‘There shouldn’t have to be a group like this. Thank Christ that there is – but there shouldn’t have to be.” Said one of the mothers who came to my most recent postnatal meet up support group, where mothers are invited to talk candidly and with absolute honesty about their experiences and how they are feeling over a lot of coffee and cake. All sorts of things are discussed. The release is palpable – there are always tears, there is often swearing, and knowing laughter peppers each and every earnest conversation. The women leave feeling better for having shared, if not solved their problems. It only takes one honest woman to start the ball rolling – the rest follow like dominoes. No time for small talk, we are straight into the real stuff and the admissions spill out of them faster than I can pour the coffee. There most common issues, raised time and again, are teaching me so much about what it means to be a modern mother today:
I don’t know what the feck I’m doing
Of course you don’t! Long gone are the days when women learned how to be a mother by watching their mother be a mother. Long gone are the days of twelve children in each family and siblings raising siblings. When you became a mother in times gone by, you knew what to do about your ginormous leaky Dolly Parton boobs – and not because you’d attended antenatal classes – you knew because you’d seen your mother and your aunties do it countless times. You knew that you would be bleeding like a gutted fish and that your innards would feel like they’d been in a fight with a combine harvester but you also knew that you’d feel better soon. You were expecting breastfeeding to challenge you, but you weren’t losing your mind over the early days of feeding around the clock because you knew from watching your sister and your sister in law and your auntie and your cousin that ‘this too shall pass’. You were prepared. There were relatively few shocks. But long gone are the days of learned parenting.
Humans learn through modelled behaviour.
We learn to walk because we see other members of our pack walking. We learn how to care for babies by watching our families care for babies. We learn to breastfeed our babies by watching our families breastfeed. We watch and we learn. If we don’t get to watch, we don’t learn. Like so many other cultures still do today, the new mum of the past learnt how to be a mother through osmosis.
The average new mum in today’s western society is not so fortunate. She hasn’t been watching her mother raise nine other babies. She hasn’t learned. She has been busy building up a career for herself in what as much as some would beg to differ, is still a man’s world. In her spare time she has probably been busy making a home and hurriedly packing as much into her social life as she possibly can in case it’s true that once you have kids you never wear lip gloss again let alone go out to bars. Not to mention the quest to find a partner to share it all with. She hasn’t had time to watch mothers mother. She often doesn’t know what to do with a baby. Today’s new mum hasn’t even held a baby before, let alone soothed one to sleep. She doesn’t have a clue how to breastfeed. She hasn’t been able to watch anyone else do it. The only breastfeeding she has ever seen has been been shamefully hidden away underneath a feeding tent that would easily sleep six. The new mum of today hasn’t learned how to be a mother. (And to make matters worse, now that she is approaching her due date, support is thin on the ground. Her mum works full time, her aunt lives in Australia, and she doesn’t even have a bloody sister.) She reads a few books, attends antenatal classes if she can afford them, and hopes for the best. But no antenatal class in the world can prepare a mother for motherhood. (It’s the first thing I tell everyone in session one of each and every antenatal class I teach.) The only way to learn is to JUST DO IT.
So she does it. But there are so many shocks! The postnatal sweats for starters. Her friends won’t tell her about the sogginess and the weeping and the trailing flatulance (‘for the love of god what has happened to my BUMHOLE?’). She is yet to experience the highs that follow the lows, and so she doesn’t yet know that everything will be ok in the end – she hasn’t seen it firsthand. Her pals may have become mothers already but they only supply her with an edited version of reality – the day to day truths are unseen, and unknown.
Everyone else is nailing this mothering gig
Not so! Despite the ridiculous but true fact that society seems to think that it should all just come naturally, many, many mothers struggle. With all sorts of things. Once the mission of breastfeeding is attempted, (something as natural as breathing but as easy as juggling with soup if you have never watched and learned), she then has to face any number of dilemmas; is the baby too hot or too cold? Is he hungry? (Shit, really? Again?!) Are baby turds really supposed to look like that?? Is it normal that he sleeps that long? Why won’t she sleep? Sweet lord why is he still crying? Does anyone else’s baby sound like a stoned piglet when they sleep? Anyone? They haven’t seen mothering in action before – they don’t know. Yet the mothers that come to me for help are often the ones that are seen by everyone else, to be totally on top of everything. Don’t assume everyone else is fine – they are probably feeling just like you are right now. The competitive edge that sometimes accompanies motherhood almost always stems from insecurity. Be kind to yourself and to each other. We are all in the same boat, learning as we go along (and winging it most of the time.) No one is judging you except for you. (And if they really are judgeyjudgers – then they don’t matter.)
