Motherhood put and end to my liberalism

I was raised to believe all the usual liberal things about men and women. How humans are all broadly the same apart from differently shaped genitals and some socialisation; how sexist stereotypes alone are what hold women back in the workplace; how success in the workplace and the world at large is what men and women, to equal degrees, do (and should) aspire to. How parenthood, not motherhood, should have equal impact on both parents; how having a child would be a temporary blip in a life otherwise oriented outwards, towards the world.

Then I had a baby. It is commonplace to observe that life after becoming a parent is different from life before, which is true, and one part of this was my cherished liberal beliefs running aground on the physical reality of being, not a parent, but specifically a mother.

For me, becoming a mother involved 12 surreal and painful hours of labour followed by a crash C-section and a week on a drip. Recovery took a month. On sharing this with other women who are mothers I discovered that most of us have a horror story of one sort or another about childbirth, but that a polite omerta exists around sharing these either with men or with non-mothers. On the whole this is probably for the best, or no woman would ever consider getting pregnant. But it is only the first layer in a cloak of obfuscation that lies over the nature of motherhood.

Gestating a baby is physically punishing, and one sports science study compared it to running a 40-week marathon in terms of energy expenditure. Getting the baby out is not easy, either. Although, mercifully, fewer women die having babies in Britain nowadays thanks to modern obstetrics, childbirth still carries a high risk of sometimes life-changing complications.

Women who have had one or more babies by vaginal delivery are at double or treble risk of developing pelvic floor disorders – that is to say, anal or vaginal prolapses or urinary or even faecal incontinence. And once the baby is there, breastfeeding demands some 500 or so additional calories a day, is painful to establish and comes with a risk of mastitis and other unpleasant experiences.

This life-changing experience collides at a fundamental level, as I discovered, with the liberal vision of all humans as equal, rational individuals, for whom embodied existence is a mere servant to the pursuit of individual desire. To the extent that it is a liberal movement, much of feminism has focused on freeing women from those aspects of our traditional roles that seemed an impediment to women’s freedom to fulfil ourselves.

Freedom from domestic drudgery; personal safety on the streets; recognition as equally deserving of the right to vote, own property, succeed in the workplace and so on. More recently, this being largely accomplished, third-wave feminism has focused more on liberating women from the necessity of even being female, declaring that “Trans women are women” and that about this “there is no debate”.

This is all (or mostly) good stuff; I have no desire to live in the nineteenth century. The problem with where we are now, though, is babies. When it comes to the most gruelling aspects of propagating the species, there is no means by which the work can be equally distributed between the sexes. Males cannot give birth, unless you count those male-identified females who are periodically reported in the papers as “pregnant fathers”. Neither can males breastfeed, and it is arguably breastfeeding where the roles of a mother and her co-parent in a couple really begin to diverge.

A breastfeeding mother needs to stay physically close to her baby, and runs on the baby’s timetable for months. That is to say, on a two, three or four-hour feed-play-nap loop regardless of whether it is day or night. The other partner, meanwhile, can support the mother in practical ways but is considerably more free to maintain a normal daily schedule or return to work, as most fathers typically do following the legally-allotted two weeks. (Indeed, fewer than a third of fathers take their legally permitted two weeks’ paternity leave, according to a report earlier this year.)

Reports lament the poor uptake of shared parental leave, but given that males cannot breastfeed, it should not come as any surprise. Or is the idea to ask mothers who have endured cracked nipples, blocked ducts and sleepless nights establishing breastfeeding to then move their baby onto a bottle after a few months so daddy can have a turn at home? Not going to happen.

This in turn shapes how housework is divided. There is no doubt that socialisation plays some role in a differential distribution of housework between men and women, but the rubber really hits the road when children arrive, and this is to no small degree because of a mother’s desire to be close to her baby. It will feel logical for a mother to take on the lion’s share of house and child management during maternity leave.

By the time she returns to work – and over three-quarters of mothers with dependent children in the UK now work – it is highly likely that a pattern will have emerged in which this is normalised, and the mother has become more oriented toward managing the household while her partner is more focused on work.

Then there is what I call the “Mum Bluetooth”. This is more difficult to describe but likely corresponds to what attachment psychology calls “maternal attunement”: the capacity mothers have (to a varying degree according to their own psychological background) to tune into and reflect their infant’s state of mind. Non-mothers of course have some capacity to attune to infants, but for most healthy mothers there is an intensity to the connection that is simply not evident in others, however fond they are of the baby.

