the way men and women are stereotyped: because when we view gender purely as a fixed binary phenomenon, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make it harder to see beyond the rules that binary has traditionally imposed on our thinking, repeatedly foisting “masculine”/”feminine” values onto successive new characters without ever stopping to think that actually, we might challenge or subvert those norms instead, a blindness which only helps to further perpetuate the problem.)

I’m on holiday. I have things to do. I shouldn’t be ranting.

And yet.

Behold this article in The Atlantic, titled: The Secret to Being Both a Writer and a Mother: Have Just One Kid.

I don’t even need to read the damn thing to be furious. You know why, internets? Because, as per fucking always, the assumption here is that women, not men, are the ones who need to realign their lives around having kids. I am yet to see a single fucking article¬†in any publication, ever, about juggling the work/life balance around childrearing with fathers and fatherhood as the focus. And do you know why that is, internets? Because despite every advance towards gender equality we’ve taken in the past few decades, the assumption is still that mothers in heterosexual partnerships both will and should be there to pick up the slack once the babies arrive, so that daddy’s career doesn’t suffer. Outside of Norway, and perhaps a few other places, the overwhelming social default sets paternity leave as optional, brief and something which fathers are praised for taking. Look how modern! Look how progressive! And, yes, they are, and it’s wonderful we’ve even come that far. Neither am I trying to denigrate the physical cost of childbirth or anything like that: having recently had a child myself, I’m in a pretty good position to say that giving birth is something you need time and space to recover from.

No. What I’m objecting to is the idea that only maternal caregiving is important in those early weeks and months; that just letting mum get on with it, alone, while dad goes back to work, is good enough. By which I mean: if people want to choose to do things that way, then more power to them. (After all, it’s what my husband and I are doing.) But I powerfully dislike the fact that the general dearth of paternity leave and our cultural belief in male incompetence/female superiority re childrearing make it very hard to do otherwise, even if mum earns more money and/or has a higher degree of job satisfaction; even if dad really wants to be on hand.

So when I see yet another bloody article that, right from the headline, demands women limit the number of children they have in order to succeed professionally Рas though the universal introduction of equally distributed paid maternity and paternity leave, a collective cultural removal of heads from arses on the subject of male caregiving, and the ready availability of affordable childcare are all wholly irrelevant factors in any discussion concerning the impact of motherhood on our literary careers (or careers of any kind, for that matter) РI experience an overwhelming urge to set the writer on fire.

And yes, as it happens: I do have a dog in this fight. I’m an only child, a writer and, as of four months ago, a mother of one. I’ve dealt with a parade of health issues following the birth of my son, including a week’s hospitalisation to deal with a nasty postpartum infection, and as much as I love him to bits, the whole experience has left me extremely gun-shy about the prospect of his ever having a sibling. It’s a question I’m more or less constantly mulling over – so close still to his birth, my intuitive, passionate reaction is never again. (On a tangential note: I swear to fucking dog, the next smiling stranger who either asks me when I’m having another one, tells me it’ll be easier second time round or wistfully wishes they had a dollar for every mother they’d ever met who says they only wanted one child but then had more will be met with SEVERE AND BITING SARCASM. By all means, ask me about my plans, but if your choice of words OPENLY ASSUMES I’ll be having another one BECAUSE LADYREASONS and then you look at me knowingly when I offer a contradiction, like my awareness of my own wants and body and lifeplans is IRRELEVANT when compared to your UNIQUE AWARENESS of the fact that¬†SOME WOMEN HAVE MULTIPLE CHILDREN, then I am going to be seriously displeased. I mean, what is this bullshit? For all you fucking know, I’m desperate to have a second child but can’t, because having the first one left me unable to conceive again or because I can’t afford a second round of IVF. Maybe I’m planning on adopting. Maybe I’m in the throes of post-natal depression, and your words are triggering. Maybe my child was the product of a one night stand. Maybe my partner is abusive. Maybe I didn’t want the first child. Maybe my marriage has just ended. Or maybe everything’s fine, and I’m ready for kid number two. The point being, YOU DON’T KNOW. It is not your fucking business how many children I plan to have, but if you ask me politely, in a way that leaves me open to say ‘just the one, actually’ WITHOUT you offering a smug, I-bet-you’ll-change-your-mind rejoinder afterwards, then I’ll discuss it with you. But Christ on a fucking bicycle, STOP ASSUMING FACTS NOT IN EVIDENCE.)

