MOTHERHOOD IS NOT A MISFORTUNE

There has been a lot of brainwashing about motherhood and it still goes on. From the ‘40s and ‘50s, we had the image of the ‘perfect mother’ who lived for her family. Feminism has helped, but we’ve added other burdens by becoming Superwoman, who is everything — career woman, mother and sex symbol all rolled in together.

Isn’t it interesting that we criticised our mothers (at least in our thoughts) for being doormats to the family? They criticise us for the opposite reason — for neglecting our children. They worry, too, that we will miss out on the special early years of family life — that we will be unfulfilled. It’s a paradox — the independence and confidence we enjoy grew from their stability and the investment they made in us. In quiet moments, we sit and wonder: is it possible to have freedom and be a fulfilled family person? It’s clearly time for a new balance to be found.

In some ways, we women have almost been conned out of our heritage. In a media world, where success is materially based, a kind of social pressure has developed, to see motherhood as a secondary part of life, almost a misfortune. It’s as if having kids is a handicap in the race to succeed. We maintain, with passionate feeling, that parenthood is certainly tough but, taken overall, it is wonderful to have and to raise children. It is a blessing.

BUT IS MOTHERHOOD IMPORTANT?

It’s very important. Sometimes people say: ‘I’m just a mother’ or get asked by people with no brains: ‘Do you work?’ Raising kids, even as far as school age, is more significant, in terms of affecting the lives of other human beings, than anything else most of us will ever do. How you raise your children will affect all their relationships. The qualities they possess, or lack, will affect all the people they ever meet, learn from and work with, and more so those they love and live with, and the children they raise, and their children, forever after.

Motherhood isn’t the whole of your life, but it’s a huge part of it. For up to 18 years, children are a daily concern — longer, if you can’t get them to leave home! You can be overawed by this feeling of something so big coming into your life. Quite a lot of us panic.

But you can’t change the fact that you’re a mother. It’s like in the kids’ game of chasey: you’re it. This child has got you for better or for worse. You start to assess yourself, not always favourably. Through the years, as your child grows up, comparisons will always be there to make. Their teacher might be more creative.

Their grandma might be more indulgent. The neighbour will be better at making clothes. Their friend’s mother will be more fashionable. At least, that’s how it could look. But none of these people has the central role. You are Mum.

In responding to your new status, you have a choice. Your mothering can either be passive, coping, just reacting to one thing after another; or it can be active, conscious and with definite aims (modified as you learn from experience). The difference is that with conscious parenting you know it’s a job, you want to do it well, and you gather the resources and help you need. You give it your best shot. You take it on wholeheartedly and with determined creativity. If you do this, a very interesting thing happens — you start to stretch.

Vivien was 28 when she gave birth to twins. She insisted on breastfeeding them, even though many people argued the advantages of bottlefeeding.

As she told us, ‘I’ve always been a shy person. I’d never dreamed of standing up to anyone in authority. I said “no” to a nurse who offered my babies some milk formula, then I got quite cross with a doctor who behaved patronisingly and finally I blew up my mother who seemed to think I would be hopeless. Now she is treating me with new respect. I’m treating myself with new respect.’

Parenthood will definitely make you more assertive. It can even help to heal hurts which have come down through many generations.

Margaret was a trained nurse who had left work to be a parent. She loved her two children dearly, but found it hard to show affection. When she watched other mothers hugging and smooching their babies and toddlers, Marg felt awkward and tense, as she could not do this with her own children. After talking with a close friend, she realised that she could not remember ever being held or comforted by her mother.

As she recalled the loneliness of her childhood, she began finding it easier to be close to her kids and her husband. It didn’t happen overnight, and took some courage, as she softened her tough outer shell and got in touch with how lonely she often really felt. But, as her capacity for closeness slowly increased, she felt happier than ever before. As a bonus, her kids were noticeably healthier and had fewer behavioural problems than previously, and her marriage grew stronger.

Many adults have felt huge ‘gaps’ in their own training or preparedness for life. Many skills and qualities — like warmth, humour, toughness, friendliness — need to be learned as concretely as learning to read or ride a bike. Sometimes we only learn these things in our 20s or 30s, prompted by the wish to pass them on to our kids.

It isn’t all up to you. You and your child are two souls meeting. You bring your background, life experiences and imperfections, and your child brings their unique disposition, health, handicaps and talents. Your partner, your other children, friends, family and community all add to the melting pot of experience.

Your kids may not learn to be loving unless you show them love and encourage them. They may not learn to solve problems unless you help them to think clearly and to understand their feelings. You have the chance to make them healthy, as you teach them to like good food and take joy in using their bodies actively. Loving, alert, healthy children don’t just happen. The seed is there — children love to love, they love to explore, learn, eat, exercise, be creative. But these things need to be drawn out, nurtured and taught. You have the opportunity to make a lot of difference in these key parts of their life.

Very few of us feel equipped to be a parent. Becoming one impels us to learn. If we don’t have the necessary qualities yet, we can learn them and other people can help us. Then we can pass them on to our children.

Annie, a 19-year-old single mother, was having a lot of trouble with her strong-willed toddler. However, one of her friends showed skill in disciplining Max whenever they visited her house. Annie was embarrassed at first, but took note of the way her friend was definite, kindly, but strong and persistent until Max co-operated. Annie also noticed how much Max loved to visit her friend. She started to use the same tone and approach that her friend had unknowingly shown her. And it began to work.

Sue, 32, a hairdresser from Scotland, started a playgroup to get to know local young mothers, as she had no relatives nearby. ‘I was shy, but I was going up the wall at home,’ she told us. ‘I didn’t know how to talk to people. 1 would see other mothers at the Health Centre and not know how to start. In the end, I just went up to people and said: “Hello, I’m Sue, what’s your name?” and we got talking. Now my son Angus does the same thing with the kids in the playgroup. There’s no way he’ll be shy like I was.’