Mother Tongue

My undergraduate degree was in modern languages. What else would an incorrigible reader study? The more languages available to you, the greater the range of books to devour. Deeper still, there was a genuine interest in words and the fascinating, impossibly complex way in which we use them to communicate. I regret now that the study was so shallow, so short and so very long ago. I’m left with, rather than any expertise, a smattering of understanding; a fleeting impression of a huge richness beyond my ken. That, and the ability to guesstimate the meaning of a menu pretty much anywhere in Europe.

Words matter. Words don’t reflect what we see, they refract and reframe it. This isn’t the subject of a blogpost, of course, it’s the subject of a life’s work. But I have been thinking more and more, about the words we use around motherhood and the way in which language itself distorts our perceptions and colours – poisons, even – the debates about stuff which really matters.

I’ve thought about writing this – and the way in which media coverage and discussion always seems intent on driving mothers into two opposing camps – for a while. There’s too much to put into one post, really, but one tiny, apparently innocuous phrase, struck me tonight.

Taking part in a Twitter conversation about motherhood and feminism, I found myself hesitating before typing “I gave up work”. “Giving up” is such a negative phrase. My dictionary defines it as “cease making an effort; admit defeat”. It is so passive. I wasn’t “defeated” by anything when I decided that my career, at that time, wasn’t making me happy, wasn’t giving my children the start in life I wanted and wasn’t, on balance, providing adequate (non-monetary) compensation for the things it was costing me. Nor did I cease making an effort. Women like me who leave the workforce are, almost literally, air-brushed out. Our motives and, often, our lives too are dismissed as superficial, cosmetic, lacking in seriousness. I was incredibly lucky to have a choice. I don’t perceive myself as a victim in this. But nor will I concede that I have, in any way, somehow stopped trying. I didn’t “give up” working. I chose to stop.

The same is true with the endless battles over breastfeeding. How much of a sting there is in the simple phrase “she gave up”. Again, it smacks of defeat, of lack of effort, even while the woman involved may know how hard she tried and feel bitterly let down by lack of support. Or, conversely, may have taken the decision for the most sensible, practical and compelling of reasons. “Giving up”, with its connotations of weakness and lack of commitment, casts over every discussion, at whatever level, semi-conscious shadows of accusation and defensiveness and causes a huge amount of hurt to many women.

Do we talk like this about men? Not about breastfeeding, of course; not really about employment, since so few men’s working lives are outwardly changed when they become fathers. I think in general, though (and I know that this is a fairly generalising post) we assume an active decision making, a positive and rational approach to problem solving with which we fail to credit women.

I’m never again going to slip into the easy, barbed trope of saying that I gave up work. I stopped. After all, in the absence of a detailed conversation and valid interest in my circumstances, that is all that anyone else needs to know.



17 thoughts on “Mother Tongue

  1. As a linguist myself, this always fascinates me about language too: how it shapes our perceptions and how it shapes reality and affects our self-esteem. And as I read your excellent post I was totally in agreement, until I suddenly thought of a positive example I do hear of men giving up work. In telling his life story, a friend of mine who ran for parliament recently will always say that he “gave up” his job to work as a volunteer. In this sense, “giving up” work doesn’t have connotations of defeat, but of surrender. Giving something that is of value to you up to give your life to a higher cause. Which is, thinking about it, how I view giving up work to devote my time to my children. So perhaps it could be a positive word choice as well.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You are right, of course – we give up smoking or drinking or chocolate for Lent! I was thinking, though, that when I come to go back to work, I won’t be saying that I am “giving up” being a SAHM. Partly it’s usage, of course, but I do think that in these two examples, regardless of the woman’s actual motive, there’s are underlying suggestions of failure. Which leads neatly on to another niggling thought I always have: how we use/abuse the word “sacrifice” when we talk about women’s decisions…

      1. Good point – I don’t think we’d ever say we were “sacrificing” time with our kids to work, or we’d never do it at all, we’d feel so guilty! Sacrifice implies that the object of the sacrifice is of tremendous value, but the cause is of greater value…

  2. Thank you for this post – I hope it is widely read. Women’s oppression begins with language. Our use of that language entrenches our oppression further. Superb post x

  3. I chose to leave work and it was one of the most empowering things I have ever done. I also chose to stop breast feeding too and which i found similarly empowering.
    We must first start by not airbrushing ourselves from the ‘workplace’. I can do that at times and, as you comment, that starts with the language we use.

  4. Excellent, excellent post! I didn’t ‘give up’ full-time work or breastfeeding, yet I’m no longer doing either. I also find that the ‘give up’ phrase is accompanied, more often than not, by an apologetic or defensive tone of voice. Why am I apologetic? I made both decisions for the best of reasons.

    Will be following your blog from now on – thanks again!

  5. This is a great post. I chose to stop work too and have always felt like even some of my closest friends have judged me – even though my last career in retail management brought me to the point of mental illness! I think there is such stigma in not working as a mum but it is in fact such an empowering thing to do and our children will thank us for it. I have set up a small business working from home and am intent on finally realising my dream to become an author, not to mention I don’t miss out on my little girl – what could be a better decision than that?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you have found a better way after so much trouble. I don’t have any ideological conviction about which is best – and I hate the fact that so many women don’t have a choice at all – but I do think it’s important to make the point that our decisions should be taken seriously

  6. Your post made me think: how do I describe the point at which I decided not to go back to work, after having my oldest child? I’m pretty sure I say I ‘stopped’ rather than ‘gave up’. I never experienced life as a parent who works; I don’t know the difficulties involved, never had to make a decision about whether to carry on in that dual role. I’ve noticed, though, that friends who stopped working after they re-joined the workforce as a new parent, sound more defeatist when they talk about their decision. In a society that encourages women to be both a fantastic mother AND an ambitious career woman, I’m not surprised that many women feel that they’re ‘giving up’ when they choose to focus on one or the other.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I think we expect the impossible in a lot of cases, and don’t allow for nuance. No wonder we end up feeling guilty, bitter or resentful

  7. A well written and thought provoking piece there, but as a dad on the point of deciding whether or not to “give up” work, I can’t help thinking you were a bit too sweeping in your consideration of men. As it is, reducing my days to three days a week has already been negatively perceived by some…would they think the same of a mother seeking a more flexible week? And I can already smell the disbelief that will be shown should I put my “giving up” work into action – from colleagues and wider family no doubt. One thing is certain…I’d be giving up nothing; I’d be actively choosing to invest in my family in a way they judge would be more useful to them.

    1. Hi, and thanks for your comment. Good luck with the part time working. I absolutely agree with you that it is an active decision and one which every parent makes for him or herself. I don’t think it’s just men whose reactions can be negative, I have been guilty myself of falling into a apologetic mode about my own decisions. I do still wonder, though, if people – even if critical of your choice – would be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt as having made that decision for valid reasons. We have definitely got a long way to go to make work fit with family lives for both fathers and mothers.

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