Ahem.

The point being, I’m new to the parenting gig, and there’s a lot of new things to figure out about it. But in the mean time, I’m still trying to get this whole writing career sorted – and so when I see a headline that basically says, HERE, I HAVE MADE YOUR DECISION FOR YOU: ANOTHER CHILD MEANS YOU CAN’T BE AN AUTHOR, then my overwhelming urge is to FLIP SOME FUCKING TABLES.

So imagine my seething temperament when I read on and found that the actual article, written by one Lauren Sandler, is all about a handful of successful female writers who only had one child, with really only two paragraphs – the first and last, excerpted below – to couch the idea in generic terms. Says Sandler:

“She was not a mom,” writes Sigrid Nunez of Susan Sontag in¬†Sempre Susan. “Every once in a while, noticing how dirty [her son] David’s glasses were, she’d pluck them from his face and wash them at the kitchen sink. I remember thinking it was the only momish thing I ever saw her do.” Did Sontag need to be more “momish”? And if she had been‚ÄĒor if she had more children to drop off with the in-laws or the babysitters‚ÄĒwould she have been the same writer? Would we have the legacy of her provocative ideas, in criticism and fiction? The grey-streaked eminence of Sontag aside, how do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?…

These modern female writers all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not “momish”ness‚ÄĒit’s not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal. McCarthy once said in an interview with¬†The Paris Review, “I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that‚ÄĒhow to express this‚ÄĒyou really must¬†make¬†the self.” That’s still true today, for parents, writers, and anyone who believes in the business of living.

Which leaves me with two questions: was Sandler herself responsible for the headline? And if not, what provocatively sexist troglodyte ¬†thought it was a good idea? Inasmuch as the article is about anything, it’s about the relationships Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick and Joan Didion all had with their (only) children and partners, concluding in the final lines that Sontag’s failure to be ‘momish’ was no such thing; that there is no real contradiction between motherhood and a life of the mind. Which, yeah, great. I already knew that. So why throw in a needless thematic guilt trip – not nearly as prominent in the actual text, but nonetheless implied by both the title and the opening paragraphs – about single children being the way to go?

Because that’s what our culture does: it guilts women. We’re selfish and unnatural if we don’t want children. We’re selfish and overprotective if we only want one (and the child will suffer for lack of sibling contact). We’re broody if we want two or three (and each child will suffer to varying degrees because of the sibling hierarchy). We’re repressed broodmares if we want more than that (and not only are we a drain on society, but each child will suffer for lack of individual attention AND because of their place in the sibling hierarchy). None of this palaver ever affects dads, except to bemoan their lack of parenting acumen in one breath while damning their attempts to acquire it as unmasculine and wimpy in the next, without any apparent sense of irony. (Sexism: cutting both ways and fucking things up for everyone since FOREVER! Fun times.) ¬†And so, we have this article, which for the main part is a rather benign, if brief, examination of several successful female writers who just happened to stop at one child each, but which unfortunately takes the unnecessary step of suggesting that the former might be predicated in some way on the latter.

And apart from anything else – apart from being exhausting and offensive and unnecessary – it’s also just plain wrong; or at the very least, selective beyond any possible usefulness. As author Kameron Hurley pointed out on Twitter, J. K. Rowling has three children, Danielle Steel had nine and Ursula le Guin had four. Pulitzer-winning author Jane Smiley noted in the comments that she herself has three biological and two stepchildren. And off the top of my head, I can think of yet more successful women with children, plural: Kate Elliott has three, Anne McCaffrey had three (one of whom, Todd McCaffrey, has taken over her Pern series), Stephenie Meyer has three, and Suzanne Collins has two. But more importantly, is anyone, anywhere suggesting that Terry Pratchett wouldn’t be so successful if he’d had more than one child? Is anyone clicking their tongues and worrying that Nick Harkaway’s career is over now that he’s a father of two? Does anyone think that Nicholas Sparks’s succession of repetitively mediocre and criminally overhyped novels about dying teenagers having sex in the rain can be blamed on the fact that he has five younglings?

No. And you know why not, internets? Because DOUBLE FUCKING STANDARDS, is why.

/endrant

I shall now return to my holiday.

