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Motherhood: too bad, it was your choice

This article has been brewing in me for three years – that’s how long I’ve been a mother for. I’ve thought long and hard about writing this article. Many have advised me against it. But ultimately, the importance of initiating discussion and change for the better outweighs my reluctance and fear. Outspoken mothers these days are too readily labelled as whiny and put in their place with the statement ‘it was your choice to have a baby, so deal with it’. Well frankly, I’m not going to shut up and walk away, not this time anyway.

After I spent forty-two hours in labour and had my abdomen sliced open, I was expecting society to embrace me; instead reality dished me a cold slap in the face. First came breastfeeding. Society was telling me I should, that it was best for my baby. But it was harder than labour. People stared at me. People asked me not to breastfeed in front of them. Someone told me it was child abuse. I stayed home as much as I could while I breastfed – an entire year. If I did go out I was reduced to feeding in tiny rooms, or crouched over my baby, and if you’re not relaxed the milk just doesn’t come.

Outings: I’ve had a waitress shrug my comment off when I explained there was a fish bone in my daughter’s flake even though she said there were no bones in the fish. I’ve had a woman approach me and my daughter at the Dali exhibition – which was set up to encourage children involvement – and remark disgustingly, ‘Why would you bring children here?’ like my daughter was a dog or something. I’ve had single girlfriends complain of mothers and prams and why we walk so slow and why we leave our Christmas shopping to the last minute and take up the shopping centres with our prams.

However, it is in the workplace where the harshest realities are learnt. Unlike our mothers, generation x and y women have been raised with the notion they can have both the career and the family. This drive and motivation to succeed doesn’t switch off once you become a mother. Society promises both the career and the family to a growing girl but when she becomes a mother, she sees it is an impossibility.

As a mother in the workplace, doors are slammed in your face. We get criticised from all directions: if we want a career – heaven forbid us wanting something – we’re selfish. If we work part-time we’re dismissed as a serious contender in the workplace and can forget promotion. If we work full-time we’re neglecting our children by taking them to childcare. But when the inadequacy compounds us and we decide to stay home full-time to care for our children, people ask what we do all day like we’re bludgers. A friend of mine decided to do just that and had this to say to me: ‘You’re either a great mum and a shit employee or a great employee and a shit mum – you can’t be both.’

As an emerging writer I’ve had my fair share of disappointments, yet I don’t hold any of the involved responsible – they’re all victims of an un-childfriendly society. When I redraft my novel, I usually take a trip to Lorne and write non-stop for a week. I have written 7 drafts of my novel in three years and raised my daughter. Last year I was made redundant at work and decided to just focus on my writing. But without the extra money coming in, I had to forgo my trips, and this makes redrafting difficult with my daughter around. I can usually redraft half of my novel in that one week. I investigated fellowship opportunities but residencies are usually offered for only three weeks or more. There’s no way I could leave my daughter for three weeks – it would be detrimental to her, but also my husband can’t take that much time off. One particular three-week residency at a state writer’s centre offered a three bedroom cottage on a secluded farm. When I enquired if my daughter could visit on the weekends they agreed. I was delighted. But then they put this on their website: ‘children and pets are not permitted’.

I promptly telephoned but they were adamant that those were now the rules. I tried to negotiate a shorter stay – I was refused. I asked if I could visit my daughter on the weekends they said no, the fellowship was set up for dedicated writers to finish a draft of their novel, not people going back and forth. They asked me to put my complaint in writing. The director said they would get back to me before the submission deadline. They never did. I never sent my application.

I already know what you’re thinking – not another whinging mum. It was my choice to have a baby so I should grunt it and bear it – right? But is it a choice? How much of the decision is genetic, how much of it is free choice, how much of it is society and what it expects of women? In fact, you could argue that these days it’s actually harder to make the decision not to have children then it is to have children. If you’re married and you say you don’t want children people presume there must be something wrong with you (or that you’re selfish). When I tell people I don’t want to have a second child they tell me I’m selfish.

If you took away the genetic instinct to have children, and the pressure by society to follow norms, how many women would actually have children? Is motherhood really a choice or something we’re not only genetically meant to do, but also expected to do? What I find astounding is that society imposes motherhood on women yet is completely inflexible towards them when they become mothers. If society wants women to have children then it should start nurturing and respecting children and mothers instead of treating us like animals.



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Koraly is a widely published Cypriot-Australian writer and performer. She is the author of the controversial Love and F**k Poems. Koraly received an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She presents on 3CR radio and has a residency at Brunswick Street Bookstore. Her 2013 La Mama show is Exonerating The Body. She is mentored by Christos Tsiolkas.

