The Levellers

Motherhood is a great leveller. Children can reduce the most hard-nosed businesswoman to tears in mere minutes, can render the most glamorous it-girl positively shabby in seconds, and can undermine the confidence of a rock star.

But why is it something we’re all so afraid of? So convinced we’re failing at?

Children can cross barriers no other subject can breach. Your average antenatal class might contain people from vastly different political, socio-economic  and cultural backgrounds. At the beginning there might be frosty silence, but by the end, MDs will be best friends with check-out girls and movie stars with cleaners (OK, I never met any movie stars at my antenatal classes, but allow the point to be stretched if you will) We all go through it in difference guises, with different amounts of help and guidance – but we all go through it. And that sense of camaraderie and shared experience can go a long way to breaking down social barriers. Because it’s one of the hardest things you can do.

Being a mother can feel like you’re sliding along a knife-edge. While the going is good, it’s all fine and dandy. Meals get eaten, sleep is achieved, and relatively clean clothes are donned (theirs, not yours. Let’s be realistic here.) You can have a good phase that lasts for days, weeks, or even months. Yet it takes surprisingly little to unravel all that good and reduce you to a snivelling wreck, crying down the phone to your best friend that you’re the worst mother in the world.

Our children are a part of us. When they’re born they’re so unbelievably dependent, and it feels amazing. At no other time and from no other person will you ever feel such unconditional need. And that need can be shocking, even overwhelming at times – but it’s there, nonetheless. And yet, in an unfeasibly short time, there they are, shaking away your guiding, protecting hand and demanding things you have no clue how they developed knowledge of, and arguing things you didn’t realise they had opinions about. In short, they are real, unique, individual people – and it can come as a bit of a shock.

How many times in your pre-motherhood days did you vow never to behave in a certain way if you ever had children? How you wouldn’t put up with that sort of behaviour, how your child would be polite, quiet, attentive and not remotely snotty. They wouldn’t dream of throwing a tantrum in the middle of Sainsburys. And of course they’ll eat nothing but organic fruit, vegetables and pulses. Never a crumb of chocolate shall pass their lips. And never, under any circumstances, will you use your own spit as a cleanser.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Children under a certain age simply cannot be reasoned with. Yes, they can occasionally be distracted, entertained or bribed – but if you’re doing something, or not doing something, and they don’t like it – then they don’t waste any time letting you know how you’ve let them down.

The public tantrums are one thing, and no-one enjoys them. But other, more fundamental behaviours can make us feel like we have truly failed.

Breastfeeding is one of the most common issues for a new mother. In this country we are brainwashed into believing that breastfeeding is the only possible option for your child – that anything else is a poor substitute, and resorting to it means you have Failed. It is backed so completely that supermarkets, usually a rule unto themselves, are not even allowed to price promote them. Ever. Advertising for formula has to state clearly that it is not as good as breastfeeding. And let’s be fair, the science is there to back it up, and I’m not arguing it. What I do argue is that implying that choosing formula rather than breastfeeding does not necessarily constitute failure, and it is often not the fault of the mother (or baby) involved, whatever the NCT may have to say. To them it’s so black and white (a breastfeeding counsellor actually used that expression to me during our class – if it hurts or isn’t working, you are doing it wrong. It’s that black and white. No quibbling. Now stand in the corner and think about what you’ve done.)

But breastfeeding is not always easy – in fact, it’s usually quite hard work. And yes, at first, it can hurt. It’s a learning process – but it is probably the most primal, natural thing we as women could ever do in our lives. Yet just being clever, or determined, or good at handling pain, will not necessarily help you. I’ve been reduced to tears myself by my son’s refusal to “latch on” properly, and I know very few mothers who haven’t been there too. The problem is – if it’s so damn natural, why’s it so damn hard?

Being a mother is, to many people, the purpose of existence. To replace ourselves, to continue the species, is the most commonly cited “meaning of life” (after the number 42, of course) It’s supposed to be natural, our bond with our infants supposedly unbreakable – and besides, all those glam celebs are doing it all the time and looking great – so why can’t I? Why am I still a stone overweight, sleep-deprived and convincing myself that Organix crisps are a perfectly healthy staple in my child’s diet?

Being a mother is not easy. It’s often not a lot of fun, it can be brutally demanding and, for many months, you don’t get a hell of a lot back. But for the majority of women who experience it, it’s the most worthwhile, unimaginably fulfilling thing you can do. Nothing compares.

And perhaps that is exactly why it’s such a slap in the face when things aren’t going well. The books, the websites, the midwives and health visitors and everyone else are driving home the message that if you do it right, things will be easy. Therefore, logically, when it feels hard – you have failed.

