HAVE any of you read A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa?
I finished this unusual book yesterday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
It’s the story of Doireann’s life interwoven with that of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill. Doireann is a poet and a mother. She has three sons and when we meet her, she is about to give birth to a daughter.
The way she evokes those days after birth, days in which she is consumed with feeding her baby and caring for her family while being tired to her very bones, will be familiar to all mothers, myself included.
Eibhlín Dubh is a noble woman who has been dead for more than 300 years.
She too was a poet and was best known for writing the Lament of Art O’Leary, a famous poem about the killing of her husband and the anger, grief, heartache, and thirst for revenge she felt in its wake.
Doireann is spellbound by Eibhlín.
She is obsessed by the love Eibhlín had for Art and by the lust Eibhlín felt for his body. The book describes what happens when Doireann tries to find out more about Eibhlín’s life as a poet, a mother, a lover, and a woman.
I, in turn, am spellbound by Doireann and the insight she gives into her life, into the way her body feels after birth, into the shape of her days as she looks after her children, and into her relationship with her husband. I’m hungry for all of these details as I want to compare them to my own life.
Yet there’s one important detail missing. How does Doireann manage to write such a book while also looking after four children?
Some people think that you shouldn’t ask this question if you see yourself as a feminist because this question is rarely asked of men.
They don’t need to explain how they achieve a work/life balance because there is an implicit meaning to these words.
What they mean is: who looks after the children? In today’s world (and I suppose in all words that have gone before), that is women’s business.
A few years ago, the novelist and mother Lauren Groff said she wouldn’t answer this question again until it was routinely asked of men. A lot of women agreed with her stance.
Not me. I think that the answer women give to this question can kickstart a conversation that is necessary if we are ever to create a more equal society.
We have to acknowledge that every couple experiences seismic change to their lives when a child is born.
Their priorities shift and there are new demands on their time.
Usually, most of the burden of this falls on the mother.
It’s most often her who brings their child to nursery, who prepares his lunch, who makes appointments to see the doctor and the dentist, and who takes charge of all of the other practicalities of the child’s life.
While the father’s life often carries on seamlessly from before, with very few changes, the mother frantically tries to reshape her days so that she can do everything that needs to be done.
This puts huge pressure on modern-day mothers. It’s a pressure that I feel, and my friends too. I’d hazard a guess that Doireann Ní Ghríofa and even Lauren Groff feel that same pressure.
I know there are people who can afford to hire live-in help.
There are others who have family nearby that are happy to lend a hand in minding the children.
There are couples that share the responsibilities of childcare and housework equally.
And there are also couples in which one person, most often the mother, decides to stop working outside the home and to focus on looking after the children instead.
The childcare that I’ve cobbled together for my son involves a young woman from across the road looking after him for four hours a day three days a week, my mother minding him on another day, and my partner pitching in as and when he can.
Yet I still have to get up early every morning, hours before everyone else, if I want to get my work done.
Having a baby is a joyful thing but we should admit that it disproportionately affects mothers.
We should be allowed to ask questions about this. By ignoring it, we belittle the lives of women and of mothers.
But if we talk about it, it may eventually result in positive change.
It may alter people’s perspective of childcare and of the role it plays in creating a more equal society.
Imagine the difference that would make to couples, to parents, and to society in general.
Imagine the difference it would make to women.