Where do women take their complex feelings about being a mother, when sharing negative feelings isn’t socially acceptable? Taryn de Vere asked her virtual circle of mothers, and the responses flooded in…[restrict]
‘Does anyone have any complicated thoughts about motherhood they’d like to share?’
I tweeted these words and within hours my inbox was overflowing with women’s stories. After only a few minutes I had to delete the tweet to stem the stream of responses. A lot of mothers, it seems, have complicated feelings about motherhood.
Understandably, everyone who agreed to speak to me wanted to remain anonymous. Sharing difficult feelings with a journalist is one thing, but owning those feelings in public is another. Such are the social constraints and expectations on mothers that it’s still not acceptable for women to express anything other than gratitude and appreciation for being a mother. Women are supposed to be effusive about their role as mother, while at the same time finding ways to overcome the lack of material support for this role. Without substantial wealth to draw on, mothering becomes a decades-long minefield of difficulties. As authors Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels said in their book The Mommy Myth, women are raising children “in a culture that praises mothers in rhetoric and reviles them in public policy.”
Wicklow mother Fran* says she was initially put off the idea of having children due to what she perceived as the difficulties of trying to parent in a capitalist society. Aside from the long-term difficulties of financially supporting herself and a child, as a non-binary person Fran says she found the language around mothering to be alienating.
“There were other alienating elements – the medicalisation of pregnancy and birth, the pervasive language of fear around birth, the pressure and difficulty of breastfeeding without having ever seen it in real life etc. My feelings are so raw and complicated that I very rarely refer to myself as a mother. I feel that ‘parent’ has way less dramatic connotations of self-sacrifice.
“People refer to ‘Mother Earth’ when they’re framing our planet as something that gives and gives and gives, never asking for anything in return. People think of mothers as having some kind of mystical, limitless sources of energy, when we don’t, at all.”
Fran highlights the weaponisation of the word “mother” as part of her distaste for it. “If you’ve ever had an abusive partner call you a bad mother, well, that stings in a very special way, and why? Perhaps because it’s the essence of evil and neglect, because it’s the opposite of a ‘good’ mother who provides infinite care, the toilet roll that never runs out, the magic porridge pot, the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Having her son, Fran says, “was like a bomb going off in my life, my new role obliterating so much that I had relied upon for my mental wellbeing, for example, my social life.” The reality of becoming a parent is something society is poor at preparing people for, according to Fran. “We put mothers on a pedestal and simultaneously refuse to compensate them for their work. We put way too much pressure on mothers and ask too much of them, and I think the role is both overrated and misunderstood.”
SEXISM AND MOTHERHOOD
Sexism is at the core of how society treats mothers, Fran says, and this isolates women and silences dissenting voices. “The kitchen is the mother’s room, where she endlessly supplies food and sympathy. Who feeds and minds the mothers, though? The flip-side is that these distorted ideas about motherhood leave fathering very wanting as well. Our constitution still says it’s a mother’s right to be in the home with their kids. I personally think it should be any parent’s right, regardless of gender.”
Psychologist and lecturer Fionnula MacLiam says parenting is still very much a gendered role.
“Mothers provide the majority of the caring work; we not only feed and nourish our children, but we’ve been made responsible in many ways for all sorts of aspects of their wellbeing. Mothers are judged by the behaviour and appearance of their children. There’s the ‘Good Mother’, there’s the ‘Bad Mother’. Mothering is expected to be instinctive, and easy, and enjoyable, and fulfilling; the children should be happy and enjoying themselves. There’s an expectation that women should sacrifice themselves to motherhood, to put their own lives on hold…”
Sarah* has three children and lives in Kildare. She says it’s hard to detangle the idea of choice from society’s conditioning of girls to believe that being a mother is the pinnacle of womanhood.
“It seems to me that being a woman in Ireland, and possibly in other places too, automatically sets your default to becoming a mother at some stage in your life and that is something I always found strange and unsettling as a child. Society still doesn’t value women properly as individuals. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of socialisation of girls around me, girls who have dreams and ambitions but are nicknamed ‘mammy’ by their parents. One girl, in particular, is allowed to work cleaning houses so that she can earn money, and she is encouraged to spend that money on getting her tan, hair and nails done. Her brother, on the other hand, is on five sports teams.”
‘LUCKY’ NOT TO BE ALONE
Sarah had her first child when she was 15. She later married her baby’s father and they went on to have two more children. Sarah contrasts the experience of being a teenage mum with her experience as a married adult. As a teenage parent, Sarah says she was treated like she was a lone parent and repeatedly told that her partner would leave her.
