As a daughter, my experience of Mother’s day has centred on guilt. I would realise that I was not prepared with presents, cards or lovely food. Instead I would be desperately cobbling something together at the last minute to make it seem that I had worked hard to demonstrate my appreciation for my Mum. I was forced to reflect on my inadequacy each year. This year I am hoping not to be in the same position. Instead, my thoughts are more complicated, having studied gender and worked in the area of equality policy.
The value of mothers to us individually has its celebration on Mothering Sunday but motherhood as a social experience is often left out of the discussion. For me the stereotype is of soppy cards and the family excusing the mother from providing that day’s Sunday lunch. In this ritual of sorts, mothers are celebrated as carers and providers of nourishment. The unequal gendered division of labour within households for the other 364 days is ignored. Instead the maternal role is exulted, as something admirable and beyond the rest of us.
At other times, you might see signs that mothers are accorded a special status. For example, maternity and pregnancy are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Mothers are given special attention and protection in a variety of policy areas. In employment, mothers have rights to extra leave and protection around maternity (at least for now). In allocating council housing, mothers with children in their care are prioritised. Mothers, particularly around the time of pregnancy, are also a focus in the new national mental health strategy.
Thus the welfare state shows recognition of mothers’ particular position in society and its responsibility to facilitate that role through policies. The extent of state support to mothers and their caring may be limited but it exists.
While I think about these strands of provision dedicated to mothers, I remember the many ways in which the cost of motherhood is denied and unmitigated.
The mental health problems most common amongst women, depression and anxiety, are often bound up with the burdens many women carry as mothers and the isolation this may entail.
Women are more likely to be in poverty than men and more likely to spend substantial amounts of time as carers. Caring and poverty are connected, firstly, through the pittance paid through benefits to those who carry out care for family and, secondly, through the discrimination against women in terms of pay, promotions and labour market segregation. The ‘Big Society’ in the context of rising public sector and general unemployment is likely to further intertwine the experience of poverty and unpaid work in the community.
Looking at motherhood through the rose-tinted glasses of Mother’s Day also elicits a denial of the violence facing women as mothers. 18-30% of women experience domestic violence during their lifetime and the trauma of this is often intensified by concern for children and the difficulties of extricating oneself from abusive domestic settings when children could be left behind. Shockingly, the leading cause of death in pregnant women is homicide. Within that statistic is the suggestion that pregnancy is not always a period of protection and love. These currents of mental distress and violence tell us that society’s attitudes and behaviour towards pregnancy and maternity are complex and cannot be summed up in the Mother’s Day sentiment.
I have referred to the vulnerability of mothers to violence and social exclusion but the society in which we live relies on mothers, and women more generally, to nurture and to transmit knowledge, skills and value between one generation and the next. Marginalised and discriminated groups fight daily for their right to care and to be mothers.
People with learning difficulties are rarely allowed to become parents. And even when they are, their children are often taken into care and in some cases, people close to them press for them to be sterilised.
Another group that faces the denial of motherhood are women offenders. They are separated from their children when they receive custodial sentences. The most common crime for which women are sent to prison is theft. Frequently, their actions relate to poverty and social exclusion, including a desperate need to provide for their children. The use of short sentences for non-violent women offenders causes great harm to mothers and their children. Of children whose mothers are in prison, only 9% are cared for by their fathers, indicating serious disruption to their lives.
On completion of custodial sentences women face a catch 22. They cannot get priority for council housing without their children. They cannot get custody of their children without a suitable home. With housing withheld and unable to rebuild links with their family, women often continue in a cycle of desperation, deprivation and reoffending. Forthcoming reforms of the Criminal Justice System are an opportunity to address the needs of women offenders and their children but it seems unlikely that this opportunity will be taken.
We might see Mother’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate our mothers for their value to us and their value to society. I would also urge for a chance to consider the cost motherhood can exact on women in the UK. Negative consequences of motherhood will be greatest where the state takes little responsibility for the financial and time costs of caring for children. Currently the government is cutting benefits and services and rolling back rights for parents. A day ignoring these wider issues is a Mother’s Day without meaning.
Chloe Alexander is currently a freelance Policy and Campaigns Officer working with Wish and People First. She has an M Sc in Gender and Social Policy from the London School of Economics and specialises in theorising care and carrying out qualitative research into the links between paid and unpaid care work. She is also interested in disability rights and is a supporter of the Deaf Rights Movement.