are children worth it?

Many years ago this article convinced me to have a child. I’ve kept it all this time.

Yet mother love, as Helen Garner once wrote of Eros, “mocks our fantasy that we can nail life down and control it” and is “as far beyond our attempts to regulate it as sunshine is, or a cyclone”.

Touch of a tiny hand reminds us what’s missing from the motherhood debate

May 13 2003

Discussing fertility in socio-economic terms hides the emotional reality of being a mum, writes Anne Manne.

A friend weighed motherhood up carefully in a cost-benefit analysis, assessing the pros and cons. There were a lot of cons: halting the smooth progress in her career, the decent income, the freedom to live as she pleased. She decided motherhood was irrational.

That night, confident her decision was right, she waited in a supermarket queue. A toddler, somehow detached from her mother, got all those women’s legs mixed up. With that trusting unconsciousness of a child, she slipped her little hand around my friend’s leg, and nestled into her. Suddenly, the matter was not quite so clear. She decided she would have a baby.

Recently Naomi Wolf informed us of the horrors of childbirth and motherhood. Wolf says my friend’s decision is likely to be the start of a nightmare from which she may never awake, or at least until we pull the right policy levers to soften the clash between work and family. Yet for all the importance of the work-family issue (I have spent a lot of my working life thinking about that) as a sole filter through which we now view motherhood, there is something here both false and slightly tedious.

In its cool language – “care” rather than love, “work/family balance”, “quality child care” – meaning is flattened and bleached out. Such language reminds me of those old, well-meaning sex manuals which surmounted our Puritan heritage by depicting sex as a bodily function, all jolly and healthy, even medicinal, like a glass of water or a vigorous hike in the woods.

What was missing in such texts was the seething heat and pleasure and murk of it all, the sheer power of sexual desire to intoxicate us, or even blast our lives completely off course.

And what is missing in the new discussion about balancing work and family is honest acknowledgement of how a life might be changed by a quite different kind of passion – like the capsizing of my friend’s reasoned cost-benefit analysis by one small, warm hand.

Yet even the term “working motherhood” can sound strained, as if, as Paul Keating once said of “practical reconciliation,” the adjective is intended as an anti-matter particle intended to cancel out the power of the noun.

Yet mother love, as Helen Garner once wrote of Eros, “mocks our fantasy that we can nail life down and control it” and is “as far beyond our attempts to regulate it as sunshine is, or a cyclone”.

That is why at a recent dinner, the high-achieving women present all admitted regret over not having more children, why one academic friend spent more of her sabbatical snuggled up in bed reading to her five-year-old than in the library, and why Garner herself described her relationship with her adult daughter as “just the most precious thing”.

Children teach a different kind of consciousness to the one most celebrated in our society – the free, untrammelled, achieving self.

Children call out the best in us, requiring us to put our energies on behalf of others, and forcing us to think most deeply about what we value. And from “the ramshackle life of a mother”, as Joanna Murray Smith once expressed it, a strong sense of self may emerge.

Andrew Denton asked Wolf if the reason we might dissemble on the horrors of childbirth might be to protect our loved ones. Such reticence may partly be to protect children from the knowledge that they had come into being alongside so much pain. Not because we take delight in duping women, but rather, to dwell too much upon the grisliness of birth would obscure the deeper truth of our gratitude for their existence.

Anne Manne is a Melbourne writer.

by Anne Manne.