When I first became pregnant, I had all sorts of expectations about what type of mother I would be. For starters, I would sing the baby to sleep every night, and breastfeed her for at least a year. I had read all the books – I knew what I was doing.
But when my first daughter came along, these rules I had made for myself went straight out the window. Rather than singing her to sleep, I would cry along with her and breastfeeding was torture from the outset.
Desperate to find a sympathetic audience to share the shame and the guilt of both these “failures”, I confided in other local mums about how much I was struggling, how some days I was crying more than the baby, and how I found breastfeeding an absolute killer.
But all I received in return was sympathetic looks (lots of head tilts) and – what felt like to me – critical judgements, “Oh no! Poor you. I’m so lucky that my baby sleeps through.” Or “breastfeeding has been a doddle for me – such a shame it’s not working out for you”. Whether these mums were speaking the truth or not, each comment decimated my confidence.
Since then, I have wondered why so many mums are reluctant to share their honest stories of early motherhood. I can only conclude that everybody seems to be terrified of being found out.
Perhaps, like me, they have fallen short of their own private expectations but are too afraid to admit it; or maybe they have also been the victims of the dreaded “judgement” and feel compelled, perhaps unconsciously, to belittle others in the same way. Whatever the reason, new mums have little chance of vocalising their own distresses and needs when they are so heavily pressured by societal and familial expectations.
Regardless of how far women have progressed over the decades in terms of roles or identity, there is little progress when it comes to the mothering role. Us women “should” know how to calm a screaming baby, or change a nappy, or breastfeed to perfection. Haven’t we been doing it for centuries? How hard can it be?
But it’s these societal pressures to live a picture-perfect life that lead to secrecy. Many new mums are terrified to admit any signs of supposed weakness or lack of control, hiding their vulnerabilities by refusing to share their experiences with others, reluctant to reach out for help and advice for fear they will be judged for it.
Social media only adds to the pressure. It does nothing to encourage new mums to seek help when they’re feeling vulnerable, but merely perpetuates the myth of the perfect “Facebook mum”, which often gives an entirely false image of close relationships and family life.
Years ago, I posted a message on Facebook asking for recommendations for kids’ clubs. My two daughters were little at the time (they are exactly two years apart) and we were going on a much-needed holiday that year. I desperately needed a break, and a kids’ club for a few hours every day seemed like the best option for my sanity.
One mum who had been in one of my baby groups was the first to reply, asking me why I needed a kids’ club at all. Surely, holidays were the perfect opportunity for the whole family to spend time together. Why would anyone need time away from their adorable children? I was so enraged and shamed by her response that I blocked her from my feed – the only person I’ve ever blocked on Facebook.
And just when you think the societal pressure can’t get any worse, the familial tension kicks in. Family support is of course essential for new mums, and as someone who lives in a different country to close family, I envy those who have well-meaning relatives close by to lend a hand. But sometimes family members, particularly those from different generations, have forgotten how tough it is to be a new mum.
Friends of mine have been berated by their mothers, mothers-in-law or grandparents for all sorts of things like not clothing their baby properly (“in my day, we had him wrapped up in three woollen blankets, not that slip of a thing!”) or feeding a toddler an unhealthy snack in a desperate attempt to keep tantrums at bay (“in my day, my mother would never have given me a packet of crisps before lunchtime”); or not punishing a child in the same way they would have years ago (“in my day, children were given a good smack for bad behaviour”). Some people can shrug these comments off but all these little digs build up, adding even more shame and guilt to new mums who already feel they are doing everything wrong.
And then of course, being part of a family (especially a large one) leaves you wide open to all sorts of comparisons with siblings, friends, people you’ve never heard of, and what they’re doing with their babies (usually in a way that implies everyone else is doing a superior job to you): “Do you know that Aoife’s baby is sleeping through already and he’s only five weeks?” or “Niamh never had an ounce of trouble with the breastfeeding.”
For new mums, it can be a lot to take in, especially when you’re half dead from the sleep deprivation, and so traumatised by the state of your breasts that your main priority is dragging yourself to Google to check out whether cabbage leaves and their breast-soothing properties is really a thing.
Most family are well-meaning – of course they are – they want to pass on their own stories and share their own advice, but sometimes their wisdom tends to focus on how to be a better mother rather than offering practical support. So, instead of the “helpful” advice or unnecessary comparisons, maybe cook a meal for a new mum and drop it over (in the early days, when sleep was chosen over food, I often wailed that it was a chef I needed, not a nanny), or make a start on the endless mountain of laundry, or offer to sit with the baby while the sleep-deprived mum gets some much-needed rest.
In a perfect world, social media would be a community that supports its members and recognises when people need help and advice, a safe place for new parents to share their concerns without feeling belittled or judged. And in this same utopia, family members and friends would leave the judgement at home, and offer practical support instead. Perhaps, the world would be a kinder, friendlier, less pressurised place if we could all just admit that when it comes to motherhood, we’re all as clueless as each other.
Emma Murray is the author of Time Out (Boldwood Books, £8.99)