Motherhood is not for sissies in the ‘anti-mothering’ system we live in

When I decided to pursue an academic career, I thought I could best serve society this way.

I also always wanted to be a mother, and in my head I had imagined being an academic would allow me this. But I suppose, like other aspects of growing up, you only know something when you are in it.

First, I discovered that my job was incompatible with my idealised vision of motherhood. It turns out that as an academic, I am constantly researching, writing and travelling.

When I am home, the divide between home and work does not really exist. I spend a lot of time behind the computer, reading or marking reams of assignments.

Second, in the first three years of my child’s life, my more serious research was simply non-existent.

I had neither the mental nor the physical power to conduct deep and rigorous investigation.

What this meant was that I spent a lot more time on the teaching treadmill.

Research was written under pressure, and nowhere near the quality and volume that could create meaningful debate in my field.

Third, some wise women had advised me to get my doctorate before having kids. I followed this advice, and do not regret it; except I discovered that I became anxious about my ticking biological clock and only becoming a mother after 30.

Anyone who tells women they will not get nervous about having kids late is wrong – and the fears are not unfounded. You will get the risks and opportunities weighed up for you by doctors and you will start fretting!

Fourth, taking time out to do a doctorate meant that I disqualified myself from accruing the very employee benefits I needed for first-time motherhood.

When I joined a university after graduation I was pregnant, and the university would not pay for my medical aid because the pregnancy was classified a pre-existing condition! They also told me I did not qualify for paid maternity leave because I was a new employee.

This seemed like a cruel trap to me. I had gone off to get a PhD because as junior academics we had been told that the country need a new generation of suitably qualified black women. Yet taking the time to pursue a doctorate full-time meant giving up my job.

Last, I returned to work six weeks after the baby’s birth. My head of department had been sympathetic enough to rearrange my teaching so that it did not coincide with the delivery. I needed my income because I did not qualify for paid leave, so I went back to work and lectured while sitting down because I’d had a caesarean and was still having post-partum bleeding.

I thought about women in worse employment conditions. I wondered how on earth they did it.

It seemed to me the world was anti-mothering.

Out of a sense of indignation about the way our employment systems put my industrial production over my role in human reproduction, I decided to take my baby to all work meetings so that I could breastfeed. I was a militant demand breastfeeder.

My colleagues did not even bat an eyelid, and I was grateful that the university allowed that, but I was aware that it was only because I was an academic.

Through the first three years of the child’s life, it felt like my brain only operated on half its capacity. I rarely finished a paper.

Often I joked that I needed a wife because it seemed like the reason my male counterparts managed their parenting and careers was that they had wives.

Balancing mothering and working demands remains a battle for me.

Hats off to all women. I don’t know how you do it.

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