I’m pleased to announce that the forthcoming ebook anthology, Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary,¬†edited by Justin Landon and Jared Shurin, will feature one of my posts from last year. I feel incredibly honoured to have my writing included in the anthology, not least because it will appear alongside pieces by N. K. Jemisin, Kate Elliott, Liz Bourke, Kameron Hurley, Rose Lemburg and Elizabeth Bear, to name but a few! So, yes: there is currently celebratory happydancing in the Meadows household.

On which topic: it suddenly occurs to me that, despite having mentioned the event on Facebook, tumblr and Twitter, I’ve neglected to blog about the fact that, as of 4th February 2013, I’m now the mother of a devious and lovely son, whom I’ve taken to calling the Smallrus. So, now you know.

Image

Being as how I’m almost nine months pregnant with my first child, whom I intend to breastfeed, this is not an impersonal topic for me. Though it’s something I’ve felt strongly about for many years, the issue has now gone from being purely academic to immediately personal – which makes it something I’d like to address in depth.

So, to begin with: breast milk is undeniably awesome for babies. It really is the best thing for them, and as such, an enormous amount of pressure is placed on mothers to breastfeed their children for as long as possible (provided it’s not¬†too¬†long, according to the prevailing cultural mores, as Westerners tend to get freaked out by the idea of toddlers and older kids still feeding from mum, despite the fact that this is¬†by no means a universal hangup). At the antenatal classes I attended, for instance, the midwife told us that our bodies were¬†designed to breastfeed, and that very few women failed to produce any milk at all – the clear implication being that, if we found ourselves struggling, it was likely because we were doing it wrong, and not because, as¬†a recent article¬†so eloquently pointed out, our bodies are meant to do lots of things they sometimes simply can’t, like produce insulin or digest lactose.¬†

What this means is that, despite the many benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and baby, there are myriad circumstances under which it’s either difficult or impossible. For instance: newborns have to be fed every two hours, and can spend up to an hour feeding at any one time – a demanding schedule which, apart from playing merry hob with your sleeping patterns, will likely prove insupportable if you return to work soon after giving birth, if your child wants to ingest more per feeding session than your body can readily produce, ¬†if your nipples are a difficult size or shape for suckling, or if the act of breastfeeding is physically painful.

Similarly, it’s often harder for women who’ve had a C-section to breastfeed afterwards; ditto for anyone suffering from post natal depression, anyone whose child was born prematurely, and anyone lucky-slash-overwhelmed enough to have ended up with a multiple pregnancy. Mothers who take antidepressants or other strong medication that can be passed through breastmilk will either have to abstain or feed only on a very rigid schedule, while anyone¬†endeavoring¬†to cope with transmissable diseases or ongoing substance abuse problems will be likewise restricted. And then, of course, there’s the parents for whom breastfeeding simply isn’t an option: transmen or women without the necessary breast tissue, women who’ve had mastectomies, adoptive parents, gay male couples, parents whose babies can’t latch on, and that apparently rare subset of women whose milk simply never comes in. Add to all this the number of mothers who, for reasons of practicality or personal preference, choose to pump from the outset or go straight to formula, and you have a sizeable number of babies who’ll never be breastfed at all.

And you know what?¬†That’s OK.¬†Because as awesome as breastmilk is, and as lovely as it would be if everyone who wanted to breastfeed was able to do so easily and painlessly, life is far more complex than that, and regardless of the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, feeding them formula either partially or exclusively isn’t the end of the world. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are all monumentally difficult, and given the inaliable fact that no two children, let alone their families, are identical, the idea of¬†tut-tutting¬†people who don’t breastfeed as though from a position of unassailable moral highground is utterly unhelpful.

I say all this as a preface because, far too often, pro-breastfeeding arguments have an ugly tendency to devolve into zealous, moralistic displays of finger-waving, not only at those who object to public breastfeeding, but to any mother who dares not to breastfeed at all. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say: that is bullshit. Breastmilk is awesome for babies, but whatever the scaremongers say, the vast majority of parents are just trying to get by and do their best, usually while sleep-deprived and covered in a thin rime of vomit, week-old cornflakes, talcum powder and crayon. Neither your willingness nor your ability to breastfeed is a magical measure of how good a parent you are, period, and anyone who tries to guilt-trip you to the contrary is probably not a person you should be listening to.

