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Becoming a mother made me feel invisible. Loving hands reached past me to touch my daughter and as the haze of feeding, rocking and exhaustion descended, I became a stranger in my own body.
I know I am not alone. In conversations with girlfriends, in books and articles and light-hearted but heart-sore comments at the park, perplexed women ask over and over again, “But where did I go?”
I asked my girlfriends if they’ve had trouble feeling like themselves during lockdown. “My ‘mumness’ is always on show,” said one friend who manages an entire community service. Another, a partner in a consulting firm, bemoans that her colleagues now identify her as a mother: “I hate that they see me like that.”
Another, a psychologist, out of the workforce with a new baby, acknowledges that she was prepared for leaning into motherhood this year, but not for the total absence of opportunities to feel like herself. “Being a mother doesn’t make me feel desirable; it’s getting dressed up and being around other people – usually away from my kids – that does.”
Yes, we love our kids and, yes, we even love being mothers (it seems we still have to preface any mum-whingeing with this proviso), but lockdown, as necessary and important as it has been, took away our opportunities of being seen as anything other than a parent.
Often the way we begin to feel ourselves again is when we are with friends, out of the crying zone of the baby and into the world where we suddenly, joyfully, realise we are not wearing a label that says “mother”. When we dance. When a colleague listens to us – really listens. When the barista flirts with us as they hand over our coffee. We feel human again. We feel seen.
When I ask my friends what they are missing most, we say each other, of course, and the chance to dress up and be out in the world. To be seen. To make eyes at the bartender over our masks, to have someone – anyone! – raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh – I didn’t realise you had kids.” Feeling seen as a sexual being makes us feel visible again, but this year has meant many women have been stuck with a permanent mother mask – especially at home, where the grinding sameness of lockdown life and the repeated soundtrack of “Muuum!” has all but snuffed out eros for many of us.
There are moments, of course. Date nights with fancy food delivery and the kids in front of multiple movies. A fire bucket crackling. A bottle of wine. I even put on a dress. My partner didn’t ask me to; I needed it. For myself. And it worked. Because I could pretend we weren’t at home; that momentarily, our children didn’t exist; that there was perhaps a parallel universe without seven months of lockdown, the same three pairs of black leggings, the same routine every day. For a moment I saw myself anew.
Recently, a male author asked why I thought fictional “mother heroes” had to compartmentalise their mother selves and lover selves. He was commenting on Mim, the heroine of my novel The Mother Fault, who is desperately trying to keep her kids safe as she flees an authoritarian government and tries to find her missing husband. Along the way an old flame turns up and suddenly there is temptation and desire – a chance to be seen and to feel like something other than a mother.
The question perplexed me because it was a moot point. Of course we have unrealistic expectations of female characters. Of course we expect more of our mother heroes than we do of the fathers. Of course women are forced to compartmentalise their mother and lover selves, in a pattern that is as much of our own making as it is the society around us.
With the glorious easing of Melbourne lockdown this week, we can make our first tentative steps out into the world again. Eventually there will be sneaky midweek cocktails with friends out the back of fairy-lit bars. A chance to throw on a frock. Corks will pop. Not touching, not yet (or ever!), but the delicious thrill of eye-smiling at strangers who have no idea of the mayhem that is left behind at home for those of us lucky enough to escape the house sans kids.
In The Mother Fault, Mim has to navigate a hostile force, an ocean and a sexual awakening to come out from behind her mother mask and find herself.
I’m just looking forward to a picnic, my friends, a bottle of wine and the delicious thrill of being seen.
• Kate Mildenhall is the author of The Mother Fault, out now through Simon & Schuster
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: For women in lockdown with kids, it’s impossible to be seen as anything other than a mother | Books