Sunday 17 December 2017

Giving up my job for my children worked out like a dream -- but it made me angry at how mothers are treated in this country

Author Victoria White on how she came ro realise that here, a mother's desire to be with her children is the desire that dare not speak its name

IT WAS an intense physical desire. I just wanted my children. That was what got me out of my office job as an Irish Times editor and into my home with my kids.

Children are delicious in ways that people rarely discuss openly, at least in Ireland. They have fat little legs and their skin is unbelievably soft. I particularly love having their little hands in mine. Then there are some big things about them, like their eyes and their imaginations.


I wonder why we so rarely say these things? And why we're sneered at if we do? I think it's because we're jealous -- jealous of children who are loved when perhaps we were not. Or more likely, were loved, but had parents who were afraid to show love.

But that theory doesn't explain me, because my parents gave me very few cuddles and yet I have always had a rampant love of children.

As a child I had a mad love of soft toys and all small animals. I was not allowed a pet but I pestered and pestered until I got a canary. The poor bird had chronic asthma, but I kept him alive for five years by feeding him morsels of groundsel and arrowroot.

Wherever I got it from, I always knew I wanted children. But I was the youngest by 14 years in our family of three children and I didn't know one end of a baby from another until I was 18. That year I went to au pair with a family in Italy and found myself pretty much incarcerated 24/7 with a baby girl and her older brother and sister.

I was meant to be looking after the older children while Mamma looked after the baby, but this beautiful woman must have had severe post-natal depression. I remember her telling me just before I left that she feared she was pregnant again and if she was, she would kill herself.

She would sleep through her baby's tears of hunger every morning and I would become wild with anxiety.

The baby began to recognise me as her mother, because nature is not stupid and I was offering her the best chance of survival.

The experience was like falling in love. I couldn't get the baby out of my head even on my rare days off.

And yet it was another 17 years before I had my first child. You could explain it away by saying I just hadn't met the right man, but I think there was more to it than that. I was in the grip of a culture that told me to delay motherhood because it would mark the end of my life.

Now I see that paranoia as a reaction to the lives of women before reliable contraception was available.

The 1970s feminists who wrote the script for me were focused on controlling their fertility so that they could get into the workplace and earn their own money. Even though I had access to contraception all my fertile life, still my life was informed by the fears of another generation.

And of course, there was an element of truth in that fear of having children. Career paths are tough nowadays and having a baby early would have pushed me off the path and into unknown territory. Because I had my children so late, I had money, a home and career status which would not vanish overnight.

That's why so many women like me have their children late, but some of them are pushing their luck. Not everyone's fertility lasts through their 30s and into their 40s, as many have found to their cost.


Having babies is tolerated in well-established career women as the icing on the cake, as long as they don't let those babies interfere with their careers.

I duly went back to my job four months after my first son, Jack, was born, and spent my lunch-breaks hitched to an electric breast-pump so I could continue to feed him on days off. I can't say I missed him too much. I welcomed the escape from the madness and exhaustion of life with a new baby and I knew his childminder loved him.

But slowly, he broke my resolve. I took a week off when Jack was about a year and a half old. We got into the bath together and he leaned back and said, "Snuggy Mummy". I was miserable returning to work. But what really finished me was the fact that my next baby turned out to be two babies, and I was off work for more than 10 months.

The traditional script says I "couldn't cope" with going back to work, but the truth was I didn't want to cope. And it wasn't the twins who persuaded me to give up my job, it was my talkative two-and-a-half-year-old.

I remember one magical day when we escaped on our bike from the twin boys and he said, "Thank you for the park, Mummy".

It was when walking around the same park some days later that I formed a determination not to go back to my job. I wanted the sunlight and the trees and the water as well as my children. I was the main breadwinner, so giving up my job was a mad thing to do, but I just had this conviction I should trust my instincts.

It all worked out like a dream. But that was just chance as my husband Eamon Ryan got elected as TD for Dublin South. It could well have happened that I would have found myself staggering around trying to make a living for us all as a freelance journalist with three tiny children and a fourth on the way.

I became angry about how mothers were treated in this country: short maternity leave, unpaid parental leave, no right to part-time work, very little voice in how our babies were delivered, very little encouragement to breastfeed translating into the lowest breastfeeding rate in the civilised world, and little or no respect for the most important job there is: raising children.

I wrote Mother Ireland to try to work out for myself why women's desire to be with their children has become the desire which must not speak its name.

And to encourage other mothers to trust their instincts as to how their children should be reared, as much as their finances allow, because no-one knows as well as they do what their children need.

Mother Ireland: Why Ireland Hates Motherhood (Londubh Books, €14.99) is out now

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