So, with all that out of the way:

I am 100% in favour of public breastfeeding Рnot just because of the health factor for both mother and baby, and not just because breastfeeding of any stripe is difficult enough to merit constant support and encouragement, but because there is absolutely nothing offensive about it. Which is, for me, the key point, because overwhelmingly, objections to public breastfeeding have everything to do with the potential discomfort of onlookers and nothing to do with what it actually is.

I have, for instance, seen public breastfeeding compared to spitting ¬†or urinating in the street – as though it’s a disgusting bodily function that ought to be kept out of sight, out of mind. Which is, frankly, ludicrous: firstly, because milk, unlike blood, spit, shit or piss, is not a bodily waste product; and secondly, because it’s being delivered¬†into a hungry child, and not spilled wantonly onto the street. Perhaps more importantly, though, the comparison implies that parents either must or should have a level of predictive control over their children that’s simply impossible: an adult who takes a sly piss in an alley is transgressing, not only by dint of polluting the street, but by failing to do the sensible thing and find an actual toilet, whereas it’s utterly unreasonable to expect a mother to predict, with perfect accuracy, when her child will next require feeding, to say nothing of the fact that – as is highlighted by the nature of the debate – she doesn’t have the option of simply finding the nearest public facility built expressly for her needs. (And lest you suggest that toilets, too, are suitable for the purpose: see above re, how long individual feeds can take, which necessitates, at the very least, a place where you can sit for a minimum of fifteen or twenty minutes uninterrupted and in comfort – which is to say,¬†not a public toilet.)

Then there’s the decorum objection: that women should¬†of course¬†be able to breastfeed in public, provided they do it discreetly, or¬†classily, or sensitively, or whatever other word best suits the sensibilities of the observer without recourse to the practical wants and needs of the subject. This argument, while comparatively benign, tends to imbue breastfeeding with an aesthetic imperative above and beyond its actual function – as though the necessity of transmitting milk to a hungry infant somehow magically vanishes if you can’t live up to the sartorial expectations of your hypothetical,¬†voyeuristic,¬†judgmental¬†audience. Carried to its logical conclusion, then, what begins as an offhand plea to ‘just do it nicely’ ends up carrying the implicit rider of ‘or else, don’t’ – an attitude which privileges the moral and/or aesthetic sensibilities of a single disgruntled observer over not only the bodily needs of a child, but also over the ambivalence or approval of every other bystander who rightly deems the spectacle (such as it is) to be none of their business. More practically, and in response to the specific assertion that mums should just be able to cover both breast and child with a handy length of fabric: children squirm, getting a baby comfortably attached to a nipple requires line of sight, and it’s sort of difficult to tell when they need to detach and burp – let alone support their necks and bodies – if you’re simultaneously grappling with a wisp of obscuring linen. So, no: it’s certainly an option, but it’s far from being a panacea, and expecting all mums to adopt it for the sake of a stranger’s sensibilities is wholly unreasonable.

Well, so what about the assertion that breasts don’t belong in public? Surely that has some merit, at least? Only, no, it doesn’t, because as a society, we¬†love¬†boobies.¬†Images of them are everywhere¬†– often portraying more bare skin than actual breastfeeding would necessitate –¬†and whatever moralising some people might get up to about the¬†depredations¬†of bikinis, crop tops, boob tubes and any other form of cleavage-accentuating dress, the idea that they shouldn’t be allowed in public is risible. Because realistically, the objection here isn’t to breasts, per se, but¬†rather¬†to nipples; or, more specifically, to the prospect that a woman might flash one in the seconds before her child latches on and suckles.¬†Which is where I return to the waste products argument; because more than once, I’ve seen it suggested that being able to breastfeed publicly is a nefarious form of female privilege – that somehow, the inability of men to urinate outside (or rather, the illegality of their doing so, as it certainly happens) means that¬†permissible¬†public breastfeeding would be fundamentally unfair, as allowing women to evacuate milk while preventing men from evacuating urine is… an imbalance, somehow? Look: it’s a stupid argument – as I’ve already said, expelling waste into the street is hardly equivalent to expressing milk into a mouth – but for those who want to play the Double Standards card: how fair is it, really, that men can go around topless for the fun of it, while women can’t show so much as a glimpse of nipple while feeding a baby? Is that not a greater and far more gendered imbalance?

