As my four year old daughter laid sunning herself on the garden lounger, covering her nakedness with a sun-soaked fleece blanket and sporting a deliciously contented grin on her face, I peered over at my boy. He was silently playing with his cars, as he does, autistically driving them backwards and forwards across the same piece of surface obviously delighting in all the sensory pleasures it was giving him. We were all silent for some time. Content in our own little universe. Just feeling warm and loved.
“I am a good mum,” I said to myself. We may not have been making, creating, baking, crafting or talking, but we were all happy in our silent, collective moments.
As I relayed those words to the counsellor, I sobbed. Those unspoken words had acted like a dam; building up a pressurised tsunami of emotion, waiting to burst through it’s fragile wall. Not only had I never been able to say those words before, I hadn’t even allowed myself to think them. There was too much that occurred daily to prove on the contrary. Everything I read backed that up and paralysed me from even being able to give myself the smallest of thumbs up.
I occasionally put my children to bed without reading them a story. Some days, all they ate was crap because I couldn’t muster the energy to cook from scratch. I lied to them on occasion to manipulate their behaviour for my benefit. I couldn’t control my temper when I was really tired and would raise my voice. My pushchair was facing the wrong way so my children couldn’t see me when I pushed them. There was an endless list of failings.
It wasn’t that long ago that it seems parenting practices consisted of having your baby washed and dressed before being handed to you. Advancements in formula milk meant that mothers had a ‘choice’ about how they fed their children and infant deaths, previously due to failure to thrive, were given a lifeline. Women who breastfed were held in low esteem and were usually from a poor background. Bottle babies were kept at arms length when fed to avoid eye contact. Babies were left in push chairs at the bottom of the garden because the fresh air was good for them. Babies were swaddled and left to cry routinely. Children had nannies that cared for them so their parents could continue with their adult duties. Fathers were aloof, unemotional and disciplinarians. Mothers were equally as harsh in handing out the punishments but at least it was occasionally diluted with a comforting cuddle. It was important for children to be seen and not heard. To be passive and successful whilst not causing too much trouble. Parenting seemed to be parent-centred.
Along came John Bowlby et al who carried out some essential and ground-breaking research which showed the huge amount of detrimental effects on infant mental health that some of these practices had. He demonstrated the importance of early bonding on emotional well being for babies and infants. Breastfeeding was encouraged due to the relationship that was created from closeness. Babies were brought back from the bottom of the garden and back in the arms of their primary caregiver.
The attachment theory was born.
Jump to modern day and we now seem to have parenting practices that are the polar opposite; Babies are left coated in vernix and blood whilst they lay in skin to skin with their mothers for at least an hour. Breastfeeding is held in such high esteem that hospitals are judged on their abilities to create breastfeeding relationships. Feeding choice is vilified but not quite as much as formula feeding. Babies are carried as much as is humanly possible in fact face to face time with the mother is encouraged continually. Fathers are encouraged to be as nurturing as the mothers – when they’re allowed a look in. Mothers are to be emotionally available at all times. Parenting is now completely child-centred.
There is always a problem with polar opposites. Neither are ideal and to me are equally as damaging in their own right. To maintain such extremes, there always has to be a sacrifice. Pre-attachment theory, the sacrifice was infant mental health. Post AT, I think the sacrifice is parental mental health.
That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? What I mean is, maternal mental health is declining with postnatal depression increasing at an exponential rate. Fathers are being diagnosed too. Attachment theory is being taken out of context from it’s original form and intention and has somehow become a giant stick that parents (although mostly mothers) beat themselves with. The sole responsibility of parenting outcome, ergo, whether or not your child turns into a murderous rapist, seems to have been planted firmly on the mother’s shoulders. The criteria for parenting failure or success is a very rigid set of rules that sees women berating other women if they step outside the perimeters outlined by prominent internet forums.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we could look through history to try and pinpoint why we’re at the stage we’re at now, but the fact of the matter is this: Some women work. Some women don’t. Some women have a workplace where pumping and storing breastmilk is an achievable option. Some women don’t. Some women have twelve months maternity leave. Some women don’t. Some governments are supportive of motherhood. Some governments aren’t. Some women want to breastfeed. Some women don’t. Some women have to use full time childcare. Some women don’t. The list is endless as is the myriad of circumstances that parents find themselves in post-babydom.
I sought help when I could feel myself becoming consumed by my thoughts on how I just wasn’t up to the standard of ‘mother’ that my children deserved. I couldn’t live up to the expectations laid down before me on my news feed every hour.
I’m so bloody glad I did.
Yes, some days we don’t get dressed and slob all day watching too many Disney films. Yes, some days I don’t engage with my children every second of the day because I’m doing a bit of house work. Yes, some days I’m not even home because I work. Yes, some days I let my children open up food in a supermarket before it’s been paid for. Yes, I occasionally lose my temper. Yes, not everything they eat is organic…in fact very little. Yes, they don’t always have a story before bed time. Yes, I have been known to tell a little white lie to get my own way. And despite all this, I AM A GOOD MUM and I totally believe it.
I want you all to believe it too. Not that I am, that YOU are. Because once you do, you can stop obsessing about all the ‘wrongs’ and can be free to enjoy the ‘rights’. You can stop being obsessed with tiredness, frustration, resentment and anger. They lose their power when you know it doesn’t really matter anyway. Settling down to sleep at night is no longer reliving the guilt and regret of the day, but rejoicing in all the little things that made you smile. The self talk, the subtext, the analysis all disappears. It’s all a matter of finding the healthy balance and it’s so much easier than you might think…