Book Review - Motherguilt: Australian women reveal their true feelings about motherhood

Ita Buttrose & Dr Penny Adams. Penguin/Viking, $32.95

Motherguilt bills itself as a book in which Australian women “revel their true feelings about motherhood” and one that assists women to “deprogram themselves” from the powerful and unique “epidemic of guilt” experienced by today’s mothers.

The strength of the book is the myriad of women’s voices found on each page. Both celebrity and “ordinary” mothers confess their parental sins and doubts, and express their views on a wide range of maternal experiences (mothering the “not-so-perfect” child, the experience of breastfeeding, maternal competitiveness in the playgroup).

It’s not easy for women to admit they’ve found mothering unbearably boring, or that they’ve sometimes put their child’s need second to their own, when such admissions can lead them to be labelled a “bad” mother. Yet, 69-year old Jean risks this by sharing her disappointment with her early mothering experience. “I can remember thinking,”, she recounts, “‘If this is my life, my God, I’d rather be dead’.” Journalist Adele Horin take us into her confidence with her tale of sending a sick child to school so she could get to work, while presenter Joanna Griggs confesses that she has the “time of her life” when away from her children covering sport for Channel 7. As the authors rightly note, women’s sharing of their maternal battle stories “has a curative power all of its own”.

Sadly, the rest of Motherguilt seems dedicated to wounding, rather than healing. Instead of alleviating women’s guilt feelings about motherhood, it appears dedicated to affirming their current levels of moral angst, or even making them worse. For example, the authors assert without a shred of research evidence that contemporary mothers use abortion as contraception, see babies as “fashion accessories” and, in failing to be relaxed and happy mothers, deny their children the carefree childhood that is their “inalienable right”. Stay-at-home mothers are castigated for giving up their professional careers and allowing their kids’ school lives to take on exaggerated importance, as well as providing a poor role model to their children by helping them cheat on homework assignments.

But it is working mothers who really need to duck for cover. According to the authors, their reliance on prepared and fast foods coupled with their failure to serve up a family meal every night is the cause of increased rates of childhood obesity; their busy lives and competitiveness causes stressed, depressed and ADHD kids who miss out on time to “gaze at the clouds drifting by, watch a butterfly flit around the garden or throw pebbles in a pond”; while their lack of time to listen to their teenagers increases adolescent drinking and anorexia.

Similarly alarming “facts” and accusations appear throughout the book, though they must always be taken on faith as no sources – either in the text or in notes – are provided.

But most disturbing are the authors’ conclusions about the causative role contemporary mothers are playing in the downfall of the nation’s children. This is Ita:

The growth in children’s illnesses and mood disturbances has occurred in line with mothers’ greater participation in the workforce. Could this be coincidental? Can any intelligent woman seriously believe such a thing without doubt of any kind? Surely it is impossible to overlook something many mothers would prefer to close their eyes to – that perhaps children have become the `victims’ of the female ambition to have it all.

She continues:

Many women got it wrong, and I include myself in this indictment. It is all too obvious that children need more of their mother’s time than we have been able to give them….Perhaps, most of all they need their mums to be in less of a hurry….If, as mothers, we need to feel guilty about anything it is children. We have short-changed them. They have been sending out signals for years now but we have preferred to be blind to what has been going on.

This quote tidily encapsulates all that is wrong with Motherguilt. The unsupported alarmist claims; the uncritical acceptance of complex and heavily-freighted ideas like “having it all” without any interrogation of the sexist 1950s norms they encode; the imputation that children need only their mothers and the corresponding silence about father-absence and its impact on women’s work and guilt-loads as well as children; the firm yet tautological claim that the one thing mothers should feel guilty about is children (what else would women feel motherguilt about?)

A recent letter to the Australian Book Review noted that “even a badly written book has cost the author blood and sweat”. It was not a plea for merciful reviewing, but could be read as one, and as a non-fiction writer myself, I am sensitive to the harm done by a bad review.

But whatever compassion I feel for the authors, I feel much more for their potential female readership. Indeed, I feel obligated to do what I can to warn women of the disconnect between what this book promises and what it delivers.

Because I just can’t bear the thought of a young mother – anxious, insecure, perhaps even teetering on the edge of depression – wandering into her local bookshop in search of something that might help her to understand her situation better and lift her spirits, leaving instead with a load of Motherguilt.