It’s hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, motherhood was a pretty straightforward enterprise. In the 1934 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘mother’ was defined as follows: ‘‘Woman who looks after children."
Nowadays, it’s a lot more complicated. ‘Parent’ is no longer just a noun; it’s a verb too. ‘Parenting’ is something to be practised, engaged in, endlessly discussed and agonised over.
Copyright Jennifer O'Connell 2010
To see how this has affected those at the frontline, you need to go to where they congregate in the greatest numbers.
Once upon a time, that might have meant the school gate, the playground or the shopping centre. But these days, the place where you go to learn about breastfeeding, disciplining a two-year-old, puréeing a carrot, filling out a primary school application form, and what mothers really feel about being a mother, is the internet.
Sites such as Rollercoaster, Magic mum and Eumom provide a place for mothers and - increasingly - fathers to meet and bond over the joys and travails of parenthood, without ever having to come face to face.
Here, under the comforting blanket of anonymity, the hyper-competitiveness that all too often characterises interactions in the playground or at breastfeeding groups, gives way to painful honesty, anxiety and a sometimes heartbreaking insecurity.
‘‘I think of these little people as perfect gifts entrusted to us to do right by and I am really fucking up," writes one guilt-ridden mother.
Another confesses that: ‘ ‘I feel I should be enjoying them more, but at times I can’t wait till they are in bed. I feel guilty about that too."
On and on it goes; the anxiety, and the fears, and the tortured analysis.
‘‘Just wondering is it failure on my part or is it normal for a four-year-old to develop an obsession with telling everyone to ‘shut up’ ? "; ‘‘I have serious concerns about my ability to parent my two boys properly and give them the kind of idyllic childhood all kids deserve’’; ‘‘I’m wiped out and think I need to wean my LO [little one] onto formula. I need to stop for myself. Am I horrible? Am I a terrible mother?"
How did we get here? How did we arrive at a place where motherhood became an enterprise so fraught with anxiety and potential hazard; where a child saying ‘shut up’ becomes his mother’s ‘‘failure’’; where an ‘‘idyllic’’ childhood is an automatic universal human right; where a depressed, exhausted mother who decides not to breastfeed is forced to wonder if she is ‘‘horrible’’ and ‘‘terrible’’?
This is the question US journalist Judith Warner asked herself not long after her daughter turned four, when - after 48 months of on-a-loop singing and reading and encouraging - she noticed that ‘‘I had turned into a human TV set, so filled with 24-hour children’s programming I had no thoughts left of my own’’.
And it wasn’t just her. ‘‘I was surrounded, it seemed, by women who had surrendered their better selves - and their sanity - to motherhood.
Women who pulled all-nighters hand-painting paper plates for a class party. Who obsessed over the most minute details of playground politics. Who - like myself - appeared to be sleepwalking through life in a state of quiet panic."
Is it any wonder, she thought, that 70 per cent of US mothers say motherhood is ‘‘stressful’’. The answer, she concluded, was that motherhood had become unbearably stressful.
Society had given women more choices, but none of the supports needed to utilise those choices in a way that allowed them to cling onto a thread of sanity. So it tells women they can have a family and go out to work, but doesn’t provide them with the kind of good quality, affordable childcare that makes this feasible. It promotes the culture of what she calls ‘total motherhood’, but shrugs its shoulders when women ask how the hell that can be achieved.
Copyright Jennifer O'Connell 2010
Much of what Warner said makes sense, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. After all, I have what is, according to her analysis, the ideal solution: I work part time from home, make enough money to pay for childcare for my two children, love my job and have plenty of free time to spend with them.
And yet, at intervals over the past four years, I have suffered from all the stresses she identifies: from the moment they were embryonic dots inside me, I have worried endlessly about my children’s development, the quality of the time we spend together, whether I am properly nurturing and feeding and disciplining and encouraging them.
French philosopher Elisabeth Badinter has turned her attentions to the same phenomenon and has come up with a more immediate - some would say brutal - solution. You wanted to be the perfect mother, she says, so you gave up work, shopping, sex and intellectual stimulation in order to breastfeed, make purées and wash nappies. And now you can’t understand why you’re exhausted, unhappy and singularly unfulfilled.
So here’s what you do: give the baby a bottle. Find a minder and go back to work. Find a babysitter, wash your hair, and go out with your partner.
Use disposable nappies and buy jars of baby food. Stop striving to be the perfect mother and accept that you may only ever be mediocre. In short, stop fretting and get a life.
To another generation of women, the only thing shocking about this advice would probably be the controversy it has attracted. Leave aside her comments about the ‘holy reactionary alliance’ between green politicians, breastfeeding militants, ‘back to nature’ feminists and child psychologists conspiring to force women back into the home, and it’s hard to find anything to disagree with.
Far from being a Simone de Beauvoir style activist advocating the shunning of motherhood, in fact, Badinter’s advice is not only humane, it’s sensible too. We bring our daughters up to be confident, me-first hedonists, and then expect them to renounce it all when they become parents in pursuit of ‘total motherhood’.
We hothouse our kids and fail to understand when they act truculent and unhappy.
Something’s got to give - and it shouldn’t always be the mother’s sanity or the family’s equilibrium.
Of course, there’s one thing Warner and Badinter have missed out on: being a parent is also fun, enriching and challenging in the best possible way. We just have to learn not to make it so hard on ourselves.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 16, 2010