If you’ve ever been a mother, known a mother or co-existed in the same breathing space as a mother, it’s highly possible you’ve managed to catch a whiff of the often daily recriminations that come with the territory of parenthood.
It sometimes seems that, along with lactation, a sixth sense about the whereabouts of a clean dummy and the innate ability to sense a meltdown thirty seconds before it happens (and take cover), birth brings with it a strong sense of self doubt and worse still, guilt. You don’t have to do too much clicking to stumble upon any number of blogs/articles/reports/artworks that deal with the concept of ‘mother guilt’ - it’s pretty much everywhere.
Blamed on everything from the pressure women put on themselves, the pressure women put on each other, current socio-cultural norms, there’s no lack of explanations behind why women who give birth are so darn hard on themselves. What isn’t always touched on, and what I’ve identified as being at the absolute core of my own experiences of guilt, is what I’ve termed the ‘good mother’ myth. The highly detailed, constantly evolving story mothers paint around the process of mothering, and, more importantly what ‘proper and correct’ parenting looks like.
I bought into it as a new mother (and as the mother of a toddler, still do on the odd occasion).
At times, every single decision I made was held up against the myth and carefully considered. A ‘good mother’ breastfed for longer than 6 months. A ‘good mother’ used a sling and not a stroller. A ‘good mother’ never used the TV to entertain her child (and give herself a 5 minute break). A ‘good mother’ was consistently besotted by her children and in awe of their capabilities. If I somehow managed to achieve what I deemed as ‘good’ mothering behaviour, I’d pat myself on the back. When I failed miserably to reach the constantly loftier goals, the descent into guilt and self-doubt was swift.
As someone who suffered from post-natal anxiety and a touch of PND after the birth of my son, engaging with the ‘good mother’ myth put my mental health in a rather precarious position. As someone who doesn’t do well with ‘failure’ and expects the best from herself, not meeting my own expectations was never going to end well. Luckily, as I continued down the path of motherhood, I was able to re-set my expectations and re-calibrate my understanding of what it truly meant to parent a child.
That doesn’t mean that I still don’t have moments where my expectations and ideals creep back into the picture. Mothering a toddler is more challenging than I ever could have imagined and at times, it’s easy to sink back into a place of extreme self doubt, guilt and general unease with the process.
I doubt there is a mother alive who hasn’t wondered what other mothers would do in the situation they may be dealing with at the time.
Would they react in a better way? What would that even look like? When we look at it realistically, it’s not our ‘in the moment’ actions that we are judging but our actions when we apply the filter of hindsight. We wonder if we could have done XYZ differently, if there was a better way. We hold our mothering up and examine it closely through a magnifying glass fitted with a lens that is often already tainted with our own emotions.
Stepping back and recognising that the concept we have of a ‘good mother’ as just that; a concept, takes times and to a certain extent, courage.
It is a fiercely determined myth that is continually propagated internally and externally and can neatly be applied to whatever stage of parenthood we may be experiencing.
Learning to treat ourselves gently is the first step I think. Creating and holding onto a more realistic manifesto of motherhood is the second. It’s always easiest to embrace the negative instead of working towards the positive but reminding ourselves that what we do and how we think doesn’t define the kind of mother that we are can help dismantle the myth. Being a wonderful mother AND switching to the bottle/using a stroller/buying packet baby food/watching ‘Peppa Pig’ is not mutually exclusive.
You can be and do all those things, so long as you lay off the guilt and put the idea of perfection to rest.