I routinely found myself waking a few moments before my daughter did in the night, even after she moved to her own room. The sound of her hungry cry would cause my milk to let down and all rational thought to cease until she was fed: the only occasion in two decades of driving where I have ever damaged a car was trying to get it around a sharp corner with my hungry baby daughter screaming in the back.

I embarked on motherhood with a vision of myself as rational and autonomous. It was unsettling the least to find myself in this messy, leaky symbiosis with a wholly dependent infant whose cries caused me to lactate and lose the ability to think coherently. I am not saying we should shrug our shoulders at the different ways men and women are treated by society, on the grounds that it is a biological inevitability. I want rather to suggest that the simplistic picture of sex equality promoted by popular feminism has a motherhood-shaped blind spot and, as such, lets both sexes down.

Popular depictions of motherhood in our culture tend to go two ways. Motherhood is either an adjunct (or obstacle) to other more worldly achievements but of no notable value or difficulty in itself, or else it is a pastel-coloured ideal of domesticity cleansed of the blood, milk, excrement and hormone-driven altered states of mind.

Left-flavoured liberalism generally ignores the embodied nature of motherhood, and assures us that sexist stereotypes, and those social patterns that conform to sexist stereotypes, are an oppressive creation of the patriarchy designed to keep women from fulfilling our true potential. Right-flavoured liberalism tells us these same patterns are simply a matter of “choice”.

The truth, though, is that carrying and nursing children is neither exactly choice nor coercion: it is an animalistic experience that cuts profoundly across the fantasies implicit in liberalism of free, rational individuals for whom liberation means transcending our physiological natures.

This matters. We cannot think politically about the place of family life in society, or indeed about sex equality at all, unless we can look frankly at what motherhood is, rather than at the motherhood-shaped space gestured at by a liberal focus on identities and economics. Maternity leave in Britain is far better than in many places but it has been a long time since a political party of either Left or Right dared to suggest that many mothers might want to spend years rather than months at home with their children, and adjust the tax codes accordingly.

Motherhood is a crunch point where the liberal pursuit of individual freedom collides not just with communitarian obligations to others in society, but our very nature as biological creatures, yet for political reasons the ball has been dropped and kicked into a corner by Left and Right.

While our mainstream liberal culture pretends that all humans are essentially identical apart from our dangly bits, it will continue to recoil in disgust from the messy reality of motherhood as a deeply animal experience. And so mothers will continue to be as overworkedguilty and burned out as they currently are, and our birth rates will continue to plummet. Perhaps, finally, it is time to restart the long-overdue public conversation about what motherhood is, and move beyond the polite political omertà that covers the subject.

First published at Unherd

Weekend long read: in defence of being an arsehole

On Being An Arsehole: A Defence is this weekend’s long read pick, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point. It is a funny and thoughtful discussion of the tension between the author’s wish to fit in socially, and the desire he also feels as a philosopher to ask difficult questions that may push debates – and the social relations within which they take place – into uncomfortable places.

Most people, Thakkar argues, agree with the vast majority of what others say to them, largely in the interests of harmony. But this is unappealing to philosophers, who take active pleasure in argument of a sharpness and persistence most people would find stressful if not downright obnoxious. This, in turn, can have social repercussions for those who approach discussion in this spirit:

For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

The challenge for those who would debate is to assess when it is appropriate to ask difficult questions – and when, especially in the modern world of ‘cancel culture’, the frank expression of views is likely to take significant courage:

It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

In a week where the Prime Minister was accused both of being a leader to right-wing extremists and also of dismissing the murder of Jo Cox as ‘humbug’, a reflection on the debate, trolling and when to keep one’s own counsel feels timely, to say the least.

This piece first appeared in Unherd.

Social justice rent-seeking: Labour Conference edition

Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Dawn Butler has used the Labour Party conference to renew her call for British banks and businesses to pay ‘massive’ reparations for slavery.

The money should be used, she explains, to support the work of the ‘Emancipation Educational Trust’ launched by Labour in October last year. This trust would use education to encourage ‘a deeper understanding of British history’, especially empire and colonialism, with the aim of telling a new national story that would help stem the rise of the far right.

