‘We live in a culture of competitive maternity’: writers open up about motherhood

In the book Things I Wish I’d Known, writers who are mothers share all the things your friends would never tell you about the experience

‘There is no standard template for a good and effective mother.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘There is no standard template for a good and effective mother.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

When you are going to have a baby, no matter how many pregnancy and baby books you read, no matter how many mothering websites you consult, no matter how fiercely you interrogate your friends who are mothers, nothing can prepare you for what it’s really like. The concept of having a baby doesn’t become real until that baby is in your arms and at your breast. Or bottlefed, and really it’s okay if breastfeeding is not possible for you. There is no right way to do any of it.

When that crying, suckling, squawling, needing , sick-making, constantly pooing, sleep-depriving creature comes out of your womb and into your life, you will want to throw every aspiration you ever had about ideal motherhood and every baby book you ever bought into the bin. Because at the moment we mothers give birth, we also give birth to a new version of ourselves. No two of us are the same.

But we cope. Somehow. Despite all the airbrushed pictures of celebrity mothers in baby bliss, and all the subtle pressure we may feel to tell everyone it’s going brilliantly, we soon learn the truth. It’s really hard to be a mother.

A new book, Things I Wish I’d Known, with a foreword by Mumsnet co-founder Justine Roberts, has writers who are mothers sharing all the things your friends never told you about the experience.

Roberts writes that one thing she has learned from reading thousands of Mumsnet entries, is that “there is no standard template for a good and effective mother”. There are teen mothers, mothers in their 40s, mothers of triplets and mothers of one, lesbian mothers, single mothers and adoptive mothers. No more self-critical group of people exists.

This relentless maternal self-analysis is the reason why the most popular forum on Mumsnet is “Am I being unreasonable?” Who else who devotes 24-hours a day (whether working outside the home or not) to such a difficult task, would torture themselves with such a question?

Double trouble

Cathy KellyThe Life of Mammals

Nobody had given her “Mother and baby: the cute version”, but somehow she had absorbed celebrity motherhood 101. “Little Coco had been flying since she was six months old and had never been a moment’s trouble on the plane.”

In the old days, there were mothers and sisters and grandmothers around to clue us in on the messy, bloody, excreting business of motherhood, but these days many of us live away from these nurturing communities. Many of us have to rely on our wits. “Maternal love came instantly,” Kelly writes about those first days home after the birth, “but the courage to believe in that instinct did not.”

I recall, with my first-born 23 years ago, packing off to the GP with the slightest thing, and him saying, “Trust your instincts.” Instincts? What? It was almost a primeval concept after a pre-pregnancy, pregnancy and anxious first days of motherhood when my brain couldn’t process and remember all the information from those baby books I had obsessively read.

And when the health nurse visited, remarked on the small size of my premature baby and said, “I can’t believe they let you home with her”, then presented me with a month’s supply of formula, I lost it completely. If this was help, who needed hindrances? Anxiety and panic attacks started everytime I got a let-down reflex. Lying on bed reading a book with the baby?

That came, when I realised how much babies and toddlers love to hear poetry, but that took time.

No such thing as perfection

Anne Marie Scanlon, author of It’s Not Me, It’s You: A Girls Guide to Dating in Ireland, is a single mother with a seven-year-old son, Jack. She writes that the one piece of advice she would share with a new mother is that “babies cry”. Often they cry not because they’re hungry, cold, wet, too warm or tired. They just cry. It’s what they do.

She also wishes she had known that “other women lie. We live in a culture of competitive maternity and women are held up to ridiculous standards from the moment they conceive.”

And the guilt can start even before we conceive, as you will know if you have had difficulty conceiving.

“Ignore what other mummies say,” she says. Good advice. Your motherhood is your own journey.

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