A few years ago, one of my friends was particularly unlucky to encounter a man who, when one of her 2 year old twins was losing it on the floor of M&S Foodhall, told her that “It’s because of mothers like you that this country is in the state that it’s in!”
Others might not say it so explicitly, but it can often feel as though mothers are held responsible for all the ills of society.
Or so it can seem sometimes when I read the media. Here’s just a few of the headlines I’ve seen in recent months:
‘Women who want to conceive should adopt a healthy diet years earlier’
‘Grief during pregnancy can affect baby’s mental health’
‘Children born by c-section far more likely to be obese by aged five, major study suggests’
‘Psychotherapist warns that working mothers are producing mentally ill children – and claims the problem is at an ‘epidemic level’
‘Babies risk being harmed by mothers with postnatal depression due to lack of support from the NHS’
So apparently not only should we should be preparing for motherhood before we conceive, but we should be protecting our children from the stresses of our lives whilst we’re pregnant and then woe-betide us if we don’t give birth the right way/ feed them incorrectly/ go to work or happen to develop a mental health illness. It seemed as though the recent series of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was curiously in tune with how mothers are seen by some of these authors – something pointed out in this article.
I’m not saying that the research isn’t true. Far from it – mothers have an incredible impact on their children, something I see in my job every day. What I am really fed up with is mothers taking all the blame when things go wrong, when it’s an issue that we all should be paying attention to. Mothers do not exist in isolation, and if they are to do what scientists say they should be doing, then they need the right conditions to do it in.
Mothers need practical support. We need a bit of hand-holding as we learn the ropes. We need information to help us make decisions. We need loving guides along the way. We need emotional support to help us be able to be emotional supports to our babies.
We need to be seen as people, with needs as important as those of our babies.
In 1988, the psychotherapist, Estrella Weldon, talked about how difficult it is for mothers to get their needs heard (let alone met) as people couldn’t believe that mothers could feel anything other than joy. I find it incredible that 30 years later we’re still struggling to allow mothers to express how they feel. It is such a shame that despite knowing how much support it takes women with mental illness to look after their children, mothers who say that they are not going to have any more children because they think it will have too great an impact on the rest of their family still feel nervous about saying so.
The National Maternity Review in 2015 summed up some of the things that mothers talked about needing during pregnancy and the early parts of motherhood. However, I think there are so many aspects to becoming (and being a mother) that this review misses some other issues as a result of having such a narrow focus. For example equal maternity and paternity leave (and pay) have a huge impact on care-giving behaviours from early months. The Share the Joy campaign to promote shared parental leave has had less than a 2% uptake since it started, possibly due to the fact that for many parents it simply doesn’t make financial sense at a time when most people are on a reduced income anyway.
There is also the rampant idea that mothers alone can look after babies, and that working mothers are causing untold harm. Despite research to the contrary, this myth persists, causing women to feel guilty if they do go to work, or causing others to find themselves missing something when they choose not to go back to work ‘for the good of the children’. This kind of thinking needs to be regularly challenged, in order to prevent mothers feeling as though they alone are able to look after children, and also to create a different set of role models for future generations.
I don’t have all the answers to these really complex issues, but I do have a few thoughts:
- Getting boys and girls to think about and discuss their responses to parenthood whilst at school.
- I believe we need more support for parents during pregnancy, not just a few antenatal appointments, but a more comprehensive building of relationships with key players in their care.
- This organised, consistent care needs to be continued, and possibly increased in the early months after the baby is born, developing the norm that new parents will get care (without having to ask).
- In order to enable this, I believe technology needs to be used more cleverly.
- Parents and parents-to-be need to be given their information in a more holistic, appropriately risk-informed way. It can be scary enough becoming a parent – the language around them needs to take this into account.
- If Shared Parental Leave were made compulsory and the statutory pay improved, maybe the potential benefits to everyone might well outweigh the initial deprivations.
This is not an exhaustive list, and I do not profess to be an economist (I’m a psychotherapist at Birth and Beyond)! However I think that doing some of these things would help us all recognise that each child is not just the responsibility of the individual mother – we can all play our part. Motherhood is hard enough, without being scared, isolated or vilified. Let’s celebrate parenthood, in its many, many forms, and get on with looking after our kids.
Image credit: Libby Vander Ploeg