Which leads us into the biggest argument against public breastfeeding, and the most frustrating: female sexualisation. Because¬†obviously, lady-boobs are different to man-pecs in that the former can provoke arousal in men, whereas the latter are supposed to be sex-neutral, and therefore exempt from the same rules of cover-uperage. Some men even find breastfeeding itself arousing, lending a pornographic sheen to the public act, and seriously, I cannot even finish this sentence, because you know what? That is¬†your fucking problem,¬†hypothetical observer!¬†I mean, do you know how many men find school uniforms arousing, or nurses’ uniforms, or nuns’ habits, or any other specific form of dress/behaviour/activity you’d care to name? Are you honestly suggesting that, because Person A finds Person B to be sexually appealing in Context C, then Context C ought to be publicly prohibited on the offchance that Person A is present when it happens? Are you seriously contending that a hypothetical¬†voyeur¬†has more of right to abstain from self-control – and, subsequently, to complain about unanticipated arousal – than the subject of their voyeurism does to simply exist in the world without an enforced awareness of the sexual peccadilloes of strangers?

Because, here’s the thing: if you sexualise, feel attracted to or are otherwise aroused by someone? That does not mean they are obligated to care, to reciprocate, or even take steps to make themselves less appealing to you. To paraphrase Elizabeth Bennet’s famous reproach of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have every right¬†to act in a manner which will, in their own opinion, constitute their happiness, without reference to you or any other person so wholly unconnected with them.¬†So by all means, be aroused: just don’t expect it to matter to anyone other than yourself, and least of all to strangers.¬†

Beyond all these objections, however, the debate about public breastfeeding invariably ties into the current angry panic about the presence of parents and small children in public spaces – cafes, planes, theaters, pubs – and the extent to which some areas should be designated child-free zones. And while that’s whole other argument in many respects, I can’t quite shake the suspicion that at least part of the pushback against public breastfeeding can be attributed to the widespread belief that any form of parental exceptionalism is wrong: that, as having a child is neither an outward expression of moral superiority nor a public service, expecting any special treatment or concessions on behalf of said child is nothing more than baseless, greedy entitlement. Parenthood (this argument goes) should more rightly be equated with self-sacrifice, and if that means abstaining from adult pleasures while chaperoning your young’uns, then so be it.

And, look: without wanting to come down irrevocably on one side or the other – this being the sort of issue I’m much more inclined to deal with on a case by case basis – the thing that always bugs me about this attitude is the implied belief that certain public spaces rightly and innately belong to the childless, such that entering them with children is, by itself, a species of invasion. And while there are certainly some specific instances wherein that holds true, in general, public spaces are so named¬†because they belong to the public¬†– which means that it’s just as reasonable for a childless person to expect the parents at table three to shut their toddler up as it is for the parents to expect tolerance from the childless person. It’s all give and take, is what I’m saying, and while I’ll be the first to admit to having eyerolled at a clambering, chattering preschooler in a busy cafe, I also dislike the assumption that parents are alone in feeling unreasonably entitled to the use of public spaces, when clearly, the desire to police their usage is itself a symptom of entitlement. So when it comes to kneejerk reactions to public breastfeeding – or, for that matter, kneejerk reactions to the concerns of childless persons – we could all do much worse than to think about who really owns the space we’re in (if anyone), and why it is we so often assume our own priorities are universally the most important.

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others. Public breastfeeding might seem like a comparatively small issue, but it’s one that matters – and one which I wholeheartedly endorse.

Note: this post was originally written in response to a question on tumblr.

My husband and I saw Eclipse at the movies today. (Let the record state that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it was his idea, not mine – I went along with it on the grounds of being hungover.) I’ve only read the first Twilight novel; he’s read none, though we’ve watched all the films together. Beyond this, my knowledge of the series has been fleshed out via numerous and detailed internet plot summaries. Walking back from the cinema, we started talking about what we’d seen, and one way or another, this lead to my mentioning the existence of Renesmee, Bella and Edward’s daughter as of Breaking Dawn, and the circumstances surrounding her birth.

