Time to take the pressure off high-achieving mothers


Motherhood comes with an unreasonable set of expectations – it is time for women to reassess their priorities, writes SARAH CAREY

I THINK I understand why, in the last two years and contrary to the usual trend, birth rates grew as the economy collapsed. In a sea of psychic pain, the birth of Cecelia Ahern’s daughter, Robin, was a rare source of good news. Who wouldn’t like a piece of the hope and happiness a new baby brings? I’ve never met her, but she seems to be a remarkably nice woman; unspoiled in attitude, diligent in her work and deserving of every happiness. I wish her all the best as she sets out on the challenging role of motherhood.

She is blessed to have her own mother and sister nearby. Yet I still have this urge to rush round to her house and tell her a few things early on. I know “middle class” is often employed as a term of abuse, but successful, middle-class women face a particular psychological challenge on becoming mothers.

The hardest thing about rearing children, especially for highly capable women like her – oh alright, women like me – is that we approach the task in the same way we did our academics, our career and our homemaking.

We set a goal, consult the experts, implement best practice, press return, and it all comes together.

If Cecelia is like all the other professional women, she knows that if she sets high standards and a good routine early on then she has the power, the determination and the resources to shape her adorable baby into an admired child and a well-adjusted, high functioning adult.

But one day, and maybe it won’t happen, but it probably will happen, she’ll find herself shouting in frustration at her beloved baby who won’t do what the book says. Then she’ll hate herself, despairing that all the carefully researched strategies haven’t worked, and wonder why, when through sheer force of will she’s made everything else in her life work, she’s a failure as a mother. Then she’ll cry and the man who loves her won’t understand because she herself won’t have understood until that moment how important it is to the modern woman to be a good mother.

Christmas doesn’t help with the ubiquitous image of Mary – passive, graceful, all-loving and ever-patient, looming over 2,000 years of tired, overworked and underappreciated mothers. When I think about what my mother had to put up with – nappy buckets, the challenge of drying clothes in a wet country, and the expectation that her life would involve little other than the care of others – I know we’ve got it easy in many respects. But in other ways I think we’ve got it harder.

Feminism achieved an enormous amount for women, but consumerism outflanked us and the law of unintended consequences inflicted heavy damage. Thus, a paradox emerged.

On the one hand, motherhood lost its status – a life at home is now considered a wasted opportunity. On the other, the discovery of self-esteem and the increasing popularity of technique-based child-rearing raised the stakes to unreachable heights.

Every modern mother knows there’s no problem that can’t be fixed by a few quick tips from a child psychologist, and that if she gets it wrong, she’s inflicting permanent damage on her child. Just to add to the pressure, she must look a whole lot better, keep her house a whole lot cleaner, and bring in a lot more money than her mother ever did.

Gone is Sparta. Now, Supernannyinsists that we can get it right. Psychoanalysis insists we must get it right. Consumerism demands that we look good doing it. Our professional experience allows for no excuses. As women of privilege and daughters of the oppressed, we know we have none.

We are the queens of self-criticism, and no wonder there are tears. So to all those women who are too thin, too tired and whose rigid smiles cannot hide the fear in their eyes, I say, what looks like failure is not failure, but simply life. Expectations have far surpassed what is reasonable and it’s time to reassess our priorities.

Remember that quaint pre-industrial phrase about women “entering their confinement”? When I see new mothers lugging tiny babies around supermarkets and parties, I want to plead with them: “Go home and get into bed.” Other than a gentle stroll up and down the street, there is no way a new mother should be out and about for the first six to eight weeks. She needs to be at home recovering from the shocking experience of expelling another human being from her body. Instead, women feel they have to please other people with their presence and fulfil their normal duties and obligations.

Staying in bed, cuddled up with your baby while everyone else is at a New Year’s Eve party is not failure, but common sense.

The other thing that takes new mothers years to accept is their child’s unique personality. No technique will ever change the fact that your baby is their own person, with their own pace of development and their own peculiar needs and wants. Reading the books can help, but reading your baby and responding to your own instincts to meet their needs is much more important.

The reward comes in those joyous moments of clarity when you realise all a baby really wants is their mother. If Cecelia cracks this, then she’s got it made. PS I envy you!

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