Monday, July 11, 2011

The Happiness of Motherhood.

Dalrock has put up an interesting post on a woman who regrets having her children. This woman has attracted a lot of negative commentary and I certainly admit that I don't support her position, but it's a position I've seen rather too frequently in my line of work.

I think that many conservatives, particularly traditionalists, see a woman's role through a polarised light. Women, according to them, should either have a family and stay at home or work and not have a family. Their logic would seem to imply that if a woman decides to have children then the proper thing is for her to look after them.

As I see it, there are several underlying assumptions with this line of reasoning:

1) Women are able to accurately forecast that they will enjoy motherhood.
2) Women are capable of looking after children.
3) Motherhood is an intrinsically rewarding experience for all women, and a woman who doesn't like motherhood has something wrong with her.
4) Good child rearing is incompatible with a working mother.

As someone who deals with a fair amount of post-natal depression (which I've managed to treat rather successfully) I think that many of these assumptions are false and are contributory to a lot of female misery.

Before I get into the grist of my argument I would like to state that motherhood today is given a bum deal. Lots of women who have taken on the role of a stay at home mother feel that they have taken the lesser choice in life. Women, being much more socially attuned and susceptible to social pressure than men, feel acutely their degree of conformity to group norms. Our media constantly blare the message that the way for a woman  to achieve true happiness is to live life riding the cock carousel whilst slaving away in an office cubicle, eventually becoming head of useless widget production. Women are constantly being sold this lie.

On the other hand, conservatives have, in mantra like fashion, repeated that the path to happiness lays in staying at home, cooking and cleaning up after the hubby  and the kids.  Unfortunately, there is actually a great body of evidence that many women find this existence miserable. The conservative response to this is similar to liberal response to HBD evidence, namely to bury their heads in the sand and to deny any problem with their conception of womanhood, rather they blame to women for not fitting to their conception of womanhood.

Fifty percent of my medical course was composed of women, usually women who had been  groomed in high school for a "power girl" existence. These were women that were going to take on and change the world. The funny thing is though, is that the vast bulk of them, once they had gotten married and had children, actually wanted to stay at home and look after the children.(Much to the disappointment of their husbands) To their surprise, they found the experience of motherhood enjoyable, even though they did not expect it to be. On the other hand, many of my patients (especially IVF couples) idealise motherhood so much and prepare for it diligently only to find the actual experience of motherhood a disaster. These are the ones prone to post natal depression.

Maxim No 1: Most women do not know if they will enjoy motherhood until they actually experience it.

The idea that all normal women will naturally enjoy motherhood is a falsehood.  It would appear from my experience that women form a spectrum, with one  end of the spectrum forming the natural stay at home mums whilst the other end of it forms the women who find staying at home with the children psychologically difficult to bear. This latter group of women aren't necessarily feminists, I've dealt with a fair few traditionally minded women who found the actual experience of mother hood incredibly psychologically difficult.

The task of the conservative is to orientate his thinking toward reality, and the reality is that a lot of women are not suited to being stay-at-home mothers. One of the great "fault lines" in conservatism was in the assumption that women are happiest when they are at home.(This was a fault line exploited by the liberals)  I really can't emphasise enough how much this state of affairs is not a result of an ideological position but rather a "natural" feature of the women themselves. 

The second conservative misconception is that women are naturally capable of looking after children. The sad fact is that a lot of women are hopeless for a variety of reasons. And whilst some of this can be remedied through peer education and inter-generational experience some women just can't seem to do it, despite their best efforts.

Maxim No 2: The natural skill of motherhood is not evenly distributed amongst the female population.

The third misconception is that all women enjoy the experience of motherhood and that there is something wrong with them if they don't. The pleasure we experience as a result of anything is a consequence of how our brains are hard wired.  You can't make yourself enjoy something, you either do or don't. As a result of a terrible university sculling competition  accident,  I cannot enjoy beer. No matter how hard I've tried I instinctively wretch at the taste of it. My brain "wiring" has been changed. Similarly, obesity in females is unattractive to many men, and they can't get over it.  The repulsion to fatties is not a choice but a fact.

Maxim No 3. The pleasures we get from things are not a choice. 

Women who don't get pleasure from motherhood are no more bad than men who do not get pleasure from looking at fatties. Most of the motherhood experience under the age of five is a grind. The problem is that many women feel that they have to enjoy it, the consequence of this is that women who are unhappy about being stuck at home with the kids also are unhappy as a consequence of the near constant guilt that they experience.