Being entirely responsible for the existence of another human being is a heavy burden to bear. It’s immensely fulfilling, sure – but the weight of responsibility can prove too much for some. Perhaps the resentment of a life being missed out on can become acute; for families who are struggling financially, the extra expense can lead to more debt and pressure; and even for those for whom money is no object, bearing the responsibility for how a person will turn out is huge. The focus these days on psychology in the media adds a further weight, as we are all made to feel that any tiny thing we get wrong could have enormous repercussions – if we leave our baby crying, will she end up feeling abandoned, have attachment issues and end up insecure and self-loathing? Will a failure to correctly discipline your son turn him into a serial killer because he doesn’t respect the law or despises women? Our imagination may be our own worst enemy – for the most part, we tend to muddle along just fine. But you can’t help but wonder.

The rise of social media is both a help and a hindrance. It allows us a virtually unlimited network of information and support, 24/7. But is too much of a good thing automatically a bad thing? Does it just encourage too much self-analysis, too much self-pity, and not enough stiff upper lip? Which is better? Who can say. But the very fact that there are so many mum sites out there – mumsnet, netmums, askamum, babyexpert, and so many more I’d exceed my word limit just going through them all – is an indicator of just how strong this unifying bond of motherhood can be.

So next time you feel you have failed your child, that you are a terribly mother because your son refused to eat for 3 days, because your daughter won’t sleep for more than an hour at a time or because you caught yourself feeling bored whilst playing for the 3rd hour straight on the baby-gym – cut yourself a little bit of slack. We’re not super-human – we’re just human, and so are our babies. However much it can feel like you’re on your own – we are all in it together.

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~ by DelightingintheDetail on May 26, 2010.

6 Responses to “The Levellers”

  1. Congrats Alison x

  2. so true and written by a real mum for a change!

  3. Wow – I didn’t know that about supermarkets not being allowed to promote Formula. That’s shocking, actually. What about the mums whose milk doesn’t come through properly? I have a friend who retained some placenta and her milk didn’t come through for aaages. She was desperately trying to feed her son, but there wasn’t enough goodness in the milk for him so he was constantly feeding, while at the same time losing weight. Obviously, she then had to use Formula to top him up. Being single and childless I only have third-hand information on such things, so am not best-qualified to comment, but is Formula provided on the NHS at all? It would prove pretty expensive if not, I imagine …

  4. I think the thing with the Formula is also because they are not allowed to promote one over the other. Personally, I agree with this. (Also low income families do get milk vouchers). Maybe it has turned the other way, and there is more ‘pressure’ to breastfeed. But I think it’s come from the fact that LESS women ARE breastfeeding than ever and with all the child obesity etc. the ‘professionals’ are trying to combat it from when the child is born. You can always tell a bottle fed baby… they’re so much bigger 😦

    I am of the opinion ‘Breast Is Best’ and although I appreciate there are mothers out there, with all the will in the world, they can’t do it, there are some that really can’t be bothered. They either want their newborn baby to sleep through from the day one, or are too worried they can’t go out for a night.

    To me, I had the children, therefore a sacrifice of 6 months breastfeeding in the whole grand scheme of things, to give your baby the best start in life really didn’t come into it. In fact with my second I breast fed him till he was nearly a year. Solely breast milk for the first six months.

    I’ve got told plenty of times I was ‘lucky’ that I could breast feed, which does anger me. Maybe some luck did come down to it (apparently I produced the equivalent of gold top! Neither boys lost a lot of weight, and they were both big initially) but with my first son I stayed in hospital extra nights to get breast feeding established. Even to the point, because I was having problems with Ben latching, that hubby would help. I worked hard at mastering breastfeeding – that wasn’t luck. And I had tears, too.

    Anyway, great subject to get our teeth into, and so true. Talk to another mum and you know you’re not on your own. Thing is in the summer we have our windows open, which makes us feel worse, because we know the neighbours can hear us!

  5. At last an article that tells the truth about motherhood! What a difference to being told that it’s the most amazing experience of your life, and how wonderful it all is. Of course it is amazing, and it is wonderful – but thank goodness for articles like this one which tells us how really difficult it is – and how normal it is to feel such despair!

  6. I really had no problems with nursing, but lots of other problems of all kinds, many things which made me feel like a failure and a bad mother. Tantrums in public, breaking a dozen eggs in a grocery store, eating a goldfish out of the bowl, peeing on the floor in front of company, writing with crayons on the wall, fighting with each other, trying to get each other in trouble, one kid rocked and banged his head…..
    and let me tell you, what teenagers can do to make you feel like a failure eclipses everything they did as toddlers….
    I’d like to go back to some parts of the days of having small kids, but very few parts of the teen years.
    Now that they are grown up though, there are many new gratifications.
    The one I thought would end up in prison is in graduate school, for instance.
    Life, both terrible and wonderful.

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