It is very common, when speaking highly about mothers, to mention how selfless they are. There is always someone who calls the radio on Mother’s Day to explain how their mum always put everyone’s needs first. How they cooked, and drove them to sports, volunteered in school, mended broken trousers and always took the smallest portion so that everyone else could have seconds.
Women are always praised for being selfless. Mothers, even more so. But listen to that word. Self. Less. I understand what it means, but I just don’t see it as a compliment and I think we should stop using it all together. I think there is a lot of grey between being selfish and being selfless. Compassionate, great! Altruistic, brilliant! Self-Less is just too much, selfless feels just wrong. As a Spanish person, the word selfless shocked me and horrified me when I heard if for the first time. And when I sent the draft of my speech today to my sister and my best friend, they both replied asking if it was really a word that people used.
The truth is that women, and mothers specifically, have always been celebrated for giving everything until they have nothing of themselves left. They are praised for giving, and caring, and then giving and caring some more.
Society as we know it is built on the back of women who are asked to give everything they have, and them some. Especially on their journey through motherhood.
It’s a role that has been defined for us since childhood - in the books we read, the films we watch, the nursery rhymes we’re taught. It is mum who loses the ducklings, it is mum who calls the doctor when the monkeys keep falling down the bed. It’s a role that is often assumed that we will take, the clear choice, the only option. We’re asked ‘when are you?’ not “do you want to?’
We are told that the love we will feel for our kids will be immense, like nothing we have ever known. And it is true. But we are not told that it will hurt, and that in many cases it will cost us our careers, our relationships, our mental health.
They tell us that being a mother is the most important job in the world, but it is a job without pay, without holidays, with not enough recognition and definitely not enough support. It is a job that we are expected to do alone, with a smile on our face. We’re not supposed to grumble, we’re supposed to love every second, because on top of it everyone constantly reminds us that they grow up so fast.
We are punished for having a career, we are punished for not having a career. We build our own tribes because the government, that should support us, has left us alone. We see ourselves in the tired faces of the other mothers, in the call from the nursery that our colleague has to pick up, in the conversations of complicated schedules that include reduced hours, extortionate childcare and, if we’re lucky, invaluable grandparents willing to give us a hand. We see ourselves in the streets not designed for prams, in the meetings at impossible hours. We feel the fear when we read statistics showing that mothers face a pay penalty of 45% lower earnings in the 6 years after giving birth.
Motherhood is indeed the most important job in the world. We are raising the next generation of teachers, doctors, artists, activists, leaders and taxpayers. We are doing our 200% to raise a generation of good, kind, confident humans and we can’t keep doing it at the expense of ourselves. We can no longer be ‘Selfless’, we can’t aspire to have nothing left to give.
So today we are here to demand, as mothers, a childcare system that doesn’t force us to abandon our careers, our ambitions, or ourselves. We demand a change in policy to paternity leave, one that responds to the critical need for equally divisible co-parenting. We demand flexible working for everyone by default. We demand better and we demand it unapologetically.
Today in Belfast we march in solidarity with thousands of women across the UK. And we march together, full of pride, full of anger, full of sisterhood and full of hope. Full of ourselves in the best possible way. Today we refuse to be selfless.