The Nobel Prize for Literature was announced recently and so my congratulations go to Mo Yan. In an interview he gave to Granta magazine he said this:
First of all, I admire and respect women. I think they are very noble and their life experience and the hardship a woman can endure is always much greater than a man. When we encounter great disasters, women are always more brave than men – I think because they have their due capacity, they are also mothers. The strength that this brings is something we can’t imagine.
I’ve heard this before and it used to annoy me. It actually annoys me now much more. Becoming a mother makes you able to bear much more crap than other people. Apparently. It would be easy to dismiss this as a silly thing said by a man if it wasn’t replicated elsewhere. It’s part of the myth given to motherhood.
I don’t see that this really makes sense. The people I know without children are capable of all sorts of marvellous things. Also I don’t know that I’m capable of anything more than I was five months ago before E was born. I’m the same person I always was and, while having a baby has given me all sorts of experiences I didn’t have before, I don’t know that my character is any deeper than it was before.
But as if this wasn’t bad enough, there’s the other side. Just confuse matters, alongside this idea that women are stronger because of childbirth, is the idea that when you become a mother you can’t do as much. The Booker shortlisted author Alison Moore was interviewed on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago and asked if she’d found it hard to write a novel while having a baby in the house. Politely, but firmly, she booted the idea into touch, saying she wouldn’t have been able to write it without him.
A few years ago a British female mountain climber, Alison Hargreaves, died while climbing up something cold. She left behind a husband and two children. Many comments at the time questioned her parenting, calling her irresponsible for leaving her children. Sorry, not leaving them, I meant to say she “abandoned” them. You never hear this with men. When men die leaving children behind there’s just a sad lament that they won’t know their father, not that the father was irresponsible for putting himself in harm’s way in the first place, whether it be mountain climbing, fire fighting, armed services or whatever. I imagine there was a good chance that she felt empowered by her children to climb more, like Alison Moore, perhaps she felt they helped her find the strength and dedication she needed.
I’ve been thinking about potential and wasted opportunities since E was born and much more this past week. We’ve had a bad week, receiving a blow to the family finances and to S’s sense of self. It’s heightened a sense of regret I’ve felt since E was born, one that looks back at my life and thinks “Why didn’t I do that differently?” Every moment in university I didn’t spend networking or thinking about the future – planning a career or specialism – every wasted job interview where I was too shy or nervous to tell them about myself has flashed before my eyes. Because of course I want to provide for E. Provide more than I can at the moment. A bigger house with a garden she can play in, in an area where the schools don’t terrify me. But other things too. Or rather, not having to panic at buying something she needs, or having to buy the cheapest and pray that it’s not also the worst quality.
And so we arrive back at Mo Yan’s quote. E’s given me more of a reason to come out of myself and think seriously about the future, to be more and to do more. Conversations with friends this week have prompted some ideas – other people always seem to have more of an idea about what I’m good at than I am – and I sit here wondering how to put them into practise. I’m just going to have to go for it and see how we get on. People like JK Rowling, Alison Moore and Alison Hargreaves are inspirational. But are they inspirational because they had to be, because they were mothers, or are they inspirational despite being mothers?