In the historical novel I’m currently slogging through, the heroine’s stepmother (not wicked, as it turns out) is pregnant and about to go into her period of confinement. This basically means that she’ll disappear into a back room of the farmhouse, bite down on a stick, and quietly, without complaint, present her husband with an heir to the family farm, when he comes in from tending his sheep (although I suspect things might not go as planned in this particular book.)
Flash forward a century and a quarter (and switch continents) and this is how women prepare for motherhood: The San Francisco Birth and Baby Fair. (Don’t click on the link if you’re not ready to face this yet. I’ll explain what it’s all about.) At the fair, the expectant mother can find everything she could possibly need–doulas, photographers, clothing designers, exercise specialists– to be the kind of mother-to-be and mother that she’s always dreamed of being. Zen mom? Yoga, organics, and meditation info abounds. Metro mom? She’ll find au pairs, diaper services, and maternity spa products. Adventurous mom? Expandable hiking gear for her.
We are a society that loves the next big thing. We line up for the new Apple product, camp out for the latest and greatest Play Station, flock to the current hot thing. And right now, motherhood is cool. The celebs are doing it, the rich and powerful are doing it; and the Joneses are doing it. Motherhood is in vogue right now and marketers are selling us the dream. And why not? We live in a consumer-driven society. Use this product and the opposite sex will flock to you so you can join the Couples Club;follow this miracle diet plan and you’ll be accepted to the Skinny Club. And then there’s the exclusive Mommy Club– the best of the best, the ultimate. The club every woman dreams of joining, right?
But what if you can’t get in, or choose not to get in, or never got the chance to get in? Motherhood is no longer about producing future farmhands so that the family can survive; it’s about fitting in and belonging; it’s about being in with the in crowd.
When I first set out to become a mother, my idea of motherhood had been formed by my upbringing, my family, and friends. I knew that raising children was something I wanted to do. When I finally met my husband, I knew that he was the person I wanted to have a family with, and yes, my goal shifted slightly, because I also knew that I wanted to create a baby with him, as a symbol of our love. But looking back now, when things began to go wrong and it became apparent I wasn’t going to get what I wanted, it wasn’t the family ideal that I clung to, or even the need for a baby, it was that glossy magazine image of motherhood. I wanted to have the prenatal yoga, and the Baby Bjorn. I wanted to make my own organic baby food and be a perfect modern mother. I wanted a membership to the Mommy Club. Because where do you go if you’re not in the club? Who do you hang out with? What parties do you get to go to? Where do you belong?
Fortunately, I wised up fairly quickly to my own mania, but for a while I believed all the commercials. I never noticed before that none of the pregnant models had swollen ankles, or that all of the new mothers were serene and glowing, none of them were depressed and weepy or sleep-deprived. None of them looked like women who had to go back to work to support their new families.
As evidenced by the Birth and Baby Fair, motherhood is big business and if it doesn’t look pretty no-one’s going to buy. But for those of us who’ve struggled with infertility, or loss, or the decision to become a mother or not, this glorification only makes our situation feel worse, and makes us feel that motherhood is no longer just something we want to do, but something we have to do if we want to belong.