Maxim No 4: A working mother is capable of being a good mother. Many of the best mums I know  work. What separates them from the neglectful careerist is that the  good woman takes an active interest in the child's care even whilst she is working.  These women work because they are better at working than being stay at home mums. What they do in effect is "purchase" the skill, patience, temperament, etc. that they don't have. Skills they probably did not realise they lacked until after the baby was born.

The inability of conservatives to see that women are not a homogenous block, yet form a spectrum from those naturally gifted as mothers and others naturally gifted as workers  has been one of the great disasters of conservatism. A disaster that was exploited by the liberals to great effect.

With regard to the woman mentioned in the article, I think she was wrong to regret her children but I'm not going to criticise her for not enjoying motherhood. I think people should be less critical of her since even though she did not enjoy motherhood she stuck at it to the end.

The problem with this woman is that she is good but shallow. Good in the sense that she is a woman of her word, shallow in the sense that she blames her children for the choices that she made. Choices that  she thought would make her happy and yet didn't.


Brandon said...

You know, this is something I struggle with as a traditionalist conservative and believer in patriarchy. The question is, how do we accomidate women who aren't cut out to be mothers and still have a society centered around strong families? As your post mentions, the need for social and peer conformity is great in women so they most likely will end up following what their sisters do or what society says they should do. Currently, that is anything but family and marriage.

Also, I remain skeptical of the "good working mother" meme as this seems to create divided loyalties at best. Many working mothers, in fact most in my experience, are simply exhausted. My own mother certainly was. This exhaustion eventually leads to neglect in certain parts of life whether intended or not. "Having it all" is simply too much overload.

It's a complex problem. One of those dreaded "grey areas" that us conservative really despise.

JMSmith said...

I think I'm more of less of a mind with Brandon. I'd like to live in a society where women who are truly unsuited to motherhood and domesticity are accommodated, and honored as individuals when appropriate, but where domesticity is clearly the ideal. I recall discussing this general challenge for conservatives at this site some time ago. How do we tolerate deviations from social ideals while at the same time preserving the ideal?

SP: Your observations match my own, although I've known many more women who were disappointed by the career women ideal than by the domestic ideal. Your remarks make me wonder, though, if we are not giving too much weight to enjoyment of performance of our responsibilities. I've known people who get psychological satisfaction from cleaning the bathroom or mowing the grass; the fact that I don't doesn't exempt me from these duties. Some men take great pleasure in their work; others don't, but nevertheless stick to it out of duty and necessity.

I'm deeply involved in raising my children, and they give me a good deal of joy, but I'd be the first to admit that a great deal of child rearing is extremely boring and unrewarding work. So maybe we conservatives should lay somewhat less stress on the psychological rewards that attend conformity to social ideals. I tell my own children that it is sometimes "fun" to do our duty, and when it is, that is very nice; but very often it is not.

Anonymous said...

The primary thing women miss as stay at home mother's/career worker is the women's grouping up and hanging out. If you check hunter gathers and other nomadic tribes their women tend to do their daily duties as groups who talk and play status games while they work.

A women staying at home and a women working to hard to chat both takes away from that enjoyment and normal group dynamic. I don't know how to fix this any more than I we can fix that men have to spend their days doing such unnatural things too.

Actually now that I think about it women might be happiest if they lived in a more communal setting with several families sharing cooking and other facilities. Of course that would destroy the nuclear family setup that's worked so well western world.

Dalrock said...

Thanks for the link!

I don't read the woman in the story as simply having chosen the wrong fork in the road. Nothing makes this woman happy. She doesn't pine away for the promising career she gave up, and she doesn't say she loved the first three years they were married until they had their first child. She complains that when the children were young she was alone and bored, and then complains that she never had time to read... This is all just boiler plate "I'm not haaaapy because I'm a woman and the world is unfair". As several commenters have pointed out she is only 50, and could pretty much pursue whatever dream/hobby/etc she wishes. But what she wishes is for others to feel sorry for her, not to fix her situation.

I agree that we shouldn't be pushing women into a path they won't enjoy. But somewhere along the way women need to take ownership for their choices, just like men do. Ideally this should be before they have children or spend a fortune on an expensive degree. Happy single childless career gal? Great! Happy married stay at home mom? Great! Happy married mom who finds a healthy balance between work and motherhood? Great! Bitching carping married woman complaining about being trapped in marriage and/or motherhood, not so great. Same goes for bitching carping career woman complaining about a lack of quality men looking to marry an aging career gal, etc.

