You're probably alright to lose that mask now Mum. Credit: Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency via Getty

May 21, 2020   5 mins

When my daughter arrived by emergency C-section, I was smashed on morphine. Even so, holding her felt like the most natural thing in the world. After nine months of literal symbiosis with her, the fact that she was now outside my body didn’t diminish that in the slightest.

It was like we had some kind of special telepathic bond — and I’m sure that wasn’t the drugs talking. In fact, telepathy is exactly what Rupert Sheldrake would call it. In 2002, the author and scientist surveyed breastfeeding mothers to investigate a phenomenon in which some women experience a milk letdown reflex when their babies are hungry, even if the baby is some distance away, for example in nursery. In the study, 16% of the mothers confirmed that they’d experienced this.

Depending on who you ask, Sheldrake is either a pioneering biologist or a woo-woo merchant. But I do believe a kind of connection does exist between mothers and their children. You can call it woo-woo if you like: I call it Mum Bluetooth.

About 48 hours after the birth, I became seriously ill. My Bluetooth glitched. I was put on a drip, and watching nurses take my baby away, I felt nothing but relief that she wasn’t my responsibility any more. She was just a thing: a burden. But as I recovered, the feeling of symbiosis came back along with an urgent need to hold and feed her. By far the most upsetting memory in the subsequent months was not the C-section or even the complications, but the temporary disappearance of the Bluetooth.

Until recently, I would have said that the feeling of oneness is a short-term thing, maybe a hormonal byproduct of birth and breastfeeding, and likely wears off as a baby becomes a toddler. But lockdown changed my mind.

When lockdown started, my husband and I agreed we’d parent in shifts, with me at my desk from 5am till noon and him from noon until the evening. We’d both get something close to a full working day, our daughter would always have a parent with her, it was egalitarian. It seemed like a great plan.

Except it didn’t work. Every day I’d emerge at noon to start my parenting shift — only to find I couldn’t get in the zone. I’d forgotten how to speak child.

As time went on, the feeling of disengagement got worse. I’d get impatient with my daughter. I couldn’t think of things to do with her. I’d be on Twitter when she was talking to me, snapping at her for trivial things, counting the hours until I could plonk her in front of the telly and go cook tea.

Four weeks in, she was running to her father rather than me for everything, which in turn made me resentful and paranoid. I started to worry about my own mental health, as by now it was obvious even to me that something was seriously wrong. Our daughter was showing signs of distress as well, climbing into bed and turning her face to the wall.

The nadir came when I was in charge one afternoon, and nipped upstairs to have a shower while she watched TV. With the shower on I didn’t hear as she closed the latch on the sitting room door, then wanted to get out but couldn’t work the handle, then screamed for me. When I came downstairs my husband had already found her, curled up hysterically sobbing behind the door.

The degree to which I’d come adrift from my own child’s needs appalled me then, as did my own strange numbness. I suddenly understood the weirdly grief-like emotions I’d been experiencing, and that I’d attributed to general lockdown stress. I was mourning the Bluetooth.

Something about the schedule was attenuating the Mum Bluetooth. Small children are at their best first thing in the morning, and losing that time with my daughter was scrambling the signal. So I took a week off work. I got up with her every day, helped her dress, organised tabletop crafts. We read stories and played. She helped me do housework.

Within 24 hours, she perked up. The moping in bed stopped. Her appetite improved. She stopped refusing to go outside. She started playing independently again instead of panicking every time I left the room.

And I came back as well. I stopped feeling so paranoid, and my thinking became less muddled. My creative mind – which had been on the brink of seizing up altogether – came roaring back. Apparently the Bluetooth wasn’t just a source of nourishment for my child, but for me as well.

My hunch is mothers experience the Bluetooth more strongly, on average, than fathers. Other women know what I mean  — the men only sometimes. So is it a biological thing — a consequence of gestating and breastfeeding? It’s tempting to imagine so. But a recent NBER study from Princeton academic Henrik Kleven and others suggests possibly not, or at least not straightforwardly.

The study surveyed a large Danish dataset covering career differentials between mothers and fathers in both natural and adoptive families, and showed that the same divergence between the sexes happens in adoptive families. That is, mothers were still prioritising family life even when this wasn’t biologically driven, as it would be if they were breastfeeding.

Of course the study wasn’t looking at the Mum Bluetooth. It was looking into the relative effect of parenthood — adoptive or biological — on mothers’ and fathers’ careers. What is also called the “child penalty”. But clearly something is changing mothers’ work patterns more than fathers’ when children come along. Denmark is one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, and still comes nowhere near parity of workplace achievement between the sexes — so it can’t all be down to sexist stereotypes. I think some of the disparity is down to women working less in order to safeguard the Bluetooth.

There are plenty of accounts of how young children live in partial symbiosis with their mothers. But the same account is much more rarely given from the mother’s perspective. It crops up in feminist debates from the 18th-century Hannah More to Vanessa Olorenshaw today, but again and again such accounts seem to end up on the cutting-room floor. Instead, ‘feminism’ is presented as an individualistic philosophy, that starts with Simone de Beauvoir and ends with ‘gender pay gap’ audits and a fixation on parity of workplace representation for women at the very top of the social scale.

Why? Well, one problem is discussion of sex-based differences in priorities devolves quickly into stereotypes. When we talk about even well-evidenced normative differences between the sexes, it’s easy to slip from being descriptive (men or women are more likely to show this or that trait) to prescriptive (all men should be like this, all women should be like that).

None of this is to say I don’t think there are highly attuned dads, or hopelessly disengaged mums. Of course there are. But a trend doesn’t have to be universal to be salient.

Feminists are understandably wary of any suggestion that women have more pronounced nurturing traits than men. But whether it’s a consequence of childbirth, socialisation, hormones or whatever, it’s my observation that mothers are generally more aware of (and likely to value) the feeling of being slightly Bluetoothed with our kids. And pretending that doesn’t exist or that it’s an equal-opportunities phenomenon runs the risk of encouraging many mothers to ignore or even stifle a major source of life-enhancing joy.

It also closes down important lines of enquiry about how to work as a mother, without work and the Bluetooth ending up in zero-sum conflict. There’s a degree to which this is unavoidable – it’s not really possible simultaneously to read feminist political theory and build dens with a three-year-old. But for me at least, it turns out that muffling the Bluetooth has a negative impact on my ability to think and work, even when I do have uninterrupted time.

I’ve come to accept that there’s a limit on the amount of child-free time I can carve out of any given week, because if I breach that limit, the Bluetooth goes on the blink and I become so miserable I lose the ability to think full stop. But within this constraint, creative work and the Bluetooth don’t have to be antagonistic but are instead mutually reinforcing. The Bluetooth is a powerful source of creative energy, and core to a distinctively maternal take on the good life.

If I’m right about all this, family policy needs to be turned upside down. To succeed in current mainstream working life, employees of both sexes more or less have to pretend we don’t have families. What would it look like if we reimagined work so it was Bluetooth-enabled? Now that would be radical.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.