Updated: Aug 22, 2019
Motherhood is often seen as magical; the most fulfilling thing that a woman can do. So why are the number of women with perinatal mental health difficulties rising in the UK? One in nine maternal deaths in the UK is as a result of suicide, in fact, it is the leading death of mothers in the first year after their child is born.
With statistics as shocking as these, we need to figure out what we can do better to support new Mums. Lots of research points to our society’s idealisation of motherhood being one of the most dangerous things that mothers have to contend with today.
There are two conflicting images of the modern day woman. On the one hand we are told that we can have it all, a job, children, a social life and all the trimmings. On the other, when we become mothers, we are told that ‘Good Mothers’ meet all of their children’s needs, they are selfless and should make their child their one and only priority.
This confusing societal attitude is demonstrated by a recent survey of British Attitudes (NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey 35, 2017)* which found that 72% of people believe that women should work, while only 33% stated that mothers should work. Women can’t win!!
With more women than ever aspiring high in their careers, we are independent and ambitious in ways that our mothers and grandmothers didn’t get the chance to be. However, when children come along we are suddenly expected to become something totally different. Almost overnight, society expects us to change our whole identity. All of a sudden we are supposed to put our children before all else, not only that, we are supposed to be happy about this, because ‘Good Mothers’ are ‘selfless’ and ‘nurturing’. It’s as if we are expected to somehow give birth to these qualities and personality traits when we give birth to a child! In truth they don’t come easily to us all, and that’s okay.
If you look up images of mothers on the internet, you’ll find pictures of happy mothers and babies embracing each other and looking content. But is this what real motherhood looks like? There is a myth today that women have been freed from the domestic drudgery of the past. Gone are the days of the 1950’s housewives, who were expected to have the tea on the table and a smile on their face when their husbands walked through the door. However, lots of research points to the fact that today, women feel responsible for their children’s health, safety and well-being in more ways than ever before, is this liberation?
Douglas and Michaels (2004)** argue that even though women appear to be more liberated in motherhood in comparison to the domestic drudgery expected of the 1950’s ‘housewife’, women are held accountable for their children’s health, well-being and safety in more ways than they have ever been. What they describe as ‘New Momism’ or ‘Intensive Mothering’ perpetuated by the media, pretends to celebrate the beauty of motherhood, like in the photo above, whilst propagating unachievable ideals for women.
I often work with Mums who feel trapped, not good enough, like they are letting their children down. They can’t live up to the ideals of motherhood that they believe are expected of them; they are struggling to become a perfect, selfless, patient being who can give their all to their children, and loves being a mum. Of course they are struggling with this, because such a person doesn’t exist!
In truth, no relationship is perfect, including the one between mother and child. There will be times when you dislike your child, even times when you wish that you’d never had a child. You may crave for your past life, the one where you could go to the toilet in peace! This is totally normal, most mothers feel this way, they just don’t talk about it because it’s not seen as socially acceptable. It makes us feel like 'bad' mothers.
This makes it really difficult for Mum’s to talk about how they might really be feeling because admitting these feelings can cause deep shame and guilt, and shame and guilt are very dangerous feelings to live with, so we pretend that it’s all okay, that motherhood is wonderful. This, in turn, continues to perpetuate the myth that ‘normal’ women love motherhood and that it comes naturally to all women. Psychotherapist, Rozsika Parker (1995)*** argues in her book ‘Torn in Two’ that ignoring, burying or denying these natural feelings causes the most difficulties with maternal mental health and I agree.
In reality, parenting doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. In fact, children need things to go wrong sometimes in order to become resilient enough to cope with the world. Yes, parents to need to take some responsibility for their children’s health and well-being, but taking all of the responsibility from and for our children stops them from learning how to play, how to make friends, how to be creative, how to problem solve for themselves.
We need to start talking about what it is like to be a REAL Mum and stop colluding in societies myths and idealisations of motherhood. It’s okay not to be okay, it’s okay to find being a mum overwhelming, it’s okay to hate it sometimes. It doesn’t make you a bad mother, it makes you normal.
So to all the Mums out there, working, not working, finding each day a struggle, remember, you don’t have to be perfect, just good enough.
* NatGen. (2017). British Social Attitudes Survey 35. Retrieved from: http://bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-35
** Douglas, S.J. & Michaels, M.W. (2005) The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How it Has Undermined All Women. London: Free Press.
*** Parker, R. (1995). Torn In Two – The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence. London: Virago.
**** Chapman, E. & Gubi, P. (2019) An Exploration of the Ways in Which Feelings of "Maternal Ambivalence" Affect Some Women. The Journal of Illness, Crisis and Loss. Sage - Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1054137319870289