Here is what I know about Renesmee: being a special hybrid child, Bella is only pregnant with her for a month or so, and by the end of the book, the continuation of her rapid physical and intellectual development means that, after little more than a year of life, she resembles a bright, precocious six-year-old. Off the top of my head, I can think of six other instances of Magical Pregnancy and/or Fast-Growing Children in fantasy narratives, but even where the device is used with skill and integrity, I’ve come to realise that it bothers me on a number of levels. At the most basic level, it’s simply too…convenient. Nine months is a long time, and small children are complicated, narratively as well as in real life: someone always has to be with them, and though they can‚Äôt contribute much in terms of dialogue for the first few years, they nonetheless exert a significant pressure on the actions of those around them. In that sense, using magic to speed things up is an understandable reaction. But what are the costs?

Back in the days of Xena: Warrior Princess, there were a series of episodes given over to the story of Gabrielle’s daughter, Hope, the evil child of the dark god Dahak. After gestating for only two weeks, Hope attained the physical age of a nine-year-old in just a few months, going on to reach full adulthood not long after. Given her intended role as a villain, this sped up her confrontations with Xena and Gabrielle, not to mention the fact that, in a TV setting, you will never see a child grow from infancy to school-age unless the show is specifically about that sort of development (Full House) or there’s a reasonable way to keep them off-screen most of the time (Friends). If a baby is introduced elsewhere, however, the writers have a problem: what happens next?

If the whole point of introducing the child is the person they‚Äôre going to grow into, then leaping right ahead to that point certainly makes sense ‚Äď but it‚Äôs also something of a cheap trick. The actions of TV characters are already constrained, certain choices forbidden them in order to maintain the static premise of their shows across multiple episodes and seasons. Confront this normalcy with the prospect of week-in, week-out pregnancy and/or childrearing, and even the least analytic of audience members knows that the threat is hollow: magical or otherwise, something is bound to avert it. Through all the formula and familiarity, the tension in television comes from our knowledge that, even if only once a season, one of the threatened changes will be carried out, forcing the characters to react. Someone will die, a relationship will end ‚Äď but raising a child is too great a threat. We know the writers are bluffing.

Another example: in Season 4 of Angel the vampire Darla gives birth to baby Connor and dies, leaving Angel to raise his son alone. But, sure enough, the passage of a few episodes sees Connor stolen away by one of Angel‚Äôs old enemies, who takes the boy to a demon dimension where ‚Äď conveniently ‚Äď time passes at a different rate. Scarcely has his infant son been stolen than a portal opens at Angel‚Äôs feet and spits out an angry, vengeful teenager in his place. Fastwind through a series of increasingly melodramatic events, and we watch as the now-grown Connor saddles Cordelia with a speeded-up pregnancy of her own, bringing the trope full circle.

Beyond the realms of television, there are novelised instances, too. In Christopher Pike‚Äôs The Last Vampire series, the main character, Alisa, carries and gives birth to a powerful, demonic and fast-growing daughter, Kalika, in the space of a few months. Though not evil, the same is otherwise true of Blessing, the daughter of Liath and Sanglant in Kate Elliott‚Äôs excellent Crown of Stars series, though this is the only instance of the trope I find palatable: nothing is circumvented because of it ‚Äď in fact, it makes things more complicated ‚Äď while Liath‚Äôs absence forces Sanglant to raise and protect their wilful daughter alone. In this iteration, it also helps that Blessing herself is a more realistic mix of childishness and maturity: her body might have developed quickly, but unlike Meyer‚Äôs Renesmee, she is still as naive, demanding and impatient as any toddler, and not just an angelic miniature adult. By contrast, the seven children of Snow White and Bigby Wolf in Bill Willingham‚Äôs Fables graphic novels progress from infancy to middle childhood in the blink of an eye for seemingly no better reason than that they can, a shortcut that allows their mother to continue her normal working life almost unimpeded. Rounding out the examples is the Icarii race in Sara Douglass‚Äôs Axis trilogy, all of whose offspring are sentient even before birth, able to communicate cogently via magic with both parents, thereby rendering the usual childhood troubles moot. This is possibly the weakest example, but even so, it is an instance of wherein normal human difficulties ‚Äď such as parent/child communication ‚Äď are erased with magic.

