by Susan Maushart
When I was pregnant with my first child during the summer of 1999, I was working in an independent bookshop in Bristol. Part of my job was to unpack special orders, and let customers know the books had arrived. This meant that as well as seeing tens, maybe hundreds, of copies of Captain Correlli’s Mandolin fly off the shelves that year, I caught sight of some less well-known titles which I might otherwise not have had the chance to see.
One of the orders which came in was by Susan Maushart, a New York academic and social commentator who was then based in Australia. Her book The Mask of Motherhood really did change my life. Having had a careful leaf through the customer’s copy of the book before it was collected, I made use of my staff discount and ordered my own copy immediately. The upshot was that as well as filling my mind with endless information and opinion on how my baby should feed, sleep and play from the standard baby-care books available, I came to realize there was a politics to motherhood as well.
The Mask of Motherhood argues that women of our current generations are significantly less prepared for parenthood than their own mothers. That having led financially and socially independent lives, the fears, frustrations and confusions of parenthood come as a shock. And can feel like personal failure.
As far as Maushart’s concerned it’s not that individual women are failing, but that they are expected to meet a host of unworkable structures and extravagant expectations. With a wry sense of humour and pervasive warmth, Maushart explains the myths and describes the realities of pregnancy, birth and child rearing. Crucially, though, she does so not in a collusive, joking way which brushes the significance of motherhood under the carpet, but in a call to celebrate the value of the hard work which is demanded of us all when we have children.
She sees the confusion of our current regard for motherhood as an opportunity to benefit women and children, “Whether we hide behind traditional mythologies, seek refuge in the new and equally unworkable mythology of ‘having it all’, or desperately cobble together a crazy quilt from bits and pieces of each, we are implicated in a dangerous process of denial. Deciding how and to what end we mother our young is the most serious of all women’s business,”
The idea that behind every pram-pusher there was someone feeling as conflicted, exhausted and confused as me was one empowering concept. The thought that women could reappropriate motherhood as something not just ‘important’ in the abstract, but vital and having equal value to anything happening in ‘the real world’ was quite another and gave me more confidence in my new role than any babycare book.
As the years have passed I’ve hung on to my copy of The Mask of Motherhood, added many other sociological enquiries into motherhood beside it on the shelf, and always kept an eye out for what Maushart did next.