“After we married and bought a house we were finally treated differently. We were looked on as a good couple, a hardworking couple.” The respectability Sarah gleaned from her marriage wasn’t without cost however; she was repeatedly congratulated on her good fortune. “I was lucky he married me, I was told over and over. Lucky he didn’t feck off.” People took pains to praise Sarah’s husband. “It was always, he’s a good man, he’s a hardworking man, he deserves a break, he’s great at business. Never mind that I was in the background running our business.”
She also experienced a noticeable difference in the way she was treated by health care professionals after she was married. “When I got pregnant with my second child the maternity hospital visits were very different. I was ‘Mrs’. I was still asked if the pregnancy was planned, but I was treated differently.”
The conflict between her own ambitions and desires and her role as a mother are still a source of conflict for Sarah. “I love my kids to bits and it’s been a privilege to watch them grow. But I wanted to be more than a mother. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was four. I wanted to be an actress when I was ten. I wanted to be taken seriously always, and I could never figure out how to have that as a woman. I still can’t.
“I wanted more freedom, more safety, more options, more respect. To be more valued for me and not my body. Getting older helps, it makes things different, but I don’t want to be invisible – I never wanted to be invisible – yet I feel that I was only ever viewed [by society] as a body capable of reproducing, and organising and taking care of a home.”
IMPOSSIBLE TO GET IT RIGHT
The pressure on women to constantly project a level of unattainable perfection takes a toll on women’s physical and mental health. In The Housewife’s Moment of Truth, author Jane O’Reilly states, “Housewifing is an occupation in which every single waking act is judged by the persons who mean the most to you in the world. Is the house clean? Is the food good? Are the children well behaved? A thousand times a day our contracts are up for renewal. No wonder our nerves are shot.”
Cork woman Sinead* experienced post-natal depression after the birth of her daughter. During counselling Sinead realised that the source of her anguish was her belief that she wasn’t a good enough mother. “My own mum had passed when I was 13, so I had no idea, no feedback from a critical source. I was convinced my baby hated me. Hated. I never didn’t feel love for her but was convinced she wanted everyone else more than me and she should be with them. Honestly, it was such a dark period.”
Sinead still struggles with the guilt she feels over her daughter’s early years. “I love her and I have good memories, but I didn’t enjoy it.” Becoming a mother bought memories and emotions to the surface for Sinead as she reflected on her own experience of being mothered. “I find it complicated because I think I’m doing better than my mum did and I feel like I’m doing her a disservice even thinking that.” The mixed messages society gives mothers sets them up to fail, Sinead says.
“Nothing mothers/women do is right. It’s a woman’s choice to have a baby, but having babies with multiple men? A woman should have the ability to stay home with her family, but if she’s on the dole? A woman should go back to work if she wants to, but the baby is never with her? It’s great there are grants and schemes available to help mothers, but then she’s ‘playing the system’? Society is told to support mothers but hates any woman outside the norm. They’re different and wrong.”
Fionnula MacLiam agrees, saying society places unrealistic expectations on mothers, socially, culturally and individually. “Women are supposed to do it all, to keep everything together, and this is a huge responsibility. They can feel that everything depends on them, that if they do anything ‘wrong’ then their child will turn out badly in some way and that they’ll then be failures as mothers. Bad mothers.”
WORK IN THE HOME
The unattainable goal of the perfect mother stems from a post-war world that chose to re-frame the role women played in society. In an effort to convince women to return to the home, and give up the inroads they had made into jobs traditionally considered male territory, so that there would be jobs for the men returning from war, marketing campaigns encouraged women to centre their lives around their husbands and children. The ideal woman of this time was pious, chaste, domestic and subservient. In the decades since, women have fought to be freed from such expectations.
As the Ladies Home Journal of the 1970s said, “We are not only not paid for our work, but are considered less than human because we perform it.”
Women like Niamh*, an Irish lone mother of four children, have suffered because of the ideals created by 1940s marketers, and the Catholic church before that. “Mothers in my position are subjected to such stigma. Each of my relationships ended for good reasons, and not without effort being invested first. And yet I’m no longer just a mother who made decisions for the good of her children, as well as herself.
“There’s this perception that women like me are women in various shades of red, trailing behind them a suitcase full of baggage for every child they’ve had to a faceless, blameless man. There’s this need to justify ourselves, to lay bare our stories so it’s clear that we aren’t merely promiscuous whores with poor approaches to contraception – because that’s sinful too, right?”