In each of the above instances, some explanation is given as to why these children grow so quickly. But even where that reason feels plausible, it also, with the notable exception of Elliott‚Äôs contribution, makes me sad. Because ultimately, what it seems to say is that motherhood ‚Äď the process of carrying, birthing and rearing a child to an age where they are capable of walking, talking and learning on their own ‚Äď is incompatible with a mother having separate adventures at the same time. That these parts of childhood must be removed from or circumvented in narrative, not because they might make for dull reading, but because they will inevitably curtail the actions of both parents (and particularly mothers) to such an extent that the story can no longer take place. That a fantasy heroine cannot be both a heroine and a mother at the same time; or at least, not a mother to small children. That it must always be one or the other.

Whenever it is that I have children, I hope that I‚Äôll do my best by them. I don‚Äôt want to be selfish, neglecting their wellbeing and happiness for the sake of carrying on my own life as if I‚Äôd never had them, or as if they were no more than conversation pieces who‚Äôd changed me not in the slightest. But I refuse to believe that my own life, such as it is, will entirely cease to be. It will change, yes, in order to accommodate a different set of priorities, and I will change, too, because how could I not? It certainly won‚Äôt be easy. But in real life, parenting has no ‚Äúskip to the school years‚ÄĚ option. And every time I see a fantasy story take that route, a part of me worries that what I‚Äôm seeing isn‚Äôt just an easy television trope or narrative shortcut, but a warning about the perils of my future life.

Right now, it seems to me that children are an adventure in and of themselves, and maybe we in the fantasy business are doing a disservice to that fact by too often taking the easy, magically-aided route as regards the formative years of their upbringing. Alternatively, I‚Äôm being ridiculous and oversensitive. But even if I were given the choice, I think I‚Äôd prefer to slog out those early years and know my future children better than to press a button and have them be ready for school. Which, ultimately, seems to be the biggest cost of this trope ‚Äď a loss, not of time, but family.

Despite the vehement protestations of my formerly nine-year-old self, chances are that I’ll have kids of my own at some point in the future. Even were that not the case, I’m still the kind of gal who routinely plunges her head into the ice-cold waters of the blogsphere, and am therefore reasonably up to date on the current furor vis-a-vis motherhood. Specifically, the fact that nobody seems to know what to make of it. As Lynn Harris points out, a lot of hate for the feminine side of parenting is being bandied about by non-parents; Emma Gilby Keller is making the case for women who haven’t heard the ticking of their biological clocks and refuse to see this as a personal failing; Gen Y mum Nicole Madigan is, not unreasonably, fed up with being treated as though mothers as a demographic are still entrenched in the 1950s; and more than one person is wondering about how children should (or shouldn’t) fit into the public sphere. No matter whose side you’re on, any discussion of modern motherhood seems to imply a certain amount of outrage, anxiety and general handwringing, which, given that the prospect of giving birth is already terrifying, let alone being responsible for a tiny helpless being encoded with an unspecified, potentially lethal mix of yours and your partner’s DNA, is about as close to notions of ‘helpful’ or ‘comforting’ as the Oort Cloud is from Earth. Which is to say, very fucking distant.

I’ll admit to being fascinated by the whole malarkey – not just because I’m an opinionated snark, or because the entire buisness reeks very faintly of rubbernecking, but because it’s something in which my future self is, presumably, invested. Like everyone else, I want to know how to do this right, but despite my historical belief in the idea that moral/social absolutes are arbitrary if necessary human constructs rather than universal fixtures, it is still something of a rank shock to discover that there is no inviolable Way of the Parent, let alone Way of the Responsible Adult. Except for that part about not sticking forks in electrical socks, which, really, is only common sense.

But I digress.

The point being, there’s a lot of parenting turmoil to wade through, most of it directed towards or inflicted upon mothers themselves. And while I’m hardly about to cut in on the stroller-bashing queue, I think I’ve finally pinned down what makes me, personally, uncomfortable about the whole buisness. It’s not the idea of the Yummy Mummy that stings, although I dislike the emphasis it puts on what are frequently unrealistic standards of beauty. It’s not the helicopter, cotton-wool parenting, either, although it makes both my inner sixteen-year-old and my outer twentysomething roll their eyes. It’s not even the obnoxious, ignore-the-kids-as-they-go-on-a-public-rampage non-approach to parenthood, or the designer stroller brigades. I might lament each one in turn, but they’re not trends I feel personally threatened by: call it crazy, madcap optimism, but I’d like to think that whatever neuroses I develop as a consequence of motherhood will have less to do with social ephemera than the quirks and peculiarities of my own offspring. No: what makes me edgy in all of this is the idea that motherhood has once again become a lifestyle.

