My friend E has written a book. “It’s not as though it hasn’t all been said before,” she said. “I suppose the most interesting thing about it is how many times it can be said without anything changing.”
I can’t work out whether I’ve forgotten what my friends are like, or forgotten how to have a conversation, but this doesn’t sound like E at all. It sounds sheepish, like she has stepped on a toe, or overshared, or fallen in some way beneath her standards (which are, granted, as complicated and precise as the laser alarm system in Mission: Impossible). But I’ve never heard that tone in her voice. Politically, she is a radical. Personally, she is more radical. You can’t get a sheepish radical – it’s a philosophical impossibility. It would be chased straight back into its pen by the dogs of convention.
But E’s book is about motherhood, so it’s not like any other kind of human experience. No, wait: it is like any other kind of human experience, except that the subject unleashes from almost everyone an incomparable tsunami of bile.
Young women find it tendentious and boring; I remember reviewing A Life’s Work, Rachel Cusk’s classic of the genre, in the early 00s and writing up this howl of unmediated rage, like someone had forced me to read a plumbing manual and called it art. At the time, I was heavily into mountaineering books. By some metric I can’t explain, trudging through an unending snowscape, endangering countless others and then describing it in minute detail was not at all monotonous, self-indulgent or self-aggrandising, whereas having a baby was.
In due course, outrageously and inevitably, I wrote my own book about the same phase – babyhood to just before they can talk, which is the tacitly accepted age from which they deserve some privacy (as in, you are allowed to make them the butt of your jokes in articles, but you can’t run it to book length). I got a similar backlash, not from young people – so far as I can tell, my book has never been handled by a young person – and not really from men but from women whose children were a bit older, or hadn’t had children. Did I think I was the first person this had happened to?
I had committed the sin of pride, broadly speaking, but it was more like a double homicide – I had killed the humility that befits a human and I had extinguished women’s liberation by making us sound facile and biological.
There are two strands to what sometimes looks like a generalised disgust for anything to do with reproduction. One is squeamishness. The other is the idea that talking about your animal self is trivial and brutish. The squeamishness attaches to everything – periods, menopause, polyps, cysts, you name it. If it happens to a body, then it makes someone’s skin crawl. But it feels as if you can break that omertà without attracting too much hatred. No one loathes anyone who says they have endometriosis. Or maybe they do, but they are too embarrassed to say so.
The disdain is more baby-specific. It reaches its peak when you try to attach anything political to your baby. Maybe you are being discriminated against and attempting to organise with other people in the same, baby-centric, boat; maybe you are trying to trace the roots of the parenting culture of our age, in which everything that goes wrong is down to irresponsible mothering and the concept of responsibility is interchangeable with affluence. Either way, by discussing it, you are being infantile and out of place, as if you have burst into a meeting of grownups to talk about how red your tractor is.
There is a hardcore of people who still find women really annoying when they talk about anything, because of that high-pitched, tinny sound they make. I forget about those people, then the head of the Tokyo Olympics blasts you with a reminder. It’s a bit bracing, sure, but it’s also reassuring to learn that you weren’t imagining it, and it isn’t just you.
“There’s an easy answer to this,” you are thinking. “All you have to do is not write about it.” Not so fast! As a child-bearer, the ways in which you can annoy people are almost limitless: if you have a large buggy, although all socially approved versions are large; if your baby cries, which is what babies are for; if you congregate, particularly near coffee.
Yet it appears that if you don’t congregate – because you can’t – and you mention that this is less than ideal, because of the catastrophic isolation and whatnot, then you are considered insufficiently grateful. You have a baby for company; how many people have one of those?
Sexism can’t be the explanation: it’s too simple and it can’t account for all the feminists involved. It’s more like social resentment – a sense that mothers have accrued a baby they don’t deserve and are asking for more than their share of attention. At the heart of this is a contradiction: that babies should be social property, yet society shouldn’t be tasked with thinking about them. The subject, like any puzzle, carries a promise: if you can unlock this, it will reveal something even more interesting underneath. Honestly, I think we will crack it only if people write about motherhood all the time.