Inside the motherhood complex

Melissa Hogenboom talks to about her new book on motherhood and why such books need a much wider audience.

Baby Crying


Science journalist Melissa Hogenboom says the topic of motherhood and identity is “having a moment”. There have been a rash of books about it and her own, The Motherhood Complex, is a mix of a personal and science-based exploration of the subject.

Melissa came up with the idea for the book after she went on maternity leave with her second child. At the time, her daughter was two, very active and liked to provoke her baby brother. Melissa found being alone with the two children all day intensely stressful and asked herself why no-one was writing about it. She had noticed even after the birth of her daughter that she felt like two different people. “At work I was a science journalist and at home I was seen as mum. I found it uncomfortable that my identity was being overtaken by the way society sees mums. Although it is normal to have lots of identities, this is often of our own choosing. Some, however, are forced on you and you don’t have a choice about how people perceive you as a mother. You are judged and there is so much stigma attached. I thought there must be some science behind why I was feeling how I was about it.”

In her book, she shows how some areas of motherhood are understudied. Although there is some research on how moving from one to two children changes the dynamics of parents’ relationships [for instance, showing a fall in relationship satisfaction] and mums’ feelings of guilt about not being able to give either child enough attention, Melissa had not anticipated how much more intense parenting would become and how moving from one to two children would affect her and her partner’s identity as a couple.

An extraordinary time

In her book, Melissa also addresses how books on motherhood are often belittled. “Motherhood is seen as something you are, whereas fatherhood is seen as something you do,” she states. “Motherhood is seen as so ordinary [as so many women become mums], but is an extraordinary time, a time when your life changes dramatically overnight. It is bonkers that those books are just seen as something that women need to read and get something from,” she says. It’s the same for childcare and the ‘motherhood penalty’ such as the gender pay gap, she says. These are much broader social issues and putting them all on women and individualising them sets women up to fail, she states.

The problem is that work is also structured to make life more difficult for women. Women can’t win. They may drop out of the workplace because of high childcare expenses, but will struggle to get back; if they stay at work and work flexibly they may get passed over for promotion. Meanwhile, staying at home and looking after children is not viewed as worthwhile as doing unpaid caring is expected of women.

Melissa says that when it comes to work, employers need to understand the pressures on women at particular points in their lives. She hopes that more dads will work flexibly as a result of Covid and that we will not end up with more women working from home and being viewed as less committed while men surge ahead.

Melissa herself manages a team of 20 at the BBC and says she tries to role model and encourage flexible working. She herself is able to flex her hours if she has childcare or other issues. Melissa works on features, rather than news and says that means she has fairly regular hours. She knows that working on news can be a constant struggle to find flexible childcare to fit around an unpredictable news schedule.

She adds that many women journalists feel the need to establish themselves before they have babies and says that, after her daughter was born, she did more travel than normal when she returned from maternity leave in an effort to prove herself. She admits it was exhausting. After her second child was born she recalls being on a short work trip to Berlin breast pumping in the street. “It was very stressful,” she says.

However, she says it is manageable if you have a supportive partner, as she does, and split the care. That means mothers guarding against maternal gatekeeping so they can share things properly. “It is hard as we are so conditioned to think we are better at doing the childcare and we are judged for it and internalise that. And by doing it we become better at it,” she says.


Melissa is also keen to see greater diversity in the depiction of motherhood and families generally. She says it is important that children are aware that there are many ways to be a family, given they are exposed to such gendered messages from early on.

She hopes, for instance, to see books on motherhood from a trans perspective, which would include the secondary stigma faced as a result of being trans, but says her book is about motherhood from her own lived experience.

Asked about the recent discussion around the use of the term ‘parent who gives birth’ rather than mother, she says she doesn’t see why both terms can’t be used to be more inclusive. “We shouldn’t have just one word. I don’t see why we can’t use both terms,” she says. But she feels there has been too much focus on language rather than on the complex issues associated with having children.

She would like to see greater understanding on both sides of the argument. She says: “Both sides need to understand and validate each other’s experience.”

*The Motherhood Complex by Melissa Hogenboom is published by Piatkus Books. 

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