When Lady Macbeth expresses her concern that the main man may not be up to the job of despatching the king, ‘too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness’ as he is, she realises she’s going to have step up to the plate herself, at least in getting her other half to ‘durst do it’. To achieve this, she will need to take radical action. It means calling on evil powers to ‘unsex me here/And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full/Of direst cruelty’. She further invokes the ‘murd’ring ministers’ of these forces to ‘Come to my woman’s breasts/And take my milk for gall’. In short, she is urging that she be divested of what it is that makes her a woman, the femininity that is a constraint against central involvement in cold-blooded and murdering mayhem.
Shakespeare remains relevant today. Why? Simply because his works tell us what it’s like to be alive. More than any other writer he educates our hearts, and the truths which he dramatises about human nature endure even four hundred years on. Amongst those truths is that men and women are different. One of the things that so chillingly and dramatically compels about this tragedy is that it is the woman within a couple who so energetically embraces steps towards ruthlessness and brutality. She taunts her husband about what it is to be a man, exasperatedly berating his own post-regicide guilt with ‘Give me the daggers!’ so that she can sort things and frame the servants.
This was the emotion behind a news story about the sexes the other day. The article said modern life is eroding the distinction between male and female instincts, or at least suggested that we might be starting to think that such erosion is a good thing. Fathers are now apparently taking more time off work to care for sick children than mothers, according to a survey of parents. Where it was once the case that mothers tended to be the ones looking after their children when they were ill, a shift in social and working attitudes has led to a rise in more fathers assuming the role of carer. A study of 1,000 parents of children under 12 by the health app firm Evergreen Life found that 10 per cent of parents take more than ten days off work when their children are ill, and of those surveyed, the percentage of men taking time off work was higher consistently across four of six categories (1-5 days; 6-10 days; 11-15 days; 16-20 days).
Doubtless this will be welcomed by feminists and others whose agenda is to get women back into the workplace as soon as possible, get them contributing economically, boosting GDP. Mothers who do not want to work outside the home, or at least not to have too much commitment to the workplace, feel guilty that they may be some kind of throwback. But equally there is the guilt of working mothers about taking time off for sick children; the consequence is that now it’s become a new norm for dads to take time off instead. And you know what, maybe there are some mothers who are not that thrilled about this new normal. Maybe, far from feeling grateful to their husband that he’s at home with the child and the Calpol, they feel they would have liked to be there tending. Maybe for some of them it just doesn’t feel right that they’re not there at that bedside. Increasingly, however, it is problematic to articulate this. The new orthodoxy is that there is nothing singular, nothing special about the bond between a mother and child. Whatever the mother can do, the father can do it just as well (and if he can’t then he needs to jolly well learn). Mothers are dispensable. There’s nothing unique in the experience of being a mother.
Well, some would beg to differ. Some would argue that the biological reality of having carried an unborn child for nine months, of having fed it each time you fed yourself, of feeling it flutter, stir, kick, of having felt you might not survive the ordeal of delivering it into the world, of getting up so many times in the night to nurse it that – to quote Larkin – you are truly ‘sick for want of sleep’, that this is what makes being a mother different, distinctive. This is absolutely not to say that a mother’s love is greater or deeper than a father’s, but just to remind ourselves of the profound truth that it is a mother’s milk that feeds that baby. We should not be surprised that this is borne out in the rush of instinctive protectiveness that most women experience, something that is surely at the essence of motherhood.
It needs saying, of course, that most fathers also have these powerful emotions that define them as parents. The love from and presence of fathers is crucially important to children. Indeed, some fathers may well discover only later that the mother of their children turns out not to be as maternal and child-focused as the dads might have hoped. Dismay and frustration cuts both ways. In these cases, it could well be the father who needs to be chief carer, nose-wiper, comforter, even house-husband when he realises the children’s mother would be miserable having to compromise her career for family reasons. That is just not what makes her tick. Some women are outliers in that they just may not enjoy parenthood as much as some outlying men. That’s fine. Families have to work out what works for them. It’s likely true, after all, that most of us only need good enough parents.
The fact is that all cultures and societies have always expected more from women than from men on the caring and nurturing of children (yes, traditional, and for some that means regressive). It’s no good moaning that this is just about patriarchal structures. It’s how it is. We expect women to be more empathetic, more collaborative, better at listening. That’s why we are so unsettled by female serial killers, by Rose West, by the mother of Shannon Matthews, by evil in a female form. That’s why we don’t expect to hear about lesbians and domestic abuse of partners or children in the household (and nor is this true of most men either). And let us not forget, there is some acceptance of the unique bond between mother and child when it comes to prisons, which is why there are mother and baby units. Would feminists argue that these are outmoded and should now be matched by father and baby units, with the infant shifting equally between the two?
There was a report in The Atlantic a few years ago about ‘moms being more likely to skip work’ than dads when it came to looking after sick children. To be accurate, they were ten times more likely. It’s reasonable to suppose that for many women it was in their nature to prioritise in this way, and not just because their husbands were selfish, uncaring and work-obsessed swine. The article referred to some Pew analysis that found that men were still much more likely to say they wanted to work full-time and have a high-paying job, whereas what working mothers wanted above all was a flexible schedule. It’s not a huge leap to assume that this might be because they might really want to be the first ones there when their children need them. That’s not about demoting fathers. It’s about women listening to what feels right, keeping in tune with their instincts. It’s about women not allowing forces outside themselves to tell them what to feel, what feels right. They know what feels right. For most it’s making the sick child the priority, not the workplace.
It’s a matter of academic argument whether or not Lady Macbeth had children, but what we do know is that she flings away the inconvenient, intrinsic traits of her femininity, and denies her own nature as a woman in pursuit of status and ambition. She goes mad, of course, having found only emptiness and torment. And guilt. Something many women are experiencing more than ever nowadays. Certainly, if women collude en masse in moves emanating from the feminist agenda to make mothers optional, reduce mothering to something that can and should be outsourced to fathers and to the state, then they will reap an emotional and psychological whirlwind. That will be something to feel guilty about.