It’s a thought which simultaneously intrigues and repulses. On the one hand, everyone has the right to choose their own life. Who am I to criticize anyone for wanting the best for their children, or for taking pride in the process? Feminism has failed, and failed roundly, if it says that a woman ceases to be a feminist the moment she decides to be a stay-at-home mother, or if she cares about the type of stroller in which she perambulates her child. But on the other hand, it feels as though the current argument that children should comfortably pervade every facet of adult life – pubs, restaraunts, movies – is a reprimand on the notion that parenthood is something adults might want to take a break from. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be easy for parents to take their children places, but even within the realms of shared public space, some areas – like parks – are more intuitively child-friendly habitats than cramped pubs. Children aren’t a disease or a nuisance, some squalid facet of humanity to be sequestered from polite society until their debutante ball: they are people, they are important, and every adult, no matter how vociferous on the subject of ‘breeders’, was one once. But neither are children accessories, undetachable scions that can’t be left off the parental radar without risk of permanent personality failure.

It’s a mess, in short, one we all have to sort through in accordance with our individual beliefs and intuitions, which goes some way towards accounting for all the different types of motherhood on offer. Sometimes, in the absence of absolute moral certainty, you just have to agree to disagree. But it’s the lifestyle element of modern mothering I baulk at: because lifestyles are all about appearances, and if there’s one thing I think childhood and parenting – and life in general, for that matter – shouldn’t boil down to, it’s an emphasis on how things look to other people, as opposed to how they actually work. And yet, this is exactly what I end up doing: looking at other mothers, who are after all the only rubric available, and judging, via their appearance, how likely they are to be engaged in the persuit of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle as opposed to motherhood-in-general. If I mistrust designer prams, Yummy Mummies and kids on parade, it’s because I worry that these are the trappings of motherhood-as-a-lifestyle, and while they certainly can be, particularly in conjunction, they are not definitive indicators. They are the accessories of stereotype, not its core. But with mothers and motherhood now so visible in public – which is a different part of the debate in and of itself –¬† it is frequently the case that these external signs are all we have to go by.

We are, in short, trying to find a definition for modern motherhood that suits. Women are juggling children and careers, personal lives and dedicated play schedules, the desire to spend time in adult company vs the practical difficulties of foisting one’s offspring off onto anyone else, even for an afternoon, in a climate where childcare costs approximately nine zillion squared to the power of sod off. We are having children at older ages, where an increased amount of disposable income to spend on the trappings of childhood – clothes, strollers, toys – often equates to time poverty, resulting in guilt and the desire to take the kids out wherever possible, even where that means sandwiching adult social time into a playdate at the local pub. And, as was ever the case, there is no easy answer. Society has changed, and mothers, intentionally or not, are changing with it. There is value in trying to stick up for what we think parenting should be, but if all that means is talking about the Good Old Days and judging by appearances, it won’t get us very far.

Oh, come on, Queensland – women who don’t breastfeed are¬†more likely to neglect or abuse their children? The fact that you’ve managed to correlate these two things does not mean that one is¬†directly responsible for the other. Many women choose not to breastfeed: some for medical reasons, some out of personal preference, some out of necessity. The fact that abusive mothers go down a similar path, however,¬†is not a rational choice, because for whatever reason, they are already emotionally disconnected from their children; and if this disconnect is caused by external or pre-existing problems, then breastfeeding will not solve them. In fact, if those problems concern substance abuse, alcoholism or chain-smoking, then breastfeeding could well harm the child in question. Fancy!¬†

So, no, Lane Strathearn: promoting breasfeeding is not a simple and “cost-effective” way of¬†preventing abuse and neglect. The act of suckling a child will not cure post-natal depression, alcoholism¬†or¬†nicotine addiction, nor will it negate the consequences emotional trauma, poverty, single parenthood¬†or poor education. Those are many and various battles; none of them simple. By all means, promote breastfeeding in public; educate women about their choices; help addicted mothers come clean. But don’t¬†lay guilt on good, happy,¬†bottle-feeding¬†mothers¬†by¬†wielding¬†poorly reasoned conclusions about their propensity for child abuse.

That kind of idiocy helps no-one.