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 (NHS, 2018)? One in nine maternal deaths in the UK is as a result of suicide. In fact, it is the leading cause of death of mothers in the first year after their child is born (Maternal Mental health Alliance, 2017).
With statistics as troubling as these, we need to look at what we can do better to support new mums. Lots of research points to our society’s idealisation of motherhood as being one of the most damaging things that mothers have to contend with today.
There are two conflicting images of the modern day woman. On the one hand, women are told that they can have it all – a job, children, a social life and all the trimmings. On the other, when they become mums, they 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 this recent survey of British Attitudes (NatCen’s British Social Attitudes Survey 35, 2017) which found that 72% of people believe that women should work, whilst only 33% stated that mothers should work! Women can’t win!
With more women than ever aspiring high in their careers, adjusting to motherhood can be really difficult. When children come along, almost overnight, society expects them to change their whole identity. All of a sudden they are supposed to put their children before all else, not only that, they are supposed to be happy about this because mothers are supposed to be ‘selfless’ and ‘nurturing’ – it’s as if people believe that as soon as women give birth they gain these qualities automatically.
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 this is not what real motherhood looks like. Gone are the days of the 1950’s housewife, who were expected to have the dinner on the table and a smile on their face when their husbands walked through the door after a hard day of work. However, there is a myth that women have been freed from the domestic drudgery of the past when in fact, lots of research points to women feeling responsible for their children’s health, safety and wellbeing in more ways than they have ever done. This can lead to what is described as ‘Intensive Mothering’, where women feel that they need to make every moment of their child’s life safe and happy, cooking healthy food, filling each moment with creative activities, ensuring that their child is well socialised to name but a few.
On HOPELINEUK we hear from 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.
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.
This makes it really difficult for mum’s to talk about how they might really be feeling, admitting that they are finding motherhood hard, or that they don’t enjoy it can cause deep shame and guilt in mums. Psychotherapist, Rozsika Parker (1995) in her book ‘Torn in Two’ writes about how damaging this can be for women. She says that women who ignore, bury or deny these natural feelings are more prone to developing difficulties with their mental health.
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 wellbeing, but taking all of the responsibility for them stops them from learning how to play, how to make friends, how to be creative, and 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 society’s myths and idealisations of motherhood. It’s ok not to be ok, it’s ok to find being a mum overwhelming, it’s ok to hate it sometimes. It doesn’t make you a bad mother, it makes you normal.
Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, just good enough.