Modern Motherhood: what it means for women today to have children

Kinderling News & Features

When we think about motherhood compared to our mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, it feels like we’ve come a long way. We’re no longer expected to throw our job in when we get pregnant (hooray!), but at the same time careers can still be severely impacted by maternity leave and all that follows (boo!).

Dr Rebecca Huntley is a writer, broadcaster and one of Australia’s foremost social researchers – plus she’s a mum of three. In her research she’s looked a lot at how being a mum has changed over the years, and how our society defines motherhood today.

We can do more, but don’t let go

Over Rebecca’s 15 years of research, she’s found that women say there’s freedom to do more (including work) but we don’t actually let go of other things. We’ve taken on more baggage.

“I remember very early on in my research career going through some of the older research … and I was looking in the 1980’s and reports on mothers,” Rebecca recounted. “And one woman said 'I feel okay going back to work because every week I still bake my family a cake and as long as I'm baking them a cake and continuing to keep the house as if I wasn't working and I feel okay.'”

Listen to Rebecca on Kinderling Conversation:

Women still have this idea that we can bake for the school cake stall, create the perfect Book Week costume and still do a massive work presentation the next day.

“I think that women judge themselves by how they're doing those kinds of things in a way that often fathers don't,” Rebecca said. “Fathers may not even be aware of the bake sale, they'd be quite happy to bake a very bad cake.” Mothers on the other hand, have a level of perfection that we pressure ourselves with every day.

We have access to so much information

“We've seen the explosion of information about mothers and some of that's been fantastic,” Rebecca said. While there’s a lot of negativity around that perfect-looking Insta mum, Rebecca believes there’s good that’s come out of the internet for our generation of motherhood.

“I think there's a bit of a balance. There's both fantastic camaraderie, support and advice online and through the media for mums, as well as judgement. [It’s] one big mother's group with your best friends, you and your frenemies.”

We can complain without reproach

Rebecca spoke to her mother and grandmother about how they managed motherhood and found that complaints weren’t part of the deal way back when.

“While they had support from a larger family, they didn't always feel like they had the permission to complain because this was like, well what option do you have? And in fact, that could have led to extraordinary isolation, depression and in the end resentment.” Rebecca explained. “One of the great things is that we can get together and complain about these kinds of things and then hopefully do what we can to make changes or just let off a bit of steam over some Chardonnay.”

“There's a time for stoicism and there's a time for letting off steam.”

At the same time, we should be careful to not complain too much and suggest that balance is impossible. “I think again there is a double-edged sword with the complaining,” Rebecca said. “It’s cathartic, but we want to support each other too.”

We still struggle with the distribution of unpaid labour at home

One commonality across mums of all backgrounds that Rebecca has seen is that there’s a sense of frustration in what men and women do in heterosexual relationships.

Rebecca emphasised that this isn’t just who cleans the bathrooms but jobs that require foresight like planning birthday parties, remembering school photos and organising drop-offs. “[It’s] all those kinds of life admin and the emotional, cultural and social tasks that keep not just a family fed and clothed but genuinely happy.”

A lot of women talk about the resources with a relationship, that they want a fairness there. At the same time, we hate being called nags and fighting about it, so Rebecca said there’s a powerlessness in this issue.

“Most of us want don't want a houseful of screaming and fighting about dirty dishes. So how do we do that? And that's the biggest, most common complaint across all groups.”

Dr Rebecca Huntley speaking at the Motherload this Sunday May 20, alongside Clementine Ford and Maxine Beneba Clarke. Grab your tickets from the Sydney Opera House website.