As a married twenty-eight-year-old, I have started hearing the age-old question that has haunted women of my age and marital status for all of human history: When are you thinking of having kids? It comes from a good place, I presume. ‘You seem relatively grown up, I like you, please make more people for me to like.’ That’s, of course, not entirely how it comes across. It’s the kind of pressure I never thought I would live to see. In our culturally-aware times where feminism is mainstreaming, I thought I would escape such expectations. But alas. I know quite a few mothers that are roughly my age. It mostly ‘happened’ to them, and granted, if it ‘happened’ to me at twenty-eight I most probably would just let it, and simply cope like the grown ass woman that I am. But my examples of motherhood – my mother and her mother – are not exactly something I could replicate. So how does one rear a child in Western societies like the one I live in?
You see, I grew up in Brazil. And Holland, sure, but I was brought up from a helpless tiny infant to a relatively independent eleven-year-old child in Brazil. And in Brazil, women like my mother had full-time jobs. Almost all if not all middle-class families in Brazil were two-income, two-job affairs. Mom and dad worked and hired someone to look after their kids. When the kids were little, it was not uncommon to have a nanny and a cleaner. Eventually, in most middle-income households, the nanny would be phased out and an incredible super-woman would have to cook, clean and look after the children. Until we left Brazil, this ‘other woman’ was an unquestionable fact of life. Living in or out, we had help.
My mother is a very well-accomplished woman. Her career is really stellar. And she did all of that while being as present, caring and involved in our lives as she possibly could. She would drive home from across town to have lunch with me and drive me to school every day. She was there whenever I really needed her. But her kind of professional success and accomplishment, her model of motherhood, my fulfillment and development as a child, none of it would have been possible without the other women, the surrogate mothers, hired to raise us. Erenilda, Marili, Marcinha, Tania, Marcia and many less memorable characters were the women who made my privileged childhood possible. Sometimes they were mothers themselves, invariably they were poor and working class women who sought employment in the private sphere due to lack of options.
My mother was a good boss on all accounts. She made sure these women were working on furthering their careers outside of our or anyone’s households – and many did. Long before a center-left government in Brazil made it mandatory for domestic workers to be treated like any other worker with rights, signed contacts, paid vacation leave and a decent wage, my mom made sure every single one of these women had that. She never let us order anyone around – a disgustingly common sight when I was child in Brazil was a tiny little tyrant disrespecting and humiliating ‘their (the possessive form used by the bratty products of class-societies) maid’, affirming their superior place in society and the household – and demanded that we did some basic chores like making our bed, putting our clothing and toys away, etc. I realize that to most people this may sound absurdly obvious, but in those days, my mom was a revolutionary for not allowing us to be awful.
As previously stated, almost all Brazilian mothers in my immediate surrounding worked. But their care duties and responsibility for the upkeep of the household was in no way diminished. Buying this labor in from other women, effectively outsourcing these now secondary duties of the household, was a ‘logical’ solution. My mother’s emancipation, as a highly educated divorced woman with two daughters and a family that lived seven hours away, was only really possible in the context where another woman was confined to her household. The private realm remained the realm of women. Poor women.
This two-working-parent model that I upheld as the absolute symbol of success, the success story of my middle-class family, isn’t one that I can live with. Or up to, really. I live in Amsterdam. Help don’t come cheap. My own mother had to learn a new way of ‘mothering’. Her mother was a stay-at-home powerhouse who raised seven kids, a few of their friends and took care of my grandfather’s parents. She stopped studying at nine years of age because her traditional Italian patriarch of a father decided that she had learned enough – her one ‘ugly’ sister, who he feared would not marry, was the only one allowed to study further – and made sure that all three of her girls became accomplished professionals. To this day when I call her, she asks when I’m getting my PhD. She wants another doctor in the family – medical or otherwise.
That life, my grandma’s life, was not a desirable outcome for women of my mom’s generation. They wanted all of it. But with no government systems in place and no cultural shift that divided household responsibilities between men and women, they were stuck in the impossible position of having to have it all. But all can’t be had with no help. So they bought help. And at my age, and marital status, with an ocean or two between anyone my husband and I are related to, I wonder how in the world I’m supposed to do motherhood in the way I grew up thinking I would do. Every mother I know in this country works part-time and has family help. I didn’t even know what part-time was until I was old enough to enter the labor market. We didn’t discuss professional sacrifices in our household. I’m sure there were many, but this was not the narrative we wanted to focus on. Success and family life that was compatible with it; that was our story.
I am not really ready to take such a massive plunge and start making humans any time soon. As far as I’m concerned I’m pretty young. And so far, I’ve done a pretty good job of not get knocked up. But, honestly, looking around me, I feel like when I do I’ll need to reinvent the wheel a little bit. This mother’s day, I’ll be thinking of Erenilda, Marili, Marcinha, Tania, Marcia and the other less memorable characters who made my privileged childhood possible.
Wishing for a society where motherhood isn’t punishable either by professional stagnation or by the unfair confinement of poor women to the private sphere.