Love Story. A vision of a world where adults and children are equals
'Motherhood' by Anne Manne
Before my daughter Billie was born almost nine years ago, there were all kinds of ways to insult me:Jenny Craig dropout; boring; mediocre; a lousy lay. Afterwards the only thing that really got to me was being called or thought of as a bad mother. Anxiety would consume me and I would feel both vicious and fragile. In my life nothing else has come close to the scale and depth of feelings born with Billie.
Anne Manne’s Motherhood (Allen & Unwin, 379pp; $29.95) is unusual because it is infused with the moral and metaphysical dimensions of having children. Imagine you were planning a trip to Jupiter. Would you prepare by reading Balancing Space and Earth Travel, or perhaps Guilt-free Jupiter Exploration? Isn’t there more illuminating, life-and-death stuff you would need to know first? Space travel is not a huge metaphorical stretch, for parenthood is like a one-way ticket to another planet. We need books and writers who will tell us as much, of a universe without gravity, of a place where our old ideas of self and the world are in freefall. Instead most contemporary thinkers on the subject are unable to handle the radical, transformative bigness of being a parent. They reduce the experience of parenthood to a lifestyle adjustment.
Manne speaks of things which are fundamental and yet fundamentally sidelined. Love, for instance. Between detailed explorations of psychological research, feminist debate and public policy, she keeps coming back to love. For what, if not love, is it that gets parents through the relentlessness of it all – the sleepless nights and abdication of self, the gripping anxiety and all-consuming attachments? Social expectations, personal ambitions and a sense of duty or guilt simply won’t last the distance. Love will.
“Like all passions,” writes Manne, “motherlove may not speak at all to some, or wildly and destructively to others. But a tepid, tameable thing it is not.” This is not touchy-feely stuff. The policy implications are profound. No program for the transformation of gender roles, says Manne, can be truthful if it is blind to the extraordinary love a parent can feel for a child. No program for social change can have any meaning if it views people as role-players: parent, worker, spouse, wage-earner. It is like describing sex as procreation, an act of mating minus the passion, mystery and surrender.
Manne questions the consequences of putting babies and toddlers under the age of two into full-time childcare. In a sub-section entitled “Touch It and You Die”, she notes that in Australia: “Anyone challenging early childcare as an unquestioned and highly desirable part of modern life risks being considered to be in companionship with the Taliban and clitoridectomies.” She forges on regardless. As a mother of two, Manne herself agonised over the choice between home and external care. She explored all options – “quality” childcare centres, home-based care, nannies (if you can afford one). It is a decision few parents take lightly, and it is made harder by the prevailing five-to-one ratio of children to care-giver and the ludicrously high staff turnover at most childcare facilities.
In the end, for Manne, it comes down to the difference between “care” and “love”. Care, she writes, is “cool and careful, reasoned, a word which implies distance and limits. Love is not. Love is passionate, implacable, intense, unreasoned.” Babies, she argues, do not need trained experts to manage them but their family to love them. Children do not need distance and limits. They need warmth, not cool professionalism, even if we allow ourselves to believe that childcare centres are hubs of cool professionalism in the first place. There is no substitute for parental and family love.
The more the book unfolds, the more it makes for uncomfortable reading. “One way of distancing ourselves from the discomfort of confronting our power over children,” Manne writes, “is to create a myth of an independent, resilient child who, like the cat with nine lives, always lands on its feet.” The interests of parents and children do not always coincide – sometimes they do anything but. Manne’s solution is policy and economic reform: extended paid parental leave, homecare allowances, what she calls “active neutrality” from the government – meaning policies that support parents regardless of the choices they make. These proposals are by no means far-fetched. In many European countries extended parental leave – as distinct from maternity leave – allows duties to be shared equally between partners. There, the gift of parental time is not exchanged for workforce participation: it is offered alongside the chance to return to one’s old job. These initiatives effectively remove the so-called “care penalty”, the price paid – chiefly by women – in lost earnings and missed opportunities.
The economic penalties, however, are nothing compared to the social stigma attached to stay-at-home mothers in Australia. A friend of mine, a highly intelligent and accomplished woman, has spent the last three years looking after her two young children. They were born when she was in her late thirties, an inch away from being convinced she would never become a mother. Now deliriously happy at home and in love with her children, my friend has recently found herself surrounded by people – women and men – voicing concern for her psychological wellbeing.
“I am not depressed,” she has to keep repeating. “I am actually really happy.”
“Do not hide behind your children,” they reply. “It is time to rebuild yourself, your career and selfhood before it is too late.”
My friend’s love for her children has been recast as a flight from her obligation to personal fulfilment. Her dedication is viewed as a pathological dependency. Her professed happiness is under scrutiny. “Our devaluation of motherhood is now so deep,” writes Manne, “that women for whom mothering is a central life goal have to keep alive the importance of what they are doing, as a desert dweller keeps alive a conception of a lake.”
One of this book’s strengths is its attentiveness to the rights and voices of children. On the issue of leaving young children in full-time childcare, Manne writes: “We do not expect an adult to easily replace a beloved person with another. It violates our sense of preciousness of individual people, and even our sense of what love is. Yet we expect this of a baby.” The term “separation anxiety”, she says, does not really sum up what happens to a baby or toddler separated from its parents. “It is an emotion closest to grief.”
After my daughter Billie was born, I stopped looking at men and started looking at children, checking them out, eyeing them off. Children, I discovered, were infinitely more interesting than men. Everything about them merited my attention – the endless variations of their eyes and hair, their songs and tantrums, the ways they responded to dogs or screeching adult voices or ice-cream puddles on the ground. I found books about parenthood in which children themselves were absent to be strangely flat. I liked books which saw parenting as a tango, with children our partners, stepping on our feet, slipping out of our hands, sometimes moving to a different tune, or holding us back, but always guiding us through a frenzied swirl, breathing in our faces.
Manne’s book is alive with this dance, eager to restore depth and complexity to the emotional lives of children around us. She also reminds us that the way we imagine children reflects the deepest pre-occupations of our times. Romans ascribed valour to their offspring; Puritans ascribed purity, piety and obedience; Victorians liked to imagine children as epitomes of innocence and vulnerability. In our age, we want little more than to see children as independent and competent. Our visions of childhood disguise a plethora of grown-up agendas.
One day, when my daughter was five and attending prep-year at school, I was asked to come in by the teacher. It transpired that in front of the whole class, in a loud and unapologetic voice, my daughter had asked her teacher not to treat her like a fucking baby. I had never heard Billie use that particular sentence or obscenity before, and while I was surprised, I could not help laughing. I knew, at least in theory, that my laughter was wrong, that I should have been presenting a united front with the teacher about what was acceptable and appropriate. Yet I broke the rules. I didn’t want to teach my daughter disrespect, but I found that my natural allegiance in this, and in many other situations to come, was not with the world of adults. I think I simply identified with Billie’s need for respect, and with the way she went about demanding it.
When I tell this story now, I feel unambiguously proud of Billie. Here is my daughter low on decorum, high on outrage, what is known as a problem child with an opinion on everything. Yet it strikes me that she might just get there, maybe not to the faraway kingdom that Anne Manne’s wise, passionate and unsettling book prods us towards, but close enough, to a place where the rights and needs of parents and their children co-exist in an honest dialogue, and not in a state of a fake, deceitful harmony.