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  1. Me – mothered whilst writing a PhD, am a worker and still a mother, am a writer again. Sometimes I am a shit mum AND a shit employee AND a shit writer, all at once.

    I so many ways I agree with you and I want to say, railing against the injustice is necessary, for without that we would have none of the small compensations society offers us for the work we do as mothers – nor would we have made any of the baby steps towards recognising the contributions mothers make as workers, thinkers, activists and, yes, writers.

    But I also want to say that I did choose to be a mother. It was a gift I grasped with both hands and would have grasped again and again had circumstances been different. As a mother I am more productive and active then I ever was before. It has made me a tiger. I did not crouch away while I breastfed. I challenged those who told me my child was not welcome.

    But you know? I also waited. I waited to take a writing retreat until my child was old enough for me to leave him and while I was away I embraced the quiet – I would not have wanted a child there either.

    While I waited, I wrote around him. It was hard, I was accused of not taking my studies seriously, but I did it and I am glad I was there for most of the time during those critical first four years. When children are aged from birth to three they take oh so much of you, but when they turn four, and then five, and then six, you feel the layers of yourself, and your time, returning.

    It’s the tiniest part of your life, that waiting. It’s also the richest. For me what mothers (and fathers) need is the capacity to put your life on hold, for that small and wonderful period of waiting. Keep railing for that, at the least.

  2. Dear Naomi, thank you for your comment. I agree with certain aspects of your response. My daughter also has made me stronger, a tiger as you say. But why is it, that women must wait to have their careers back? What if you have more than one child? You could essentially be ‘out of action’ for ten years. Is there no halfway mark, no middle ground? No flexibility? It’s almost as if the workplace prefers mothers disappear, raise their children and return when the children are all grown up. And maybe this is why women are afraid to have children, or more than one child – because doing nothing but caring for your child is really HARD work mentally when your mind has been trained to expect intellectual stimulation.

  3. Thanks Koraly, you are quite right. For me the biggest shock was the expectation of traditional gender roles in society, but also from my then partner. This expectation means mothers and mothers only have to pay this price. And itt should be possible to do everything we need to keep us going intellectually while we are mothering – I certainly did (even as I hasten to add, I did find quite a lot of stimulation in engaging with my child and much of my sacrifice was in terms of money).

    I guess the halfway mark is the hardest space to offer, because as a society we do insist people are all or nothing with whatever they do. Women can also be harder on other women than any man, even when (especially when) they are mothers too.

    Until very recently, women DID exit the workforce and only return once their kids were all grown up. As we write this, new workplace laws make it possible for parents to ask for more flexibility in caring for their children, and these requests cannot reasonably be refused. Of course, everyone is saying the sky is falling and no woman of childbearing years will ever work again, but then they said that about maternity leave too. Hopefully, this will lead to a change – certainly big corporates have found the rewards of offering flexible care arrangements far outstrip the cost, because of the loyalty and commitment it engenders in working women. One day, maybe, we might be able to see that it takes a village, and not one woman, to raise a child.

    To get there we need more mother tigers who are willing to complain about what mothering costs them and their families.

  4. I’m very sorry to hear about your experience with the residency. That was definitely a case of discrimination against parents, but particularly mothers, of young children. I very consciously planned having a baby around my Big Project. I ensured I finished my PhD before trying for a baby, applied for a grant (which I thankfully received) to rewrite my thesis as a book manuscript while pregnant, and then searched for a publisher, and did the final rewrite and editing while my baby was not yet on the move. A lot of it was luck. She was a good day sleeper and was happy to be plonked on a rug on the floor and talked to occasionally while I got on with my work. It would have been impossible to do the same thing now that she’s crawling. Good luck with your writing and mothering! It’s fantastic you’re taking her to exhibitions – fuck off cranky woman at Dali! Actually I went with my whole mother’s group and we had a mass breast-feed outside. A guy walked past and asked if we were part of the exhibit!

  5. I do recall a member of parliament once getting into a lot of trouble for breast feeding her child during question time or something like that. I think she successfully managed to turn it back on those people who were accusing her of being ‘inappropriate’.

    I also recall seeing some (not very long lasting) adverts showing a man sitting on a toilet and eating with the slogan “you wouldn’t eat in a toilet so why should our children have to?” or something to that effect

    I haven’t seen much publicity about it since then so I feel this article is definately needed. There are so many amazingly contradictory views on what a mother should do, and some these judge any opposition very, very harshly. And it’s not just men doing the judging, it’s also the women.