Butler quotes Glasgow University’s decision to make available £20m in reparations to atone for its historic connection to slavery. (Though this money is for scholarships and grants, not Labour’s education initiative.) She asserts that ‘other banks and businesses must follow’. Labour, she says, will encourage this process via ‘consultation hubs’ in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London. It is Butler’s view that this is especially urgent at present because ‘for the first time in our country’s history we have a Prime Minister who the far right regard as their leader’.

A few days ago, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote of his concerns with rent-seeking in capitalism, and its corrosive effects on liberal democracy. Rent-seeking is any behaviour that involves seeking to increase an actor’s share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking tactics include using a dominant market position to control prices or prevent new entrants to the market, or converting economic to political power in order to shape public policy in line with business interests.

We can draw a parallel here with Butler’s proposal, which is in effect a form of social justice rent-seeking. She wishes to use political power (the Labour Party) to convert an increasingly dominant ideology (critical race and post-colonial theories) into a share of existing wealth. Butler is full of conviction as she argues for the vital role her trust will play in combating the far right. But there is some slippage between ‘reparations’ – a satisfyingly just-sounding idea considering the horrific history of slavery – and the question ‘to whom should reparations be paid?’. After all, the victims of slavery are long dead. Which of their descendants should benefit?

By way of parallel, consider who benefits from Amazon, and how. The general population enjoys the convenience of one-day delivery via Amazon Prime, while Bezos and his shareholders reap the rewards of Amazon’s hegemonic market position, manipulating the company’s tax obligations and hammering salaries and employee productivity in grim distribution centres. In much the same way, Butler’s social rent-seeking proposes to provide, as a general social good, more people who share her values and view of history. Meanwhile, the Trust she has founded will benefit directly from reparation payments, which will presumably fund well-remunerated positions dedicated to perpetuating the worldview that justifies the next round of fundraising.

This article was first published in Unherd

Weekend long read pick: the real problem at Yale is not free speech

If you’re looking for something long-form this weekend, and are tired of culture war takes on student ‘wokeness’, this lucid piece by Natalia Dashan in Palladium may even give you some measure of compassion for the lost children of America’s super-elite.

A class-inflected personal account of the author’s experience at Yale, the piece argues that the Great Awokening is less a free speech issue than a byproduct of a loss of moral purpose in America’s upper class. Her view is that America’s young elite has so far lost the desire to rule that for the most part it now prefers to give away its power, either via careers that effectively render them middle class, or else throwing themselves into ‘social justice’ activities whose purpose is less social justice than social bonding, or what she calls ‘coordination by ideology’.

Wokeness, she suggests, is really a convoluted and guilt-ridden form of class signalling that serves both to police the boundaries of an elite in-group while also deflecting any genuine responsibility for leadership that membership of a franker and more self-confident elite might entail. As it is not rooted in any clear objectives or shared political interests, the psychodrama of wokeness also relentlessly devours itself, creating a negative elite feedback loop in the process:

It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.

She asks: who benefits? In her view, those who wish to duck responsibility, to obscure their class status, or to build power bases in the chaos it creates. The price of this evasion of leadership is no less than  ‘the standards of reality itself’, alongside a cumulative decay of institutions whose purpose would once have been to channel the idealism and noblesse oblige of a young elite into public service.

And this matters, because what is now well-established at Yale will trickle down not just across America but across the world:

And what’s happening at Yale reflects a crisis in America’s broader governing class. Unable to effectively respond to the challenges facing them, they instead try to bail out of their own class. The result is an ideology which acts as an escape raft, allowing some of the most privileged young people in the country to present themselves as devoid of power. Institutions like Yale, once meant to direct people in how to use their position for the greater good, are systematically undermined—a vicious cycle which ultimately erodes the country as a whole.
Segments of this class engage in risk-averse managerialism, while others take advantage of the glut to disrupt things and expand personal power. The broader population becomes caught up in these conflicts as these actors attempt to build power bases and mobilize against each other. And like Yale, it seems a safe bet that things will continue and even accelerate until some new vision and stable, non-ideological set of coordination mechanisms are able to establish hegemony and become a new ground for real cooperation.

As to what that ‘new vision’ looks like? The author has less to offer here. But the piece is a persuasive first-hand analysis by someone in a position – by virtue of her background – to reflect critically not just on the content but also the social form of the contemporary US campus wars.

This piece was first published at Unherd