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.