Once upon a time, say 25 years ago, women had babies. As with all everyday miracles, it was both a big deal and not a big deal. You sat at your desk in those early weeks, when your clothes were getting a bit tighter, wondering if your new line-up of healthy snacks or your hesitancy about committing your diary too far ahead had been noticed. As the months went on, and the happy news about impending motherhood was out, the main thing you did, apart from getting on with life and planning for the new life, was consult once a month your Miriam Stoppard book. That’s where you pored over the next chapter in your growing baby’s development: hiccups, facial expressions, patterns of sleeping and waking.
How different it must be now for expectant young women. In the digital age, one imagines nobody does anything so quaintly old-fashioned as looking at an authoritative book to understand what is happening to one’s body and the new life it contains. I guess everything must be out there on some website or YouTube offering to tell you what is going on. Mass distraction and addiction to the internet and social media being what it is in the way it sucks time out of life, it’s likely that no sooner are women staring at their home pregnancy test kit than they’re in the delivery suite.
A study by the University of Bristol has revealed an ‘alarming’ 50 per cent rise in levels of pre-natal depression in a single generation. Experts believe this is due to an increase in the number of women in work combined with pressure from social media. Given that the study questioned pregnant women aged 19 to 24 between 1990 and 1992 and then between 2012 and 2016, these samples would probably not have involved graduates with ambitious career aspirations. Indeed, researchers say they believe that while many women do continue to work through the bulk of their pregnancy because of career aspiration, others are forced to remain in the workplace longer than they would like because of financial pressure such as increased house prices.
Not only that, but a ‘compare and compete’ culture on platforms such as Facebook is also driving the trend. Dr Rebecca Pearson, who led the research, said the latest cohort were the ‘prime Facebook generation’ who would have begun using it during adolescence. It is now, one supposes, the norm to announce pregnancies on Facebook with a post of the scan and then keep obsessively checking for ‘likes’. Dr Pearson said that waiting for ‘likes’ and comments is likely to contribute to ‘heightened rates of depression’ and that ‘social media gives a false impression that other expectant mothers are coping better’.
That’s right, of course. Fake news. Lies. That and the ramping up of the pace of life (as you’re glued to swiping your phone) is bound to make you depressed. What a sorry state of affairs. It must be horrible to be pregnant when you can’t get off social media.
Some of us suspect there might be something else at play, however, and that’s the devaluation of motherhood in general. Although we have a narrative now that purports to be all about giving women the choice of whether and how much to work after having babies, it is very much the expectation that any normal, self-respecting woman will be on to the childcare question as soon as the baby has done its first little press-up, if not sooner. They say it’s about choice but if a woman does make that choice, it is met with incomprehension and disapproval, if not scorn. The expectation now about ‘expecting’ is that you’ll want to be back on the payroll pronto, most of all for your own dignity as a woman, baby or not. There may be comments about the need for two incomes, and of course, sadly, this is now a harsh economic reality for so many, but just about the most radical and reactionary thing a woman nowadays can say is that she would like to stay at home and look after her child. That she would like for the foreseeable future to be able to devote herself to being a mother and bringing up her child without paying someone else to do it. That if she is returning to the workplace it is only out of economic necessity, that she would actually prefer not to go out and do paid work now that she is a mother. Imagine the sharp intakes of breath.
Of course, there is a slew of books now on the sheer awfulness of motherhood in a patriarchal world, about how maternal misery is primarily about woeful childcare provision. It’s high time we starting hearing more positive voices. It’s also high time we got something a little less lazy from headline writers on national newspapers. This is where a Supermum is defined as an executive on a seven-figure salary who’s able somehow to take all her nine children on holiday. Wouldn’t it be nice if just for once a ‘Supermum’ could be a young woman whose academic limitations have placed no boardroom in her sights, but who’s put a warm hat on her baby’s head in a biting wind, who’s about to spend a few minutes boiling and mashing up a few vegetables for his meal, and then looking and smiling into his face rather than into the smartphone screen. Listening to his babble rather than listening for a ping indicating another ‘like’. That’d be a nice new story for today’s pregnant young mums in the grip of the real sadness that is depression.