Being Supermum

By Legal Eagle

Having just given birth to my second child 8 weeks ago, I know it’s not easy to bounce back afterwards. When I was about 36 weeks pregnant, I was sitting in the gynaecologist’s waiting room, reading one of those trashy magazines. There was a story entitled, “How these celebs got their post-baby bodies back immediately.” I snorted loudly and threw it back on the pile. Seriously, the only way is to have surgery. No wonder I never read those magazines.

Apparently it is not just celebs who want to get rid of their baby bodies straight away. I was reading a blog post in The Age on the “Yummy Mummy” phenomenon. Fortunately, pregnant women are now seen as attractive in their own right; but the expectation is that after childbirth, a woman should return to exactly how she was before she had children.

…[R]eports of “pregorexia” – striving to stay thin during pregnancy – remind us of the dark underbelly of these positive changes. And pregorexia is not the only alarming trend surrounding the yummy mummy phenomenon. “Mummy makeover” is the term used to denote the set of radical cosmetic surgical procedures that women increasingly undergo post-birth. Some mothers claim to find a mummy makeover liberating but both pregorexia and the mummy makeover aim to eradicate the maternal body.

Both of these trends demonstrate how the idealisation of youthfulness has crossed into the maternal realm – women are expected to appear skinny and toned whatever their age and whether they’ve had children or not. Ironically, this means that while there has been much “motherhype” of late, mothers continue to sit uneasily in the public eye. It seems that mothers are simultaneously celebrated and eradicated.

Pregorexia and mummy makeovers horrify me. Let’s get real with regard to women’s bodies. Very few women are perfect, and pregnancy and childbirth will have an impact on the bodies of the vast majority of mothers. Maybe some lucky women will spring back into shape straight away; but from conversations with friends, I suspect they are in a minority. We need to get away from these idealised and unrealistic notions of the female body; it makes normal women feel inadequate and unattractive.

But it’s not just the return of one’s body which is at issue. Having a child is a massive change to one’s life, and you can’t just continue on where you left off. I’ve written on this before. Last year, I was somewhat doubtful about the appointment of Cate Blanchett to the 2020 conference two weeks after the birth of her son.

In the last few days, the French Justice Minister, Rachida Dati has come under fire for returning to work five days after giving birth to her first child, daughter Zohra, primarily from feminists who argue that this kind of behaviour puts pressure on women and leads to unrealistic expectations from employers. I wonder whether Ms Dati will regret her decision later. I think it would be immensely difficult to go back to work so soon after having a caesarian section, particularly if she intends to breastfeed. I should also note that she is a single mother, and so presumably is without the support that a partner could provide in these circumstances.

I suppose motherhood means different things to different women. Although the vast majority of women have been supportive of my choices, a small minority have been critical of my choice to work part time, although as I pointed out, it was a financial necessity. Another small minority have been critical of the fact that I “only” went back to work on a part time basis. These critics make me wary of being too judgemental of the choices of others. It is hard enough juggling work, family and everything else, let alone being judged by others.

That being said, I do think that the expectation that any woman can be a supermum deserves to be shot down in flames. In the long run, you cannot do it all. If you decide to devote more energy and time to your career, you sacrifice your family life. If you decide to devote more energy and time to your family, you sacrifice your career. It’s as simple as that. There simply is not enough time to have a fulfilling career and family life. The plain truth is that the same equations apply to men, and that those men who devote their lives to their careers also sacrifice family life (or vice versa, as the case may be). All you can do is try to get the balance that is right for you. In my case, the balance is presently in favour of family life, but I’m also keeping a small modicum of career in the picture. I suspect the balance will tip more in the direction of career when the children are older, but my family will always be my priority.

So: reality check for all new mothers and mothers-to-be out there. Motherhood changes your body and your life in fundamental ways, and there is no way that either can go back to what it was before you were a mother. You can’t do it all and be it all. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

11 Comments

  1. Posted January 9, 2009 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    One thing that DOES return to normal (indeed is better than before the first child) is metabolism of caffeine (and similar compounds in chocolate), which gets shot to pieces during pregnancy.

    And yes, there is still much to do, in the attitudes of general people, employers, AND a supportive system that only governments can create, to allow a better work-life balance at different stages of life.

    Those who are critical of your choices either don’t understand where the balance has to be for you because of your individual circumstances, or perhaps envy your ability to achieve something close to that balance of full heart at home and stimulated mind at work.

    Sometimes it might be better to be a chimpanzees, having the smarts to appreciate family life in full, yet unoppressed by many of the “advances” of living in a financial environment.

