Via Tricia Smith Vaughan (she of the Highlander approach to adoption and parenthood, you may recall), I came across this Daily Mail article about a woman who finds her children, and motherhood in general, boring. Tricia Smith Vaughan, I shall note in passing, thinks that the author can be reasonably compared to Andrea Yates. Feeling bored with someone apparently equates to setting out to murder them. It’s probably too gratuitously bitchy of me to comment on what this might say about Tricia Smith Vaughan’s social skills; but, what the hell, I decided not to let that stop me.
Anyway, to move on to the actual article: Helen Kirwan-Taylor, despite what Tricia Smith Vaughan claims, does not actually hate her children. She just hates spending time with them. She is bored by them. Very, very bored. Not in the "Holy crap, I need a break" or the "Dammit, if I have to read ‘Poppy Cat Loves Christmas’ once more then my head is going to explode!" sense, but in the sense that she finds children in general mind-numbingly boring, makes no exception for her own, and spent the early years of their lives desperately trying to avoid spending time with them.
This is, of course, the sort of thing that can present something of a problem in interpersonal relationships. If Kirwan-Taylor felt this way about a romantic partner, she – and most other people – would probably take it for granted that they should break up. Since this isn’t as easy with your children, it seems that she has a practical problem here – how to balance her dislike of spending time with her children with her children’s need for her to spend time with them. And it’s possible that in real life she sees it this way. However, there is no hint of this in the article, which addresses the problem not as something to be dealt with but as something to be justified.
Kirwan-Taylor claims that all children really need in order to be ‘fine’ is for you to feed them, shelter them, and tell them you love them (showing them you love them is apparently an optional extra) and spends some time dwelling on the new advice from parenting experts that going to the opposite extreme and smothering your children with an excess of attention is damaging to children, which, of course, makes her feel ‘vindicated’. (Um, I’m looking for this place called the Middle Ground. Anyone round here know how to get to it? Ever been there? Ever heard of it?)
In fact, the biggest problem here is that anyone is so unreasonable as to expect her to do anything as appallingly boring as spending time with her children. Or so the general tone of the article seemed to suggest. According to Kirwan-Taylor, by confessing to not finding her children "thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable at all times" she’s breaking "one of the last taboos of modern society", and "not being completely and utterly enthralled with, dedicated to and
obsessed with one’s children is a secret guarded, if not until death,
then until someone else confesses first." Maybe it’s just me, but I was left with the decided impression that she was expecting a pat on the back for having the courage to be the groundbreaking Taboo-Buster And First Confessor in question.
I suppose it’s possible that she actually believes this, and that she and everyone she knows has somehow completely missed the few thousand women who have already confessed this particular guilty secret over in the past few decades – have missed, in fact, that this particular backlash has happened so widely and publically that it’s now old news. (A journalist? Someone who supposedly makes her living by researching other people’s viewpoints? Oh, well, I suppose it’s possible.) But I think it’s more likely that what she’s actually doing is the old strawman trick. By using hyperbole to characterise the opposing position, she can make herself seem more reasonable by comparison. The problem, as Kirwan-Taylor probably knows perfectly well (although I’m not sure to what extent she admits it to herself), is not that she isn’t completely enthralled with her children to the point of obsession, but that she doesn’t seem to have any interest in their doings at all.
There’s a rather obvious question that comes to mind here, and it’s one I hesitate to ask, because it’s one I’ve so often seen used as a stick to beat other mothers in the Mommy Wars. Woman left her child crying for twenty minutes to get him to sleep? Why did she have children in the first place?! Woman thinks her child ought to be on a routine? Why did she have children in the first place?! Woman wants to spend some of her time doing a job other than looking after her children? Why did she have children in the first place?! It’s asked rhetorically – it actually translates into "You shouldn’t have had children in the first place, you bad bad woman. Do you have any last feeble excuses you wish to offer up for our general derision, prior to the commencement of the stoning?" As a general rule: if it’s plausible that the answer could be "Because I enjoy spending time with them, regardless of the fact that I don’t do so to quite the extent or in quite the way that you apparently in your infinite wisdom have decided I should", then it’s a pretty bad idea to ask the question.
However, nothing about Kirwan-Taylor’s article gives me any impression that she could honestly give that answer. And I’d like to be able to ask her – as a genuine question, without the indrawn breath of shock or the curled lip of disdain – why she had children. And, more to the point, whether I’m right in thinking that she feels that it was the wrong decision.
It’s a question that Kirwan-Taylor touches on in passing: "Consequently, few of those women will admit that they made a bad, or — worse — a boring career move to motherhood." She isn’t one of those few, it seems. Nowhere else, in her rants about the boredom of motherhood and her attempts to justify what appears to be a total lack of attempt to make an effort to spend meaningful time with her children in spite of the way she feels about it, does she ever address this one basic issue straight on.
Which is understandable. This is the last taboo of motherhood – not admitting that it has its low points, but admitting that, for you, the low points outweigh the high points. That, in short, you wish you’d never had children. There’s an obvious reason why this taboo is particularly difficult to breach – what effect would it have on children whose parents feel that way? How painful would it be to see your existence wished away by the very people responsible for it? However boring Kirwan-Taylor may find her children, she still loves them; even if I’m right in suspecting that she regrets having them, I can’t fault her for wishing to spare them the sight of that knowledge in black and white.
It did, however, strike me as rather a shame. Articles can be written anonymously if there’s knowledge from which you wish others to be spared, and this is one taboo that I feel needs to be breached. We should discuss the issues raised by the fact that some people feel this way about parenthood. If people feel this way yet have children anyway, what does that say about societal pressures and the stigma attached to non-parenthood? Is there more that we should be doing to make sure parenthood is seen as an active choice rather than as something to drift thoughtlessly into? Shouldn’t we aim for a world in which the decision not to have children would no more be seen as a matter for shame than the decision not to go into medicine, or teaching, or any other worthy but difficult job? And as for people who feel this way about children yet have, through bad decisions or bad luck, ended up as parents anyway – how can they best deal with the thorny problem of putting enough time and attention into a job that isn’t going to become any less important just because they hate doing it?
Kirwan-Taylor doesn’t discuss those problems, because she’s too busy denying that any problems exist in the first place. The result was an article with a hollow and empty feel. Instead of what could have been a genuinely groundbreaking discussion, we got some coy hinting around the real issues, covered with a vapid froth of self-justification. I don’t think that feeling the way she does about children makes Kirwan-Taylor a superficial person; but I do think that writing about it in the way she did made for a pretty superficial article.