She admits that she "always hated the idea of motherhood" and that she had the children primarily to appease her husband, who always wanted them. She says that her children "interloped" on her peace and that she has never gotten it back, even now. Part of this is because her now-adult daughter has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and she still cares for her.
There's been a lot of discussion surrounding this article. Here's a response one man wrote that focuses on how irresponsible it was for a woman to have children when she knew she didn't want them. Femamom admits that she's appalled by the story, but wonders if she would react the same way if a father had penned it. The comments in this post at Mamamia are particularly interesting, with many commenters admitting to similar feelings themselves or, at the very least, voicing sympathy for Dutton's position.
I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to say that I was sympathetic to this woman who took on the role of mother because it was culturally assumed that she would do so even as she knew that it wasn't a role she wanted. Sometimes it seems that there isn't much room in our social norms for a woman who doesn't want children even today, and her husband certainly seemed to ignore her insistence that this wasn't the life she wanted, assuming she would change her mind as time passed.
Some people saw her as presenting herself as a martyr who sacrificed her own individualism for the sake of her children despite knowing how much that sacrifice would cost her.
What struck me the most, though, wasn't the martyrdom so much as the smug superiority. Dutton doesn't just admit that she regrets the choice she made to become a parent, she makes sure that her readers understand that after she made that choice she made all the right ones and that if we don't make the same ones, we're bad parents. At one point, she even explicitly says that her decision to have children she didn't want and never enjoyed having was morally superior to us parents who have children and then allow "someone else" to "raise them" by using daycares or nannies.
This piece is drawing a lot of ire for the coldness with which this mother approaches her children's well-being. In fact, it seems written in a way to draw just that ire. When her son was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, he was whisked away to receive medical attention. Dutton admits she felt no apprehension and didn't even bother to ask the doctors if her son was okay:
I did not really think about Stuart at all, until Tony returned after work and asked where he was.Another such passage reveals that she left her three-week old son outside of a store with the dog while she bought bread and then forgot them both there. It was the dog's absence that made her realize her mistake:
He was fine, of course, but when they wheeled him back into the ward I did not experience that sudden leap of the heart that new mums are expected to feel. Instead I sat down with a cup of tea and thought bleakly, 'What have I done?'
I missed the dog before it even occurred to me that I'd left Stuart outside the shop.She recounts frustration with strangers cooing over her baby and saying how cute he was, thinking to herself that it was a lie.
I can't say, even then, that I was worried. I just rang the baker to check Stuart and the dog were still outside, retrieved them and came home.
These passages lead me to think that Dutton not only expects but relishes our rage. She knows that she is saying things that she's not "supposed" to say, and she's choosing anecdotes from her parenting that specifically illustrate that point.
Hidden amongst these anger-inducing snippets, though, is a more insidious thread. Dutton has a very clear picture of what it means to be a mother, and--in her estimation--she met the mark in every way.
Real Mothers Don't Use Daycare
Dutton says that she knew that she would never leave her children in someone else's care because that's not what a mother is supposed to do:
I cannot understand mothers who insist they want children - especially those who undergo years of fertility treatment - then race back to work at the earliest opportunity after giving birth, leaving the vital job of caring for them to strangers.Real Mothers Don't Only Have One Child
Two years and four months after Stuart was born, I had my daughter Jo. It may seem perverse that I had a second child in view of my aversion to them, but I believe it is utterly selfish to have an only one.Real Mothers Breastfeed
Back home, I resolved to breastfeed. I knew it would be best for Stuart and I think every mother should do it. But even during this intimate act, that elusive bond failed to form.Ultimately, Dutton admits to her superior opinion on the way that mothering is supposed to be done:
And here, perhaps, is the nub of it: I would not take on the job of motherhood and do it half-heartedly. Unlike so many would-be mums I thought hard about the responsibilities of my role, and, I believe, if more women did before rushing heedlessly into it, they might share my reservations.She doesn't care if we're judging her because she's too busy judging us. We're the ones doing it wrong. Those of us who are buying toys and showing love and not forgetting our children outside of store fronts have it all backwards. We're supposed to be utterly miserable while we parent and if we're not miserable, then we're not giving enough.
That, ultimately, is why I can have no sympathy for Dutton's admissions. I think that it's valuable for women to be able to admit that motherhood can be overwhelming. I think it's incredibly valuable for women to be able to admit that they don't want to be mothers at all, and society needs to accept that. I want to be on Dutton's side, but she ultimately paints a picture of motherhood that is so bleak, so cruel, and so harrowing that I cannot condone the message she's sending in any way.
The saddest part of all to me is that she recognizes in her husband a great father. She admits that she guarded her child-free time and did no child-rearing duties when her husband was around. He was the one chasing children and taking care of what we often think of as "motherly" duties. Framed a different way, their arrangement could be one of equally shared parenting where both parents have time and space to pursue their own interests as well as parenting. Framed the way Dutton frames it, though, he is allowed the life he wants while she gives up everything except the fleeting moments where he distracts the children from bothering her.
Finally, she ends with this line:
And that, maybe, is the paradox. I am a conscientious and caring parent - yet perhaps I would have resented my children less had I not been.She seems to think that it is precisely her high standards for parenting that made her so miserable. In many ways, I agree with her. If she had been willing to allow caretakers to help with the day-to-day duties of raising a child, she wouldn't have felt so isolated. If she hadn't felt it was "selfish" to have only one child, maybe she wouldn't have felt the pressure to bring another person she didn't want into the world. She has taken the worst of the stereotypes we have about what makes a "good" mother and combined them into a prison of her own making. She thinks that she has upheld the standards, that she has met the goals, but the truth is that the myth of the "perfect mommy" is just that: a myth.
What do you think about Dutton's piece? Do your own standards for a role you play make it harder for you to actually play that role? How do you resolve the conflicts in your roles?
Photo: Children's Bureau Centennial