‘I tried to parent so everything looked so perfect on the outside. It almost broke me’
Superwoman, performer of impossible feats, selfless soother…don’t forget to smile! The current ideal of motherhood is chronically unhelpful to most of us, writes Amanda Cassidy
It’s the end of another difficult day. I watch my children sleeping, overcome with guilt – for shouting at them when they refused to get out of the bath, for not listening to the lengthy Minecraft explanations, for keeping one eye on my phone while they beat me at Uno.
I’m sorry. But no matter how much I do for my children, it’s never good enough.
Welcome to the guilty mummy club.
Lisa, a midwife, returned to work in January – her maternity leave for her first child Jacob already extended by three months.
“I knew I was good at my job. I knew I had to make a living to support my family. But what I wasn’t expecting was the guilt.
It became a reflex. I felt guilty for the extra work my teammates had covered for me. Guilty for missing the gummy smiles at home, guilty for spending my middle-of-the-night nursing moments scrolling through celebrity gossip on the Mail Online instead of gazing into his hungry eyes. Guilty for doing anything else that didn’t revolve around him.”
You see, this particular type of mum guilt isn’t helpful, not on an individual level and nor on a largely cultural one. From a social scientific point of view, feeling guilty also doesn’t reform our future behaviour. Rather, it gives more power to the part of the brain that seeks gratification.
Besides, we’ve done nothing wrong. In fact, we’ve been killing ourselves to try and do right.
“I was on a girl’s weekend away when my daughter was one,” Emily, another mum tells me. “I called my partner to check if she’d eaten her dinner – the meal I’d prepared and left in the fridge. I called to sing her lullaby a few hours later. I talked non-stop about her with my friends. I missed her and I left early to come back to her. The guilt was overwhelming.
But is such self-flagellation a female affliction? I think back to the last stag party my husband was on and try to remember if he’d called specifically to check if the baby ate his dinner…
The curse of biology is often blamed but how much does society have to do with this.
The mother ideal has been reflected in arts, culture, and religion for centuries. In Hollywood, that apple-pie image continues. In the mummy forums online, the undercurrent is ever-present. You bottle-fed? Eugh…
In Elizabeth Weiss’s recent New York Times article, ‘Selling the Myth of the Ideal Mother’, she describes the tradition of purporting to celebrate the myth of mothers while portraying them in troubling ways.
“I remember, at age eight or nine, making a batch of brownies. As I waited for the oven timer to buzz, I brushed some flour across my cheek. I was imitating an ad, I’d recently seen: a mother dawdles in the kitchen, reading a romance novel, while, from the next room, her kid asks if the Rice Krispies treats are ready yet.
“I’m still working on it,” she lies. She finally puts down her book, tosses flour onto her face, splashes some water from the fishbowl into her eyes, and carries the treats to her family. “They taste so good, your family will think you slaved over them all afternoon,” a voice intones.
Of course, although parent-centered guilt is different things to different people, the fear of failure seems to anecdotally be applied to motherhood. And it takes unusual forms.
“I was mortified people would see through the veneer of perfection I’d ooze” Kate explains. “I know others teased me that I was superwomen because I work full time, I’d arrive at a BBQ with the girls in matching dresses, french-plaited and have even made a cake. But underneath it all, it was chaos. I think I was trying to hide that – to pretend I was managing.”
But life with children is chaos. And surrendering to that chaos doesn’t make us bad parents. Trying to convince everyone we’ve got our show on the road is also exhausting.
“I ran myself into the ground. I was so hell-bent on showing the world how fabulously I was managing my family that I never stopped to take time for myself.”
Kate hit a wall. She ended up in A and E suffering what turned out to be an anxiety attack.
“It took a while to get back to myself. I took time off work and learned a lot about why I’d built this illusion around me. I was fooling nobody. My friends told me they’d been concerned about how I’d been firing on all cylinders. I started noticing the things on the inside – the important things.”
Life isn’t a courtroom. Nobody is taking notes, but ourselves. Our self-worth shouldn’t be wrapped up in how well our children do on sports day. Neither should theirs, by the way.
I’m here for parenting for the inside. For keeping my eyes on my people rather than on what others see.
Because as Weiss explains; “Our current parenting culture of taxing schedules, organic snacks, and profound emotional involvement turns motherhood into a contact sport.
It pressures women to perform to impossible standards. It offers cultural cover for attitudes that do damage to men as well as women. And let’s be honest, these kinds of depictions of motherhood are simply obnoxious.