The Narcissism Of Motherhood

I never wanted to ‘become a mother’ I decided to have a child.

It was 1994. I’d been living with Marz for a few years and someone asked if we were going to have children.

I was 26. It had never dawned on me.

So I said to him ‘We’ve been together for a few years but we’ve never discussed children.’

He said ‘I assume if you want one you’ll tell me.’

The subject didn’t come up again for another few years.

I was a comedian and writer home in Melbourne with our ridiculously huge dog Gus watching telly and eating cheese on toast for dinner. (I have a vague memory I’d watched ‘Evil Angels’, the biopic about Lindy Chamberlin starring Meryl Streep, the night before.) He was a photographer away interstate shooting on a job in Lightning Ridge.

We were on the phone downloading our day to each other the way people did before mobile phones, the internet, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and texting.

These days if you talk to people you haven’t seen for five hours as soon as you start talking they say ‘I already know. I saw it on Facebook.’

Mid sentence, unplanned, not at all pre meditated, I said ‘I think I’m ready to have a baby.

His immediate response was ‘Does that mean we have to buy a four door car?’

(He had a two door Alfa Romeo convertible and I had a two door mustard color Toyota Corolla.)

‘I suppose so.’

‘Where did that come from?’ he asked.

‘No idea’ I said far more surprised by what had come out of my mouth than he seemed.

I was unsettlingly calm.

Looking back now, our purchasing of a pup and a house, discussions with people I knew with babies and pondering with girlfriends the stability and enduring potential of the relationship I was in and the financial viability of my career clearly illustrates my sub conscious had been doing research for a while in an attempt to know as much as I could before the next adventure/project/journey/experiment; having a child.

It was not a romantic, spur of the moment in the heat of passion conception of a love child.

It was simply the next logical step that I went into hopefully, happily, knowingly, willingly and pragmatically.

My emotionally chaotic and financially stressed childhood taught me you should never have more children than you could raise on your own nor should you ever take on a mortgage you could not service solo.

A man is not a financial plan. Nor is the assumption of a happy ever after simply ‘because you deserve it’.

I needed to be sure I wanted to have children and wasn’t feeling forced or pressured.

I wanted to be certain I was having children not because I thought I should, or simply because I could or because it would please anyone but because I chose to.

I needed to be positive that what was informing my choice was my own desire. To please myself.

None of the mothers from my childhood saw having children as an option. They just did it because it was what you do. It was the done thing. It was seen as a sign of success (in the same way marriage (vomit) is still seen as a sign of success for many women. You know it is.)

In the early 70s if you couldn’t have children you adopted them and if you didn’t want to have children you became a nun or were labeled a freak. Or both.

You get married, you have children and you give up any independent life you may have had before that. That was how it appeared to me. Actually looking back that’s exactly how it was.

Like every default setting rite of passage and expectation of being female I’d encountered since I was 14, I examined having a child critically and rigorously. I put it under a microscope held it to the light and then dissected it in an attempt to work out what it was and whether it was what I wanted or what society manipulated me to think I wanted to keep me out of the way. Was having a child simply a rouse to occupy me with ‘women’s work’ so the men could have priority access to power, control, decision making leisure and money? Would pregnancy and childrearing result in me becoming a covert handmaiden of patriarchy? Did being female and having a baby result in me contributing to a world order that promoted and rewarded a certain construct of masculinity? A construct of masculinity that was homophobic, racist, misogynist, controlling, punishing and shaming. Would having a baby result in me being patted on the head for being a good girl to distract me from having my future career and financial rug being pulled out from under me at the same time?

No. I did not over think it. I thought it through. Most people, particularly women, under think having children. They make the decision emotionally and back it up rationally. Because cute! Because romance! Because happy families!

Having a baby is not rational.

I had children for the same reason every other woman with access to fertility control does. Selfish narcissism.

Yep. I wanted to have children for no other reason than I wanted to have children. Because I wanted to go on the ‘I am having a baby’ ride. The same reason everyone else has children. Despite what they may attempt to convince you and themselves of, that they have selfishlessly volunteered for some noble public service that they deserve a medal for.

Fuck that. No gun to your head love.

I didn’t know if I would like being a parent, or even like my child or children or like what my partner ‘turned into’ when he became a parent or whether he would like me as a parent. Or if I would like myself as a parent.

No one does.

This is the ultimate narcissism. “I will unconditionally love whatever I make purely and solely because I made it. Despite having no idea what this beast may be or how it corrodes my life in ways I could never expect.”