After all men have similar options, but once they make an agreement (marriage, fatherhood, etc) they are expected to stick by it and not complain.

The only part I disagree with is the premise that parents who aren't good parents can "buy" what is missing. If they know upfront they aren't cut out for being parents, then why have kids? If they have one and figure this out, why have more? You can't pay someone to love your kids. If you can't give kids what they need, simply don't have them. Anything else strikes me as vanity.

Simon Grey said...

@SP- I think women's problems in this department (career vs. family choices) stem in large part from two things. First, women (and all people, really) can't predict future happiness. Second, women, more than men, seem to have a hard time grasping the concept of tradeoffs.

As to the former, women do need to be told that there is a possibility that the won't be happy as a career woman even though they feel like they desire it. And it's entirely possible that they won't be happy as a homemaker even though they feel they desire it. They may even be happier as a homemaker even though they desire a career, or they may be happier with a career even though they desire to be a homemaker. It simply seems like both conservatives and leftists toss their propaganda at women, without regard to the factuality or incompleteness of their claims. This is, then, a disservice to women, who may thus end up choosing to pursue one option without really ever considering the other fully.

As to the latter, it is important for women to understand that, for the most part, careerism and homemaking are mutually exclusive choices. There is little point in spending five years at university and acquiring $50k in debt if one is going to tend to her children at home. And of course, there is little point in foregoing education if one plans on pursuing a career. Thus, it is crucial for women to determine what they want to do in life and commit themselves wholeheartedly to it.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to predict what will make one happy twenty years down the road, ad so it is admirable that the woman Dalrock quoted had enough character to stick with her decision. She is evidence, as you noted, that not all women will find homemaking to be a fulfilling life. Women should then consider whether this is the case for themselves as well, and plan accordingly. They should also understand that trying to juggle a career and homemaking is a fool's errand for most women. Simply pick ether a career or homemaking and dedicate yourself to that would be my advice.

The_King said...

"What is the solution to all of women's problems?"


Fredrick Nietzsche

Mandatory paternity testing for every birth should decrease potential divorces and women sleeping around. Just like Rome, a bachelor tax could also encourage a return to traditional moral values and family structure.

Gorbachev said...

A bachelor tax didn't work in Rome; men simply married and bailed out by having dozens of mistresses and visiting the various types of brothels on a regular basis.

Most Roman men gave up. A few were prosecuted for the charge of being bachelors and not paying the tax, but the tax was inconsequential.

It's this kind of conservative nannyism that just doesn't work. Stop shoehorning men into roles that society has rendered toxic - even deadly dangerous. You can't fix society by putting the burden on men, when it's not men who are causing the problem.

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Anonymous said...

There are many women today who do not enjoy motherhood but I believe that is because society is no longer centred around the community. These are the types of women who work to escape the loneliness of being a stay at home mother in order to maintain adult friendships in the work-place. I believe if they could maintain those friendships in a domestic setting (as was possible in the past) the majority of women would be content with full time motherhood.

There are very few people, male or female, who are in lines of truly meaningful employment - most of us work because if we didn't, we'd die. Now with that more accurate assessment of the working world (and not one destined to produce satisfaction in its own right) it is fair, in my opinion, for society to insist the majority of women raise their children properly. Those individuals that are truly driven to some economic calling should be free to do so, regardless of their gender. I do not believe however that they represent much of a minority. Most of us just bum without any real aim and as such need to be harnessed to some better purpose or (dare I say it?) duty.

Again the 'useless mother' is almost entirely a modern development - the majority of women in the past (prior to the destruction of the family) would have been competent. Equally so there is a fashion today for claiming incompetence, or certainly unwillingness to work at, anything pertaining to traditional female skills (the irony here of feminism having created so much disdain for all things traditionally female).

Moreover, we see the institution of full time mothering in such unrealistic ways not allowing for time spent in personal pleasure or hobbies, again things which young women would have learned to take time to do by their own mothers and so facilitate a life that was not solely one of domestic drudgery. Full time mothers in the past were very active members in the local community both socially and politically. We fill that free time now with television and wonder why we're depressed.

The insistence that everyone should be happy every moment of every day is the biggest problem here - do men enjoy their work whilst providing for their families? Is that work seen as freedom or duty? For the majority it is undoubtedly duty.

We are a self-absorbed bunch today and duty is no longer part of our collective vocabulary - if a thing does not bring immediate satisfaction we give it up as something not worth doing and motherhood is no exception.

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