  2. Posted January 10, 2009 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    And yes, there is still much to do, in the attitudes of general people, employers, AND a supportive system that only governments can create, to allow a better work-life balance at different stages of life.

    Obviously someone who believes in Santa Clause AND the Tooth Fairy simultaneously.

    Seriously, why should I be responsible for other people’s choices?

    volenti non fit injuria.

  3. Posted January 10, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    SL: said “Seriously, why should I be responsible for other people’s choices?”

    The problem is that some attack other people’s choices … this causes harm via guilt-trip stress.

    The other problem and less tractable difficulty is that many people do /not/ have choices in these matters. I did, even able to work (not at home either) with baby in a sling, one hand running computers, the other holding a bottle.

    Whether you are a parent (especially if single), chronically ill, or caring for a sick spouse, the “system” does not easily handle unpredictable needs for absence from work, job-sharing, etc.

    I’m for systems that improve the choices available for people regarding such important and personal matters, which is consistent (I’m fairly sure) with your more libertarian stance.

    (See the changes to the onus of proof for “unreasonable difficulty” for businesses to cater for the needs of disabled persons, currently in Senate Committee – I think for the next week or so. The hurdles for parents are somewhat similar.)

    I’ve seen quite a few estimations of hunter-gatherer “work/life” balance that put the load for food-in-belly and roof-over-head at about four hours a day. This ratio is a valid benchmark to judge the demands of modern societies, and the decreased availability of parenting choices.

  4. Jacques Chester
    Posted January 10, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    In the long run, you cannot do it all.

    Look out, you’re starting to sound like an economist.

  5. Jacques Chester
    Posted January 10, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    FWIW, this situation was neatly covered under the LDP/Humphreys 30/30 plan — the negative income tax paid $11,000 ($9,000 + $2,000 adjustment for the child) to stay-at-home mothers as I recall. It’s not ‘retire rich’ money, but in a two-income family with a sensible budget it opened up that possibility without creating distortions in the overall system.

    I still think that the 30/30 plan is about as good as it could realistically get in the next 30-50 years.

  6. CFQ
    Posted January 10, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    “It is hard enough juggling work, family and everything else, let alone being judged by others.”

    I agree absolutely. I don’t have any children yet, though I do plan to, but from those I know who do have kiddies, there’s one thing for sure – every single family (whatever form it takes) is different. They all do things their own way in the way that suits their circumstances best, whether that means working, not working or whatever. I was asked earlier today what I think about Rachida Dati’s return to work. I don’t know her, I know barely anything about her – so who on earth am I to judge? Mothers seem to cop it from all sides – how long to breastfeed (if you’re lucky enough to be able to), if you should work, day care or no day care, whether you’ve lost baby weight or not. Every woman has choices she has to make, and they shouldn’t have to take crap from strangers for doing so.

  7. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Posted January 10, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    My wife has produced three babies and she is still perfect. 🙂

  8. Posted January 10, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I have to say I still have a huge amount of respect for JohnH’s 30/30 policy, and now we don’t seem to be dealing with inflationary pressures (although, of course, that may change), the numbers may fit once again. There was a huge debate over at Troppo on the merits of the policy, and everyone — even John — thought that cut-offs were too low… but that was before the credit crunch.

    I do have grave personal difficulties with the idea of state-funded child-care, however, or state-mandated care directed at the employer. Apart from the fact that it’s likely to fail (in the same way that the well-intentioned ADA legislation has failed in the US, or ABC went belly-up over here, as we both discussed in earlier posts), it is quite literally penalising people for not making certain lifestyle choices. I chose not to have children, and I resent having my tax burden ramped up because if it.

    Here’s how it looks to someone working the system — a comment from Michael Sutcliffe over at Catallaxy’s thread on the same topic:

    Let me tell ya, TimT, if you’re a professional guy earning a middle class salary it’s possibly the only way to get on the handout gravy train – but what a gravy train it is! Two young boys, the oldest now 3.5 years, and I’m still milking it for all it’s worth.

    I used to get butt-raped by the tax office, but a couple of kids, salary sacrifice a car or two, and I’m now a ‘working family’ with every right to demand handouts and special treatment left, right and centre. So do some more overtime you single f*cks, I want more handouts!

  9. Sarah Ferguson
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I disagree that we cannot “have a fulfilling career and family life”. I do. After being part time while my son was in his early child care years, now that my son is at school I am in a full time career, very successfully I might add. I suppose I am lucky that he loves aftercare (and loved child care) – to the extent that, if I ever decide to pick him up early he complains and tells me to go away and come back later. And I only have one child (though not through choice). I’m also lucky to have a flexible, supportive partner. I am home for dinner every night and rarely work weekends; and in my view I have a great family life and a great career.

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