A MOTHER’S IDENTITY
The reductionist stereotype of lone mothers as ‘fallen women’ persists, says Niamh, and is compounded by the erasure of any identity outside of ‘mother’.
“Many people are only interested in those aspects of our identity which justify why we are where we are; it’s an additional obstacle to the fact that having an identity at all, as a mother, is something we have to fight for.” Niamh says until she had children of her own, she had no idea of the mental and emotional costs of becoming a mother. “When I had my first child, the first thing that hit me was the physical toll: I had an emergency caesarean and remember vividly having zero recognition of my own body.
“After that came not just the sleep deprivation and post-natal depression, but also the reality that I had created and was responsible for an entire, growing human being. Nothing can prepare you for that reality kicking in — and the thing is, it doesn’t kick in once and then pass. It keeps coming back, with every new stage or milestone.” The silence that surrounds the realities of mothering creates stress and difficulties for women, Niamh argues.
“It’s complicated because of the pressure placed on women to not discuss, openly and honestly, how invasive and challenging and difficult it is. If you do, you leave yourself wide open to this idea that expressing the negatives makes you a failure. Nothing could possibly hurt more than that. Society treats mothers according to how well they perform against broad judgement. That is a major problem: it is viewed as a highly performative role, and societal standards do not reflect the grimy reality. I find it dishonest, reductive and damaging.”
REALITY -V- EXPECTATION
Marie* is also a lone parent. She lives in Kildare with her two children. Becoming a mother, Marie says, was less about choice and more about doing what was expected.
“I kind of felt like ‘that’s what you do’ when you get married, so I came off the pill and was pregnant within two months. My second child was not planned as my marriage was crumbling at that point.” Marie says the reality of motherhood is completely different to what she expected. “I wish I had known how hard it is before I went ahead. I had post-natal depression and crippling anxiety after both children, my life completely changed and it was nothing like you see on telly or in the ads for baby food or nappies.
“The amount of work it takes to be a mother is unreal; keeping them alive, nourished, clothed and sheltered, educated, and they are just the most basic of needs, are a struggle especially when going solo. There are of course moments of intense love and joy but there are also moments of despair, anger, regret and hopelessness.”
Marie says she struggles with how difficult parenting is and how socially unacceptable it is to admit that. “I love both my children but sometimes I really, really don’t like them. I often feel resentful towards them when they don’t appreciate me and the sacrifices I make and have made for them. When they act up on days out or holidays I just feel like what is the point of all this?
“I sometimes feel that my own mental health problems have impacted their childhood negatively and then I feel terrible about that and then that makes me more depressed so it can be a vicious circle. I often feel I was not cut out for motherhood. I wish people wouldn’t lie about their perfect lives on Instagram, or maybe they’re not lying and I really am a crap mother.”
Marie says society pays lip service to mothers but offers no real support or appreciation. “It’s the hardest job in the world. I resent being judged by other mothers, parents, people, often ‘alpha’ mothers who are usually ones with wealthy husbands or stay-at-home salt of the earth types who are so, so quick to judge.
“Mothers need way more support than they receive. Because otherwise, children will grow up bearing mental scars from being raised by mothers who had no ill-intent but just never got training on how to do the job. That wouldn’t do in the workplace so why is it tolerated in the most important job of all?”
A BETTER INFRASTRUCTURE
Now is the time to explore how we can create a better world for mothers and their children, Fionnula MacLiam suggests. “We need to dream of a society in which we have choices. What would that society look like? If we can dream of it, we can try to create it. Feeling trapped and helpless can only give rise to depression.”
MacLiam stresses the need for practical supports for new parents, both mothers and fathers. “Social supports are necessary. Maternity leave, paternity leave; (it’s been shown that fathers who are closely involved right from birth have almost identical levels of oxytocin to mothers [Gordon et al, 2010]), childcare facilities, financial support for mothers who are often the ones left holding the baby/babies when relationships break down, parenting courses, individual supports for parents with children with special needs of any kind. Real, practical and emotional supports.”
Fionnula says this kind of infrastructure is required if we want to live in a society that values children and values mothers. The work mothers do is under-valued, only appreciated in a performative way, poorly resourced and harshly judged. If a workplace tried to hire someone for 18 years under these conditions they would be hard-pressed to find a person on earth who would sign the contract. Yet millions of mothers do this work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If they didn’t the world as we know it would collapse. Fionnula surmises: “The economy would not survive without the often unseen, unacknowledged, unappreciated, unpaid or low-paid caring work that mostly women provide.”
*Names changed to protect identities[/restrict]