Book Review - Motherhood: How should we care for our children? Moving beyond the motherwars - changing the way we see and act

by Anne Mannne, Allen & Unwin, 2005.

Motherhood is the latest in a long line of cri de coeur books by baby-boom women about what is claimed to be the incompatibility of “feminist” ideas about motherhood and female emancipation and their lived experience of motherhood. Like Manne, such authors breathed feminist assumptions – about the equality of men’s and women’s talents, women’s need for economic independence and human flourishing – “as naturally as air”. But when their children are born, such women find they conflict with the way they want to mother (or as Manne prefers, the way children need them to mother).

At the heart of Motherhood’s claim to know what children really need and what therefore, according to the logic of such texts, mothers are morally compelled to provide is Manne’s preternatural insight into the emotional life of pre-verbal children: her own and other women’s. Motherhood is replete with anecdotes about the mothers that breezily assert the acceptability of their care arrangements when Manne – having sized the situation up in less than a minute – knows better. “One friend”, she reveals, “put her baby into full-time care when the baby was nine months old. Meeting me in the street, she anxiously assured me that the baby was `quite happy’ in care. But the baby told a different story. When the caregiver’s name was mentioned, she put her arms around her mother’s neck, and with look of indescribable sadness, laid her head down on her mother’s shoulder.”

Manne offers “maternal feminism” as a cutting-edge framework for resolving these issues rather than a theoretical relic of the 1980s impossibly encumbered by the same problems of regressive essentialism that plague Motherhood. Indeed, the book’s key take-home message is that the relationship between mothers and babies can not be “replaced” by paternal or other sorts of care. Perhaps because even the selective reporting of research findings that she uses to such great effect elsewhere won’t work to support this claim, Manne relies on anecdote and the views of a famous Australian cartoonist, to make her case. She tells of arriving home early from the library to hear her daughter crying: “”I rushed in to find my husband…trying to soothe her. When I picked her up she turned her head towards my shoulder. She took a long, deep, suspicious sniff, turned her head to one side, smiled and fell asleep. She smelt her mother."

Having approvingly cited Leunig’s take on attachment theory, Manne somewhat incoherently presents an anecdote about the inadequacies of grandparental to make her case against institutional childcare: “A perceptive grandmother, an exceptionally sensitive caregiver, who looked after her two little grandchildren full-time while the mother worked, once told of the oldest stopping deal in the middle of play and suddenly crying out for her mother’s face. `Where’s that dear face? Where is it?’’”

It is worth pausing here to ask some questions about the implied moral of this story: that if a child ever misses her Mum the mother’s absence is wronging the child and must be remedied. Is the pain of missing a beloved other than a mother good enough reason to change care arrangements too? Some babies cry whenever their mothers step into the shower, or attempt to go to the toilet or the doctor alone. Must good mothers abandon such solitary journeys? If the baby misses Dad at work or a sibling at school, must they also be tethered to home? Indeed, if we ignore the implications of Manne’s arguments and accept her claim to believe in the capacity of children to attach to both their fathers and mothers, doesn’t the “missing as tragedy” argument imply that what children need is 24/7 access to both parents?

But absent scholarship and faulty logic are only some of the problems plaguing Motherhood. The others reduce to honesty and integrity. Motherhood is a polemic that has nothing to do with “moving beyond the motherwars”, and everything to do with championing the at-home mother as the good one. Her advice to women confronting work/life dilemmas? You can have it all, but “in sequence”, not “all at once”.

More disturbingly, Manne mischaracterizes key thinkers and important debates. She claims that feminist Eva Cox said at-home mothers raise “narcissistic monsters incapable of sharing”, when a quick internet trip to the Boyer lectures reveals the complete lack of fit between this description and Cox’s far more temperate point. Manne asserts that a 2002 study by a university student claiming bad outcomes for small children spending long hours in daycare was “attacked on every media outlet”. However, a review of the print media during this period reveals that while news items were either slanted in favour of the study or were balanced, 7 of the 8 opinion pieces lavishly praised the study and castigated its mythical critics. The one exception was a piece by the head of the Australian Institute of Family Studies refuting the claims of columnist Bettina Arndt that because one of his expert staff questioned the validity of the study’s methodology, she and the entire Institute were guilty of left-wing bias.

The publication of Motherhood will ensure Manne’s views continue to feature in debates on work/life balance and childcare. We can only hope it influence the weight and credibility they are accorded as well.