    To be completely honest, I feel kind of uncomfortable when a woman breast feeds near me. But I feel uncomfortable about 99.9% of the time there is another person interacting with me … so I can’t really add anything overly profound to that part of the discussion other than my beliefs which are; it doesn’t matter how uncomfortable I feel, breast feeding isn’t about ‘popping out boobs’ it’s about feeding the children that (for all we know) may be caring for us when we’re pissing ourselves in a nursing home.

    As for mothers walking slowly with prams, well considering 1 in 50 people walk as fast or faster than me so everyone pisses me off by walking slowly. And I mean everyone, I don’t discriminate when I punch people in the back of the head when they get in my way. Ka-pow! Take that turbo snail!

  6. Hi Koraly,

    Well done. This post is well-written, heartfelt and straight to the point. Once I became pregnant, I was forced out of a job I loved working for a non-profit arts organisation…I then applied for a job through an organisation called ‘MUMS’ which was an employment agency specifically offering flexible jobs for mums. Short story: they too, f*cked me over.

    As a writer, you are judged by what you put on the page (screen or stage), with no consideration of the circumstances under which you write. That mothers manage to produce anything at all of publishable standard let alone organise to submit it is a miracle.

    I breastfed my son for twenty months (the World Health Organisation recommends 2 years), and in the end I had to make the choice to breasfeed wherever I wanted, whenever my child was hungry…otherwise I wouldn’t have gone out at all. Yes, I was leered at, yes I was moved on, yes I was told ‘We don’t do that in front of people in this country’ !!!?!

    Don’t get be started. But listen: if you’re serious about this, I’m happy to file a discrimination complaint on your behalf. Because what happened to you is not only disgusting, but most likely illegal. Let’s make them issue a written apology and publicly address their bigoted policy.

  7. Madeline – I can’t believe a guy asked you if you were part of the exhibit while you breastfed. Do people have no shame?

    Marc – I don’t blame you for feeling uncomfortable – you are just a victim of the society we have here in Australia. At least you are honest about it and you try to overcome those feelings and this is a step in the right direction. If more people were like you and less like the guy Madeline describes, if more people saw the natural side of breastfeeding, then we probably wouldn’t have this problem.

    Maxine – I can’t believe you got forced out of your job. It’s so sad. I hear about it all the time. I especially hear of mothers returning from maternity leave and being told they must take a lower position. I wrote this article to generate debate and raise the awareness of the issue. It’s strange but I would feel like I was overacting if I took action, and I know I shouldn’t feel like that but I would. Hopefully influential people in the writing industry can take note and maybe incorporate more flexible arrangements in their programs so mothers can also take advantage of these opportunities, particularly writers centres that are funded by the government to support ALL writers, not just childless ones. However, a response to my email would have been nice.

  8. Great article! There definitely needs to be more awareness of the issues you raise, particularly breastfeeding in public. As Marc says, it’s about feeding a hungry child, not about getting your breasts out in public. That’s just the side-effect. I know of someone who was breastfeeding in a cafe and a woman came up to her and hissed ‘nice TITTIES!’, then went and complained (unsuccessfully) to management to have her thrown out. And I’m sure there are countless similar stories.

    I became really interested in feminist issues and aware of the ongoing opportunity gap between women and men only after I became a mother – in Western societies, it’s most prevalent in this arena of motherhood and the domestic division of labour and negotiation with workplaces that follows it, I think.

    I lost a job when I was pregnant too. I’d just been offered a part-time job at an arts organisation while I was studying and the day after I told my boss I was pregnant, he withdrew the offer with a lame excuse.

    I’m particularly shocked that the writers’ retreat wouldn’t let you visit your daughter on weekends. I can kind of understand the no kids on site thing if it’s all about being quiet and working without disturbance. But not letting you go visit your daughter is appalling. And the lack of respect or courtesy in their communications with you even worse.

  9. BUT unrealistic… people are operating businesses not charities. There is no way mothers will be treated the way you think they should be.
    Reality is, women bear children. If you want to be treated like a man then don’t have kids. OR make your husband stay home and be the primary carer.
    It is actually a gift to be able to have kids to begin with, its not a curse, mothers are not victims.

    Yes, you sound like whiny mothers.

    AND when you decide to have kids (because that is in YOUR control) you should be able to say ‘MY’ needs will come second.

    THE END

  10. I think it’s true that mothers and children are discriminated against in Western middle-class culture, as your examples and those of many other posters demonstrate. But there’s discrimination and discrimination.