No one knows what being a parent is or having a child is until you have done it. In the same way you cannot know what running a marathon is like until you have done it. I’m not sure you ever really know what being a parent is because it keeps changing. Newborns to babies to toddlers to little kids to school kids to teens to young adults. You have one, two then three children and the parenting changes every time with the new addition. And again depending on the constantly changing dynamic between them. And you change, your partner changes, your relationship changes, the circumstances change.

Myself. A parent? Are they the same thing?

Or different?

Or a hybrid?

I was not one of those young women who always planned to have children and was looking for a Baby Daddy. Nor was I outspoken and bolshie about never wanting to have children.

I knew women who were adamant they were never having children. Staunch, vocal and bombastic. (All of them have since had children and fallen into very 1950s relationships. Beware Little Miss She Protesteth Too Much.)

I was less interested. I never declared proudly I refused to have children. Nor did I swear black and blue to never become a parent or have a baby.

The truth is, I didn’t think about it at all.

Which reminds me of that saying ‘the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.’

I was indifferent.

Having children was something my mother, aunts and various grown up ladies did. Babies and children belonged to other people. I was their sister or cousin or baby sitter.

I have three children now. 12, 13 and 16 and still feel like that.

As a child I loved playing dolls, and adored having a baby brother and sister. I loved cuddling them and playing with them. I found them fascinating and hilarious and thought they were incredibly cute. I still do. Despite my sister having four children of her own and my brother being 36.

I wanted to experience what it was like to be pregnant, give birth and be part of the science project that is caring for a child from baby to independence. I want to eat up life and I don’t want to miss out on anything I consider important, meaningful or a rite of passage.

Fuck the rest of you.

I wanted to go back into a parent child relationship albeit in another role and see if I could experience it without the bad stuff, the wrong stuff, the mistakes, the things that had made my childhood unhappy. And re experience the parts of childhood I had loved. The things that had comforted me, made me happy.

I wanted to become a parent to see what was real. The confected Disney Sunday Night Movie, Partridge Family, Brady Bunch, Little House On The Prairie, Eight Is Enough families I had seen on television? The mythical perfect loving forgiving family? Or the broken, flawed, secretive, dysfunctional, bitter, exhausted examples I was surrounded by growing up.

There is an excessive narcissism in motherhood I find repellant. You know what I’m talking about. The competition and judging each other from labor to year 12 results to grandchildren.

I don’t find it all the time. But when I find it, it’s only between mothers.

And this assumption kids only want to be with their mum. Any other care or company is inferior.

Hello, setting up co dependence to deal with the mother’s abandonment issues!

(And don’t start me on attachment parenting…)

‘What fucking ego confusion,’ I constantly think as I hear mothers spend hours talking about their children in a way which is clearly in an attempt to win some non existent competition. Their children’s marks, their abilities, their achievements, their popularity, their looks, how much better their children are than their sister’s children. Blergh.

Feel free to get a life at any stage ladies.

I’m gob smacked by the breathtaking lack of insight some mothers have that as perfect and gifted and special they believe their own children are they have no inkling other parents could feel the same way about their own offspring. Nor can these sad insecure mothers who have nothing in their life to assert their success with comprehend others do not want to listen to them bang on about their sprog for hours on end.

It’s so revealing. You regularly see clumps of Mumzillas sitting around in coffee shops and if you listen in you will hear them comparing notes and competing about not only their own children but their sibling’s or friend’s children.

You know what I’m talking about.

Never ever do I hear men doing this.

I was listening to a podcast of This American Life and the host Ira Glass was talking to actress Molly Ringwald. She was discussing growing up in a family where her sister was considered the beautiful one, she was the creative one and her brother was the smart one.

When she was 10 years old or so she asked her mother if she was pretty. Her mother responded ‘You’re cute.’

Host Ira Glass, who is Jewish, was shocked. He said growing up he had a friend whose mum would tell her and her sister they were average.

‘You girls are average. Average, you know– like, you’re smart, but you’re average smart. And I was like, wow, you were not raised by Jews, man! That is not the message you get. I mean, in my experience, there’s a lot of, like, you’re so special. You’re the most special….”

Adequate. That’s what I am going to tell my children from now on they are. Good enough. Inspired by my 12 year old who refers to my food as ‘edible’.

I tell you what weirds me out.


Me “I just had a great chat with your daughter. She’s an interesting kid.”

The Mum “Thank-you.”

Me “Wh…at? Why are you thanking me? I am talking about your daughter not you.”

