Sisters are on my mind lately. Initially the real thing, busy with work and hopefully with pleasure soon, I follow her journeys with a bird’s eye view, imagining the new city streets she sees, the small coffee shops, the sprawling conferences. I tick off a list of cities I have ‘seen’, saving them for longer visits in the future or discarding them as not worth the effort.
There are the new sisters I have gained, many through shared interests, most through the tenuous medium of a broadband internet connection. They range from the distant sister through to the almost-the-real-thing sisters. I don’t follow their journeys so closely, but through they’re writing and art I’m drawn into their lives and hopes and dreams.
Among some books sent to me by just such a sister I read of the struggles of a stay-at-home mom. (I give myself away by admitting that was the first of the books that I read.) Though home with her children she still works, she still employs a nanny, she still feels inadequate compared to her own mother. The conflict of so many feelings; her own and those society implies we should feel, leaves her in a lather of ‘mammy’ guilt. ‘Mammy’ guilt comes with motherhood, where every choice is made with the knowledge that someone somewhere will disapprove and may even have the scientific studies to prove they are correct. Once the choice is made, be it what nappies or type of feeding, or whether to work outside the home or not, mammies forget all their careful reasoning in making the choice and end up worried that it may not have been the right one. It will seem that the disapprovers are everywhere, in every parenting article, in every encounter with fellow mothers. It is a modern phenomenon. I doubt Victorian mothers worried about their use of a nanny and the long-term implications on the psychology of the child; it was the done thing and they did it. If there is any sense of coercion in the choice made the ‘mammy’ guilt increases; if both parents must work, if the choice of feeding is limited by problems, for example.
Reading the Irish Times extract about sisters yesterday, it struck me that we are very lucky to have the chance to experience ‘mammy’ guilt. Forty years ago in Ireland we may have had no choice but to give up our jobs when we married (unless we were schoolteachers), contraception would be virtually impossible to find, our domicile would be that of our husband regardless of whether he was in the country or not, and we would have no access to divorce (and all its possibilities for guilt regarding children). Things have improved; all of these things have changed. There is still no abortion in Ireland (though plenty of clinics in England make a tidy profit catering to those Irish women who travel each year to avail of their services) and women still face glass ceilings and lower pay in the workplace.
But there is a wealth of choices and with them the knowledge that every choice may bring a sliver of guilt with it.