I resent my partner – his life hasn’t changed one bit
How the hell does the brand new mum pop to the shop for emergency crisps? What if the baby craps? (She doesn’t know yet that if he does, it doesn’t matter.) So she stays at home, crispless, watching This Morning in her pjs and wondering why it is her life which has changed one hundred thousand percent, when her partner is still sitting in his super fun office, probably eating crisps, with all his toilet trained colleagues who say interesting things all day long. Isolation creeps in, resentment builds, relationships suffer, unhappiness reigns. And no one talks about it. Antenatal groups cling to each other in united solidarity and the support is a welcome cushion. But it takes a strong woman to announce that she is feeling like a pile of shit and a brave one to ask if anyone else is. The new mum of the past didn’t suffer in the same way. She wasn’t worried about any of these things because she’d watched her relatives go through all of it and more, and so she had tricks up her sleeve. She had an instilled confidence. The new mum of the past wasn’t resentful about staying at home. She didn’t mourn her career or worry about getting it back, because realistically, the average young mother probably didn’t have one to mourn. (Even though women are still being paid 35% less than men, women have come a long way and fought hard for the equality they deserve.) Times have moved on! We are no longer chained to the sink and we have achieved MUCH by the time our babies arrive. GO. US. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that today’s mum may well be missing the career she worked so hard for. And if not missing it, then worrying about finding it in tatters if and when she can get back into it (not to mention her pencil skirt). She either tries to combine work and motherhood, chasing her tail and worrying about not giving her all to either job, or she stays at home and adjusts.
And for some the adjustment is really really hard.
I’ve lost my identity – I miss my old life
If you think about it – it’s no wonder the new mum finds the instant transition to motherhood difficult. One minute she is wearing dry clean only garments and Being Important, and then all of a sudden, she is watching daytime tv and wondering what the hell mastitis is all about and what on earth to do with her colicky newborn. She is supposed to cope. After all, countless women before her coped. (She forgets why and how they coped. She doesn’t give herself nearly enough credit for all she is managing to achieve without having learned.) Admitting that she is struggling feels to the new mum, like she is failing. So she doesn’t. Playgroups are full of new mums pretending that they are fine. Smiling and asking about feeding whilst wishing they could suggest a trip to the pub or that they could find someone to watch Grey’s Anatomy from start to finish with. Smiling and chatting about sleeping whilst they wish they could tell the truth – that they are bored to tears and missing their old life. The life which used to define who they were. The good news is that you are still that person! You just have a new layer now. Another string to your bow. Don’t despair when the conversations all around you seem to be baby based. (The woman next to you at the swings probably doesn’t really care whether your kid is crawling or not. She is only asking because she thinks you look really fun and she wants to talk to you and it’s a way in.)
I feel like I am broken
From what I have learned from the mothers mothering around me, those that are the happiest of campers, those who are counting the hours until bedtime each day, and from all the others in between, is that there is a deep pride in mothering. We are lionesses, hell bend on Getting It Right. Women who haven’t slept all night paint on bright smiles along with their mascara when they should be asking their mummy mates to sit with their babies while they go back to bed. Women taking PND medication do so in secret, when these brave and strong mothers should be encouraged to shout it proudly from the rooftops so as to inspire other sufferers to take the same action and find healing. The feeling of being broken is often so unfamiliar that the new mum, guilty as hell for not being as happy as she thought she would be/feels she ought to be, hides it from everyone around her. The feeling that you are broken is not known or talked about enough. The GPs aren’t visited and the medication is not handed out because women, lying breathless underneath all the pressure society places on her chest, are ashamed, and so the problem stays hidden instead of being fixed. Fertility problems may have meant that the baby took a while to arrive, and this will only add to the pressure to Love Every Minute, and the negatives feelings that ensue can be suffocating.
I’m lonely. I’m a really nice person! But I haven’t got any mummy mates!
I became a mother six and a half years ago, and I’ve been really rather idiotically happy ever since. But I know with absolute certainty that however adorable and hilarious and fun my kids are, one of the main reasons that I am having so much fun raising them every day is because I am doing so alongside some really excellent friends. My mummy mates are incredible women; all inspire me in their own ways, and all of them together add hugely to the patchwork quilt that is motherhood, and bring so much fun to the every day. If I was doing this all on my own I would have climbed into the oven long ago. Raising babies with (real) friends, can be the difference between loving and hating this gig. If you’re feeling lonely, you’ve got to get yourself some new pals. Making new friends when you’ve had a baby basically means dating again. Be your lovely honest self at each playrgoup and park you go to, and you’ll have soul mates to last a lifetime. Be brave – ask that chick for her number. You have loads in common and you’re going to get on great.
Happy Mummy Happy Baby. Make yourself happy. Surround yourself with other mothers whom you click with. They’re not that hard to find. Live like those in other cultures, who have far less, but for whom parenting is often much more relaxed and enjoyable!
Our ‘developed’ culture has a lot to learn from those supposedly less advanced than us. We have been so busy developing that we have not developed the one thing that truly matters. Parenting is partly instinctive, but all the rest is learned. We are all learning as we go, doing a brand new job with zero training. So go easy on yourself. Give yourself a break. Tell everyone how you are feeling. Ask for help. Be honest. Share your feelings, and your experiences. Learn from those ahead of you – just like in the good old days. And as your own experiences earn you the confidence that you have wanted all along, share that confidence with someone else. Ditch the feeding tent. Bypass the baby small talk at playgroup. Ask the new mum how she is really feeling. Set up an honest mums group like mine. Or even better, turn whatever conversation you are having, wherever you are, into an Honest Mother’s Meeting.
PS: And once in a while, talk about something other than being a mother!