That’s when I back away and talk to an actual grown up. Someone who does not think they are the same person as their child.

When people say positive things about my kids you know what I say? ‘I’ll tell them.’

(Actually, that’s not what I always say. If someone is blowing smoke up my children’s arse in an attempt to flatter I respond ‘My children are hideous’ or ‘actually, if you got to know him better you would find out he’s a bit of a cunt.’)

 I have never once told my children I am proud of them.

Am I the ONLY person who has a problem with people saying they are ‘proud’ of other people? Particularly their children. It infers a sense of ownership and propriety which exposes a feeding off other’s achievement and the bestowing of approval suggesting an inflated idea of what their opinion is worth.

This ‘proud of you’ thing has always given me the ick. ‘You are living your life in a way I approve of and I will award you by bestowing my blessing’. What is inferred is and ‘if you don’t live your life in a way I approve I won’t. And you will be sad. Because my approval and blessing is worth a great deal.’ The clutchy assertion of ownership is revolting too.

I never tell my kids I’m proud of them. If they achieve something I say I am thrilled their hard work has paid off. You can only be proud of yourself.

Embedded in the sentence ‘I am proud’ of you is a vanity and desire for behavioral control that is unhealthy. It’s social pressure to conform to ideas of what people should do and be delivered via carrot as opposed to stick.

Why do so many people confuse approval with love?

So often movies and narratives hinge on the ‘all I ever wanted was for my parents to tell me they were proud of me’. FUCKING WHY? Who cares? Live your life how you choose. If people live their lives hungering for approval from withholding parents they are not living their lives. They are living a life in a way they hope will get The Magical Tick Of Approval.

Based on what? What are these people’s credentials other than being the approval wanters parents.

People will often moan to me that they wished their parents approved of them or their choices. More often than not their parents are failures with rotten lives. I say ‘Why do you give a shit? Your parent’s life and choices are terrible. They have lived a horrible life and made bad choices. How is their opinion worth anything?’

The other side of the ‘I’m proud of you’ coin is this; when people say you’ve changed it means you are no longer living life their way.

The ‘proud’ thing is simply control. Praise trolling.

Here’s something else I don’t get.

Why do people call childless women selfish?

Seriously? How can you call not having children selfish? Having children is the most selfish thing you can possibly do. ‘I am going to inflict miniature versions of myself onto this already over populated world.’

And here’s the funny thing. They never call childless men selfish. I never see childless men being cornered at parties being told they are selfish, they are missing out or will regret it later.

I never hear men being asked how they expect to manage to balance children and a career. Men are never asked when they go to work ‘who’s looking after your children’. It is only men I hear respond to the question ‘What are you up to on Saturday?’ with ‘babysitting’ when they referring to CARING FOR THEIR OWN CHILDREN.

What’s with the group chanting to shame women who have chosen not to have children. Why? Simply because many parents feel they were sucked into/pressured/tricked or manipulated into having children. They resent it now and can’t bear to see others living a life that looks happier and more fun than their’s do.

There’s a kind of ‘if I had to, you have to to. So we are all the same and no one is happier than anyone else’ that comes from these chant groups.

Another thing I find repellant and oppressive is this ‘Being a mother is the most important job in the world’ bullshit.

It’s not. Being a mother is not the most important job in the world.

Firstly being a mother is not a job. It’s a relationship.

Secondly subscribing to this false and manipulative platitude oppresses women by appealing to their narcissism and internalized misogyny. It disregards the role and impact we all have caring for the youngsters around us. Whether we gave birth to them or not.

Thirdly if being a mother is that important, why aren’t all the highly paid men with stellar careers who keep telling us the job is so important not devoting their lives to raising children?

For any woman who uses ‘being a mother is the most important job in the world’ as a way to establish credibility, consider this: if this is meant to exalt motherhood, then why is it always being used to sell toilet cleaner?

The deification of mothers not only delegitimizes the relationship fathers, neighbors, friends, grand parents, partners, teachers, carers etc have with children but diminishes the immense worth and value of these relationships. (It also encourages co dependency and discourages independence. ‘You need your mum. Only your mum will do’) It also discourages other adults from being actively involved in children’s lives. Because, you know, it’s not as good as being a mother. Bollocks.

I’m also confused as to what makes you a mother. Is it the actual birth? Then foster, adoptive, stepmothers and full time grand mothers don’t count. Or if it’s the amount of time you spend with them why do childless women who work full time in childcare not get this honor bestowed on them?

