Stop shaming mothers for having children | Women's Agenda

Stop shaming mothers for having children

Yesterday I read something that had its intended effect. It was no doubt published to be, at least partly, inflammatory and from my vantage point it was. Extremely, so. The author, Catherine Deveny, took aim at mothers who take their small children to cafes – she argues that small children should be in day care or at home, not sipping babycinos. This topic might seem completely innocuous, but the truth is, it’s far from it.

A news story I heard on the radio earlier today further reinforced this. A bus driver in Sydney is being investigated for threatening to ask a mother to exit the bus on account of her 21-month-old toddler.

I am not unsympathetic to the fact that small children can be noisy, distracting and annoying in cafes, on buses, in parks. Frankly, anywhere babies or toddlers are chaos is not far behind. But it’s because of that, that I am far more sympathetic to the parents who are raising those small children, than I am towards the bystanders who they occasionally irritate. And I wish others were too. Not just because being compassionate is worthy but because a lot is at stake.

The attitude underpinning both Deveny’s article and the bus driver’s alleged threat is to alienate mothers; to shame and embarrass them for taking their children out in public. And that is a great shame and embarrassment as far as I’m concerned.

Last week we published an important article on the lack of support for new parents . The prevalence of post-natal depression among new mothers is just one of the reasons Dr Joan Garvan says we need to consider the infrastructure and services that are available to help families, and mothers in particular, make the transition into parenthood.

I know from my own experience, and from virtually every parent I have ever conversed with, that having a baby is daunting, isolating and unnerving. And in many ways it’s more isolating than ever before. Mothers were once required to stay in hospital for a full week after giving birth, ensuring they recovered from labour and had breastfeeding established before they returned home.

Nowadays even private hospitals are unlikely to keep new mothers for more than four days by which point feeding won’t necessarily be established. It means many, if not most, new mothers arrive home still recovering from birth, and then must face the challenge of learning to feed their baby without being surrounded by support.

The average age of new mothers also means most women have worked for a decent period of time before having their first baby; this can exacerbate the identity transition that motherhood presents. There is a significant chasm between a workplace and being home alone with a tiny baby and there isn’t much that can prepare anyone for that. For most parents, even without the added complexity of post-natal depression, that transition is an overwhelming experience. And as Dr Garvan says without support it compromises the health and wellbeing of mothers.

While in many respects it gets easier beyond the first few months, as the baby gradually grows older, as they feed less and sleep more and the parents adjust to the responsibility, there is no date at which raising an infant suddenly gets easy. It doesn’t but life must go on.

I don’t expect parents to be coddled at every turn simply for having children but I disagree that anyone needs to actively make the raising of children more difficult than it needs to be — by castigating mothers on buses or venting at mothers with the audacity to venture out in public. Ideally I’d like more people to exercise a little more compassion and understanding than that.

The next time you see a mother at a café with a toddler sipping on a babycino, don’t dismiss the look on her face as smug. I can assure you the word you’re looking for to describe that look is relief; relief that she is out of the house, taking a moment to participate in society, possibly even glancing at a newspaper and exchanging pleasantries with a barista. In the life of a stay at home parent, a visit to the local café isn’t one of many luxuries indulged in over the course of a day, it’s often a solitary moment of salvation. Anyone who has spent days, or weeks, at home raising kids will attest to that.

As for that poor mother on the bus, she has all my sympathy. When I returned to work after having my first daughter the only childcare position I could secure for her was in the CBD. (And frankly I was very lucky to get that.) I didn’t even work in the CBD but four days a week, rain, hail or shine, I hopped on the bus with my toddler in the pram, to drop her off in the city before making my own way to work. And, every evening I did the same in reverse. To be clear that was not my idea of fun but it was the only alternative.

There were many occasions when I’m positive that my fellow passengers begrudged me and my daughter sharing their mode of public transport but fortunately no one ever said anything. Because if they had, there were many occasions where that would have been my undoing. Being on a bus with a miserable baby is miserable – but it will always be more miserable for the mother or the father of that child than it is for anyone around them.

It is not realistic to expect mothers, or fathers, to raise their children behind closed doors. Does it need to be unrealistic for that to be accepted? I sincerely hope not.

Do you think mothers get punished for having children? Does it stem from the notion that having children is selfish?

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