    For medical reasons I was 21 when I had my first child, a now or never scenario, and I was aware that various stereotypical judgments were assumed about my mothering. It can shatter your confidence, or you can put it in perspective. I breastfed my kids for 2 and 1/2 years for the first, and 4 years for the second, and yes there were many negative comments but most days I was able to rationalize those comments as a lack of education or generational thing, or just the fact the person was innately rude. I was confident enough in my parenting decisions for it to sometimes p*ss me off, sure, but not get to me.

    I also completed my undergrad degree externally, went on to Honours and a PhD all while parenting and working in some capacity. My children have always come first by a long shot, but I am still able to be successful in my professional life. Yes, sometimes that means putting myself a very distant last, and there are times of immense stress. But these are my choices, and I’m prepared for the consequences.

    I dislike the victim narratives that can often result in these situations. They are white, middle class preoccupations. Yes, women should be paid the same men, have the same opportunities professionally as men, not necessarily be the predominant care givers etc. But I refuse to see myself as a victim because juggling my professional and home life can be difficult sometimes.

    We have blackfella women in this country living in situations where choice is a rare privilege and not a right. Many of them are mothers, too, and their concerns are much more legitimate to me than ‘My child can’t visit me on weekends at a writer’s retreat’.

    • Sam, if only all mothers had that tough skin you seem to have. I’m not trying to be the victim. I know there are people worse off than me. I didn’t write this article to be vindictive. I wrote it to raise awareness. Surely as a mother you can’t deny that there room for improvement in the way society treats mothers and children? Is there no room for flexibility? Surely as a mother you don’t like to see children in the same sentence as pets?

      • I wouldn’t support any establishment that collapsed children with pets as ‘undesirables’. But I think that’s ultimately a stupid business decision. I don’t think its a sign that children or their mothers are oppressed.

        It’s not about having a tough skin at all. It’s about perspective. Sure, society could be more supportive in my choice to be a mother and have a career, and I wish it was, but I have that choice. Many women don’t.

        It’s not that I disagree with what you are saying. But it’s more how and where you are saying it. The fact it is published here means it is self-representing as a feminist critique, and as a feminist critique I have issues with it.

        If it was an email to a friend–and I’ve certainly sent such emails–I’d agree with it. “Trying to work with kids is hard for us mums and I’m so over it; and did I tell you someone hassled me for breastfeeding in front of them and then this waitress couldn’t get why I wanted bone-free fish for bubs? It all gets to me sometimes. Let’s grab a coffee next week.”

        But as a contribution to ongoing feminist debate, why?

        We have the right to be mothers and have a career now, and we are indebted to the generations of women before us who gave us those rights. Of course, the struggle is ongoing and we have a long way to go. But you’re not even arguing that. You’re arguing at a level of detail that’s just a distraction from the big picture stuff, and at times it feels you are arguing against the fact women have fought for us to have the position of privilege that you have now to complain from.

        That’s not to say that our right to work and be mothers is a privilege and not a right. But it is only from a position of privilege that you can feel it is a worthwhile feminist position to construct victimization out of bones in your daughter’s fish. The blackfella woman living in Kalumburu doesn’t get to say that.

        Australian feminism today is so caught up in its own middle-classness that it forgets that a whole heap of women live in third world conditions in our country. Your concerns are not their concerns. Instead, we’re obsessed with the semiotics of Bratz dolls and the sexism in the Nandos chicken ad, and the general oversexualization of young girls in the media. It perpetuates us as victims, and when we apply it to our daughters who need constant rescuing from cultural evils, we are developing a whole new generation of victims, too. I’m not raising my daughter to be a victim when she consumes media or in any other situation. The best way for me to do that is to give her a mother that doesn’t view herself as a victim, either.

        And I also think it’s worth pointing out here that women, arguably, now have a lot more choices when it comes to balancing careers and family than men do.

        You make two points that I think are worth further exploring. Firstly, the extent to which women have a choice in our culture to have children. Secondly, albeit inadvertently, that maternal resentment is a taboo. Both of these are worth exploring, and I hope you do.

  11. Tash, thanks you for stating your opinion openly and honestly. I assume you are NOT a mother. Although I completely disagree with you, unfortunately, what you have expressed is actually what many people have said to my face. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most motherless people living in Australia actually think just as you do but are too afraid to say it for fear or discrimination. It’s attitudes such as this that hold back change.

