Earlier this year I read something and concluded, immediately, it was one of the best things I’d ever read about motherhood. After publishing it, it quickly became clear I was not the only one who responded that way. Esther Walker’s article “What no one tells you about motherhood” is the most read story on Women’s Agenda’s.
The explanation for its popularity, in my view, is that Walker deftly and insightfully encapsulates what many, I’m tempted to say most, mothers discover upon having a baby in this day and age. That is, it’s a task they feel quite unprepared for. And, perplexingly, with the exception of other parents, it’s not a truth anyone else particularly wants to hear.
The piece was shared, read and liked by thousands of you and it elicited many responses, some public, some private. Readers — some who had had babies years ago and others who are still in the throes of it now – wrote to say it had a profound impact. They felt vindicated or more understood or less lonely or fortified, upon reading it. Powerful is undoubtedly overused as an adjective but some pieces of writing are deserving of it. I would say Walker’s piece is one of them.
Around the time we published it we ran a few pieces in response. But we also received a few submissions which we didn’t publish, articles that questioned the ‘tiresome’ need for mothers to talk about how hard they find the job of raising kids. The irony, to my mind, was that it is the precise attitude which sparked Esther’s piece.
Earlier this week I read a blog post by Steph Gardiner, a journalist on maternity leave, that reminded me why I wanted to respond to those who bemoan parents for saying they find motherhood hard. She was prompted to write after seeing a magazine cover with a celebrity couple announcing their new “bundle of joy”.
That image, with a cover line that the new mum had had ‘never known love like it’, prompted Steph to write because it hit her ‘where it hurt’. It took her back a few months to the reality of bringing her first baby home and, unsurprisingly, it didn’t look a whole lot like that magazine cover. Like many, many new mothers, Steph found the first few weeks and months with her baby extraordinarily taxing, physically and emotionally. (I am yet to meet a mother who hasn’t.)
The gap – between a magazine’s visual depiction of new motherhood and one new mother’s experience – illustrates why pieces like Esther’s and Steph’s, or any parent’s honest account of life with children, are welcome. And, actually, more than welcome they are vitally important. Because they help to bridge the substantial gulf that exists between reality and expectations.
So to anyone who has ever asked or wondered “Why do so many mothers feel the need to talk about how hard it is?” I will answer.
The real reason any parent ever writes or speaks about their challenges with their children, is because they want understanding. They’re not saying it’s hard because they expect you to change it, or give them a pay-rise, or elicit sympathy. They’re not saying it because they feel like the only person in the world who has done it or because they’re doing it tougher than anyone else. They’re saying it because they want to be understood.
They want to know they’re not the only parent in the world who finds being home with a baby difficult. That they’re not the only one who after pregnancy and labour doesn’t recognise their body or their life. That they’re not the only one who occasionally feels like the task of looking after their new baby is akin to being asked to sit their final exams in Russian. They want to be understood. To feel like what they’re experiencing is valid.
It’s why suggesting to any parent, let alone a brand new parent, that babies and children are easy and therefore not legitimate grounds for finding life remotely challenging, is quite treacherous. And the ramifications are broader than you might think.
For the individual it compounds the internal angst they already have: “Isn’t this supposed to be easy?” And “If this is meant to be easy, and I’m not finding it easy, what am I doing wrong?” Aside from creating additional angst for otherwise-well mums, it perpetuates the shame and stigma that plagues those mothers who experience post-natal depression. It serves to reinforce the notion that motherhood is supposed to be easy and rosy.
And that doesn’t just impact mothers, it impacts fathers and future parents too. Because it sets the tone, as displayed in nappy ads, magazines and Facebook albums everywhere, that having a baby is blissful. It means when things aren’t straightforward, let alone joyous, neither the mother or the father are necessarily prepared. A new father might not understand why the mother of his new baby isn’t as happy and joyful as he’d assumed she might be. Her friends might wonder why she hasn’t left the house in three weeks. She wonders why everyone else in the world has a baby that sleeps and eats and has time to shower, let alone blow-dry their hair. A boss can’t understand why the new-father in his team is looking shattered or why so few women who have don’t just commit to coming back fulltime.
Failing to comprehend the gritty reality of raising children creates another barrier for parents combining work and family. The misconceptions about motherhood multiply and it leaves many parties feeling misunderstood.
More broadly, dismissing anyone’s grievances about raising children reinforces the idea that looking after children is somehow simple and unimportant. When senior executives or pilots or elite athletes talk about the challenges of their jobs, the response is rarely “Why do you go on about why it’s so hard?” Rather we recognise there are challenges associated and we respect them for negotiating them.
That same respect generally isn’t afforded to mothers. If there is any doubt of this the treatment of “mummy bloggers” is telling. The term itself is most often used derogatively. While men are commentators or simply bloggers, women, even those with readerships that the mainstream media would die for, are “mummy bloggers”. The reaction when the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard courted a group of these female bloggers was largely incredulous. “Who are these imposters and how dare they have an audience with the PM?”
To my mind, it’s further evidence that societally we don’t particularly value mothers. I suspect if that changed fewer mums might feel the need to articulate their experiences, because if mothering was valued and respected fewer mums would feel misunderstood. So if you want mothers to stop moaning listen to what they’re saying and, even better, try to understand them.