Or is ‘a mother’ simply a term to describe an obligation and expectation to care for children without payment. Is this token, empty slogan used to compensate women for gouging holes from potential careers by spending years out of the workplace without recognition?

Buying into and enabling the ‘being a mother is the most important job in the world’ dogma devalues the unpaid labor of rearing children and other unpaid caring and domestic tasks almost as much as is strategically devalues women’s worth in the work place.

Being a mother is not a job. If it were a job there’d be a selection process, pay, holidays, a superior to report to, performance assessments, Friday drinks, meetings and you could resign from your job and get another one because you didn’t like the people you were working with.

Even if it were a job there is no way being a professional mother could be the hardest when compared to working 16 hours a day in a clothing factory in Bangladesh, making bricks in an Indian kiln, or being a Chinese miner. Nor could it ever be considered the most important job in comparison with a surgeon who saves lives, anyone running a nation or a judge deciding on people’s destinies.

If you believe the manipulative slogan and that mothers are better, smarter and more compassionate people for having children, all of them, you clearly haven’t met many mothers. Or met many extraordinary humans who have not made a human themselves.

People’s opinions and perspective on things change over the years. Mothers may have insight they didn’t have not because they’ve had children but because they’ve been around longer. This doesn’t make their insight more right or valid than anyone else’s – mother or not. Correlation does not equal causation.

Is the only way you can have the deepest most meaningful connection with life and humanity is to have a baby? Do I too have a unique and more profound understanding of everything in the entire world because I have given birth and care for children. No.

There is also a curious sliding scale to this ‘Being a mother is the most important job in the world.’ ‘Working’ ‘career’ mums are at the lower end and single stay at home mothers are highest echelons. With ascending increments for each child you have. The more hours of drudgery you endure the more of a mother you are and, therefore, the more important your job is. The more you outsource domestic labor and childcare and participate in the workforce the less of a mother you are and the less important your job is.

Wow! What a coincidence! The less agency you have and more undervalued your contribution is the more of a mother you are. And the more you enable the patriarchal structure via unpaid domestic labor the more ‘important’ your job is. Stockholm syndrome anyone?

This empty token slogan encourages mothers to stay socially and financially hobbled, alienates fathers, discourages other significant relationships between children and adults and allows men to continue to enjoy the privilege of heteronormative nuclear family roles (despite men sucked into this having their choices limited as well).

I have always said ‘anyone who starts a sentence with ‘as a mother’ is immediately disqualified from being taken seriously. On anything.’

‘As a mother’ is in the same basket as ‘I’m not a racist but’ ‘I can’t be misogynist I have daughters’ and ‘some of my best friends are gay’.

It’s fine to use “motherhood” as a credential if you’re talking about something related to actual motherhood (like vaginal tearing during birth-or breast feeding despite not all mothers experiencing either). But if you’re using “motherhood” to assert that someone cares more about humanity than the next person, if you’re using it as a shorthand to imply that a mother is a more compassionate person than the women and men standing around her, then I call bullshit.

I love having children. I love children in general and am lucky that I love mine. What makes me happy is not so much that I love my sons but that I like them so much. They are lovely people and a lot of fun. But sometimes cunts.

To be honest, having children has been much easier than I thought it would be. I had very low expectations and they have been well surpassed.

There’s a book called The Good Enough Parent.

I have never read the book but the title sums up my philosophy perfectly.

I will get things wrong, I will get things right. I will do my best, and sometimes that best is pretty shit. Sometimes it’s magnificent.

I want to set an example of a real life. I do not shield them from my sadness, grief, depression, sex, drugs, heartache or anger but try and explain it to them and talk about how I and other manage emotions that may pollute the communal space. I say ‘Your behavior is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. If someone smacks you in the face, that’s their responsibility, how you respond, that’s your’s.’

I never withhold either. I do not withold love, gratitude, praise or amazement.

But I never tell them that I am proud of them.

I do occasionally say ‘Wow! Are you proud of yourself? I would be.’

My parenting philosophy is simply this. All children need is to know that they are loved and all they want is to see their parents trying, not always succeeding but trying to get their shit together.

And it may surprise you to find that the only thing I would like to be remembered, as is a good mum. And the only people who decide that are my sons. And that is not what they say to others or attempt to flatter me with but what they feel in their hearts.

The heaviest burden a child carries is the unlived life of their parent – Carl Jung

You may also like ‘Why I Am Against Step-Parenting‘.

Gunnas Writing Masterclass. Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide Brisbane,  dates up. Gift certificates on sale. . All here.

Go Back