    ‘People are operating businesses not charities?’
    Okay, if they are, then they should be open about it. They should stop feeding society all this crap and having awards for ‘best employer for women’ and flexibility for women, and we understand women, and bla bla bla when it’s all bullshit. They should stop when, at the end of the day, if they find out you’re pregnant they will be doing everything they can to subtly get rid of you or they WON’T offer you that promotion. They should stop feeding us lies and then MAYBE we won’t grow up expecting all these things. Just tell it how it is then. Why don’t they? I’ll leave that one with you.

    Yes, women bear children. Yes it is a gift, the miracle of life. I’m sure you’d also like to have children one day – am I right? I’d really enjoy seeing what you are like when do. Please, email me. You remind me of myself before I had kids. You are oblivious of the hardships ahead of you as a mother. You will probably have post natal depression when the reality of the world hits you. You probably think, just as I did, that the world is your oyster, that you can have anything, accomplish anything, typical generation y behavior.

    Good luck. It’s because of people like yourself that people like YOU will suffer. All the best.

  12. Sam, I totally agree with you that Indigenous women are completely denied the choices and privileges enjoyed by others. But I think Koraly was really talking personally about her own experience. I would actually have been a little dismayed if she deigned to speak of the experiences of women outside her own comparatively privileged socio-economic group.

  13. Sam – what an odd point you make. Isn’t it those with the means (educational or otherwise) as well as the willpower who can change things for all of us? Sure, there are people worse off, but that’s completely beside the point. We are talking about illegal discrimination against women carers here. It doesn’t matter what the manifestation of it takes. Should I not denounce racism because I don’t live deep in the American south and have only been spat on, rather than beaten up? Or should I stand up an denounce it in all it’s manifestations?

    You make an interesting point about privilege, but then you too, see the simple picture, presenting the ‘blackfella woman living in Kalumburu’. If you want to talk about race, mothering, feminism and class, it is far more complex than throwing this image into the mix.

    For example, middle class white feminism is not my tradition.

    I am in a comparatively privileged financial position, but I come from a cultural background where the right to keep your family with you, and to be allowed to breastfeed your own children (rather than feeding someone else’s) and be home for them and to be able to decide not to work for BOSS is not something to be taken for granted, even in 2010.

    Of course, cultural background also adds great complexity to how my employer, depending on their leanings, might view me having, say, a first child (‘These people like to have big families…this is probably only the first of many…might be up for years of maternity leave’…) as opposed to a similarly educated person from an Anglo background.

    And complicating things again, a tertiary education is also a privilege to me. How might my community, family and those who sacrificed so greatly to get me where I am react if you ‘wasted it’ by staying at home mothering. My decision to either work or stay at home, and my rationale behind it are probably, politically at least, very different to a decision made by a white, middle class woman.

    What do you mean by ‘maternal resentment’? I dont believe Koraly resents her child at all, she just resents being discrimnated against purely because she has a child. And so she should be: when we make something illegal we are saying ‘We, as a society, seem this to be unacceptable. If you do this, we believe you should be published for it’. That is what we have done in relation to discrimination against carers and women. Koraly, and every other woman, should well expect that the rights which this country has legislated to give her should be upheld.

  14. this is so brave of you to write. i felt your pain every step of the way and have a few horrors of my own to add to the list. all i know, and all i can believe: God has a special place in His heart for mothers. And, women – we are so unsupportive of one another. breastfeed was my biggest failure, my own silent sorrow. i will carry it with me forever, and nobody even knows. we just suck it up like everything else. like you said – cold slaps in the face. I write about Gen X, and know firsthand – gen x women have been sold a raw bill of goods. it is not true. you can’t have it all. not and remain devoted, capable and sane. something, someone will suffer. most likey you (as in the gen x mother).

  15. Sam, this wasn’t meant to be a feminist critique. Why should mothers be reduced to talking about their experiences only via email? I am fortunate enough to have the power to reach a wide audience by writing on this blog. I’m sick to death of mothers being labeled as whiny when they talk about what it’s like being a mother in today’s society. We have a voice, and we should be heard. We’re not expecting miracles but at least, maybe steps in a more positive direction.

    And for the record, I love my daughter to bits. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have got off my butt and pursued my dreams.

    Jenx, thanks for your comment. It was brave of me to write this and I’ve probably burnt bridges but, at the end of the day, if I want to be writer, I must get used to this level of exposition.

    • Mothers are probably described as “whiny” because it is easier to come up with some ad hominum bollocks than decide on a logical reason for discriminating against people who are doing what you encouraged them to do.

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