Future Ireland / Does motherhood unite or divide us?

Most mothers have more pressing things to think about than constitutional arrangements. While there are some differences in the lived experiences of mothers in the UK and Ireland, they are small. In fact, our struggles are pretty much the same across national borders.

Beyond the obvious, that all mothers want the best for their children (and often disagree on what that is and how to achieve it), we are united in our systematic disadvantage by the states in which we are living. The only exception is the slightly better (though not perfect) conditions in Scandinavian countries and Iceland.

In Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain, how much difference is there really in the experiences of mothers in society and the workforce? Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) and Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (CNR) – and others – are all united by the crappy status of women – including transwomen and non-binary individuals – particularly mothers, in the workforce.

The only thing that might mitigate this is class, for women who can afford all the childcare they want or need, or who can afford not to work at all.

Disinvestment, or negligence in investment in childcare provision, doesn’t stop on one side of the Old Park Road or differ once one passes the Short Strand. At the Magic Milk breastfeeding support group in North Belfast that I attended after the birth of my first child, there was no tension, suspicion or discussion of identity, outside of the utter shock of becoming mothers. There weren’t unionist mothers or nationalist mothers.

To a lesser degree there were foreign mothers and local mothers. But this wasn’t an issue of attitudes towards foreign mothers, instead much more a function of those of us who aren’t from here finding navigating foreign systems and institutions difficult. We lack native knowledge that is passed down from mother to daughter and so on. But still, we are welcomed and still, most of our struggles are the same.

Nor does crossing a southern border magically make better or worse the experience of becoming a mother. My friend from Donegal who had worked in Belfast and now lives in Dublin, experienced the same sleeplessness and confusion surrounding those first weeks after the birth of her child, still didn’t know who could help her or when or how it would get better, just like I did.

Studies in England have shown the dire state of breastfeeding support structures, with some women having to drive a minimum of an hour away from their homes to access support. My friend in Dublin has a breastfeeding support group that meets across the street from her house – once a month. Neither is good enough.

So it seems to me that the only unity up, down or across these isles when it comes to motherhood is how little any of these states or societies values us and our labour.

The barriers we face getting back to work after tearing our bodies and souls apart for the best part of two years – for that is what it takes to build, carry, deliver and nurture life in the beginning – are trans-national.

The UK-wide campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed has made this clear. They illuminate with heart-breaking relatability the stories of mothers facing pregnancy discrimination or struggling to manage work and a career after having children. Often in the face of employers who understand neither their legal nor moral obligations.

Facebook groups I belong to on going back to work and breastfeeding in Ireland show that women in the Republic have it just as bad, if not worse in some ways. Their average maternity package pays less, and allows fewer weeks off than in Northern Ireland, where many women are able to take nine months to a year off work. Not everyone, of course, as low-income women or those on insecure contracts or in high-pressure jobs might not have access to the same provisions, and paid statutory maternity leave is only six months.

Either way, *both* the UK and Ireland have some of the lowest paid maternity provision in the EU, and some of the poorest childcare provision.

Even these meagre entitlements are at risk in Brexit – isn’t everything – as EU law underpins protections for maternity and parental leave as well as healthcare for pregnant people and those who have recently given birth. Although the UK and Ireland currently exceed the EU’s minimum statutory maternity provisions, the worry is that a post-Brexit Britain may start to roll rights and standards back, while the EU is generally seen to be pushing them forward.

In that regard, perhaps the union that mothers and parents ought to be most concerned about is that with Europe.

Even when we make it back to work, through the sleepless nights and early mornings, organising food and clothes for tiny humans and for ourselves, trying not to leave the house without their coats or my glasses or laptop or work presentation, preferably still on time or at least only 10-15 minutes late instead of 30, trying to ignore the baby’s wails and the toddler’s whispered ‘I miss you, mommy’ when we drop them off at whatever childcare we can manage, to make it to work with mascara running down our faces from our own tears, not sure if we’ve had breakfast but definitely in need of an intravenous coffee drip NOW, we continue paying a penalty, just to be a mother who dares to go to work.

For from September 12th each year, mothers in the UK start working for free as compared to their equally educated male peers. Never mind all the other work we do for free in our own homes and as carers in society. Not even our economically-recognised labour is valued equally. 

There is no equality, even in the same country or region. It is a lottery of rights.

So where is the mother in this morass? And what is best for future mothers?

The union under a Prime Minister Corbyn would offer a preservation of existing rights, a bold expansion of affordable, accessible childcare provision and protection of the welfare state. The union under the Tories, on the other hand, may mean maintenance of the two-child welfare cap, which has been like a homing missile for the most vulnerable mothers in society. As well as Conservatives’ carelessness with the welfare state more generally.

On the other hand, the women’s movement in the Republic is incredibly mobilised and motivated just now, so who’s to say the hard fight to Repeal the 8th won’t translate to gains for mothers and parents, as this powerful, united, all-island movement turns from righting the wrongs of the past to ensuring we don’t wrong our futures?

There is an incredible transformative power in this transnational women’s movement that has been built over years and solidified and amplified through the Repeal campaign. Many Northern women joined the campaign. And not a breath was taken in hesitation when, the second after Repeal was won, they asked for help in return to decriminalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Neither was there a breath of hesitation in the Southern women’s ‘yes’.

But we have friends in both places. Working with allies in Great Britain on the push for decriminalisation, cooperation across these islands has never been stronger. The needs and desires and basic humanity of women and all pregnant people have never been more to the forefront of our collective minds. It is exemplary of where we can go when women, trans and non-binary individuals are leading the way.

It is the same struggle for childcare, rights and wages, across and beyond national boundaries. Reproductive labour has little respect for borders.

And so why get caught up in identity battles on international borders when the borders between me and my husband, or me and my friends without children, are greater in my actual, day to day life?

Without a recognition of the value of reproductive labour, what difference does it make to the mother working only for childcare as she struggles to find a foothold in the professional world again? Or the people who can’t access safe healthcare for themselves when they are pregnant? Whether they live north-south-east- or west of someone else’s borders?

A recent survey showed that in the context of a hard Brexit, over 30% of unionist women would vote for Irish unity (compared to just 5% of unionist men). That statistic may well be a bellwether of the changing direction of the wind: whichever way it blows towards equality – social, economic and cultural – that way go the women.

Maybe many more mothers these days are less interested in these antiquated political identities. Maybe we are more interested in ‘mother’ as a political identity of its own.


Part of the Future Ireland Series. Questions, ideas, pitches to Claire – [email protected] or David – [email protected] To keep up with other pieces in the conversation, click here.