In support of International Women’s Day 2018 I was asked to participate in Motherworks, a photography exhibition by Fiona Freund and Mothers of Invention, exploring the duality of working mother’s lives.
I am professionally concerned with maintaining my privacy. Keeping information about myself out of the work allows clients the freedom to decide who and what I mean to them, without the interference of mundane realities about who I actually am. However, I have decided to ‘come out’ here as a mother because I feel it is important that psychotherapeutic practitioners should be active in exposing social imbalances and injustices, so that we do not normalise what should be questioned. I find questionable the social fantasy that the activity of motherhood is a private matter and consequently has little public import or value. I was far too busy to speak about the experience when my children were younger, and it seems to me that far too many women are rendered similarly voiceless by the intensity of working motherhood, for me to now choose silence and invisibility, when I have the opportunity to speak and be seen.
You can read what I wrote for the exhibition below:
If I hadn’t had children I’m not sure I could have become a psychotherapist. Experiencing motherhood felt like a necessary part of the process for me; something I needed to do, or rather to be, first. So, I delayed training in my twenties and focussed on other things. Once they were here, the children became a motivating factor for me to get qualified. When you have limited time beyond parenting and you also need to work – well I realised I had to push for what I really wanted in my career or life would become all about compromise.
I have always been curious, observant, a bit experimental. Psychotherapy allows me to use these parts of myself in creative ways to help and empower others. I am a bit of a traveller at heart and that’s hard to hold when children need a stable base. My work can act as a window on the world; I am privileged to be given insights into lives unlike my own; this awakens me to the possibilities of the world, even as I remain still.
I wouldn’t want my girls to think motherhood is about self-sacrifice, but at the same time, I will not sacrifice them for my work. I feel unapologetic about prioritising their needs and keeping family at the centre of my life. Finding a pathway into satisfying work has been as much about inspiring them as about meeting my own needs, and I have my own working mother to thank for inspiration when I have needed it.
Like parenthood, successful therapy involves making and sustaining an emotional connection – it’s how we reach to the heart of things. Both are about listening, noticing, and allowing space for the potential within others to emerge and take form. My work life has developed around the needs of my children, but also because of them; each grows with the other. We are all finding our way, becoming more and more who we are. Therapist or mother, my main job is to be ‘present’.
There is a political ideology underlying the present social and economic pressures placed on women who are mothers. It means that many women are forced to work before they and their children feel ready, and to continue to work more than feels healthy for the optimal functioning of their families. Then there is the (implicit or explicit, threatened or actual) shaming and exclusion of mothers in workplaces, which causes many women to feel they must minimise the challenges presented by their dual roles, socially diminish the importance of their children in their lives or even hide their motherhood completely while working in their paid positions.
The pressure to render the early years of motherhood an economically productive time means that those involved in the care and socialisation of young children are increasingly there as part of an economic transaction and will not be part of children’s lives in the long term. This includes situations where professional carers are employed out of economic necessity and those where professional support is used because of a lack of community involvement in parenting. Without a professional identity, mothers who care are often cut off from the mainstream of life and that social exclusion can be very detrimental.
Even for mothers who can afford to parent their own children if they choose, costly toddler activities, cafe culture as a primary means of social engagement and mother to mother selling of goods and services have infiltrated the early developmental space, so that caring has become synonymous with consumption and caring mothers are valued primarily as consumers. When physical support is needed, a childminder is cheaper by the hour than a cleaner. The priceless work of caring for our young is given a degradingly low value. Helping each other out for free – because we are nice, because we value family and community, because we enjoy sharing the experience – is no longer a social possibility for many; but even where it could be, it has largely been de-normalised and those who seek out community support rather than paid childcare risk being regarded as freeloaders. Under these circumstances, trying to develop and maintain the loving social bonds that make for fulfilling, meaningful lives is becoming not just a thankless task, but for many, an unrealistic one. This situation is at odds with everything we know about developmental wellbeing for children and mental health for adult carers. I find that heart-breaking.
Mothers often can’t speak out because, yes, they are so incredibly busy! But for those of us who can, we might do well to be seen more and heard more, if we want our work as mothers to be valued more. For ourselves, for our children, and for those who have forgotten how intrinsic motherhood (and childhood for that matter) is to a healthy society.