The Mask of Motherhood

If I ever happen to be in conversation with a woman expecting her first baby, the chances are I’ll say something encouraging. I’ll talk about how much fun children can be, how much they make you laugh, and how, as a mother, you discover depths of strength and patience and compassion that you never thought you had. But I don’t talk about the relentlessness of a child’s demands, the hollow exhaustion you drag from day to day when things are going badly, the feverish anxieties, and that strange self-dislocation that takes place when you realize you’ve not asked yourself what you want for so long that you don’t even know any more. Earlier this week I read a book by Susan Maushart called The Mask of Motherhood, which suggests that by telling only half a story, mothers do a disservice not only to themselves, but also to the community of women at large. The urge to downplay the darker side to being a parent creates a mask of motherhood that can lead many women into making poor decisions for themselves, and governments, employers and fathers into making poor decisions on their behalf.

The problems begin with the unrealistic expectations we take into parenthood, Maushart argues. Being ill-informed about the nature of the task that lies ahead is never good, and particularly not when the task is a life-changing one. Our culture sends us messages about mothering that promise the possibility of effortlessly combining child care with work, leisure and relationships, messages that are pleasant to receive but which make the reality of modern parenting actually much harder to bear. Maushart argues that the hidden truths create all kinds of dissonance, widening the gap between the generations, between people who have children and people who don’t, and also between the import of the verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’. She offers a list of some of the effects of the mask of motherhood, for instance, ‘the values of a culture that glorifies the ideal of motherhood but takes for granted the work of motherhood’, ‘media images of Supermom, complete with briefcase’, ‘the secret worry of the new mother that “I wasn’t cut out for this|”, and the gnawing fear that it shows’, ‘child-care manuals that imply that “easy” babies are made, not born, and that an infant’s digestive tract is somehow linked by fiber-optic cable to its mother’s state of mind’, ‘the tolerance of women for the selective deafness of fathers at 3.00 am, especially in the belief that “a man needs his sleep” so he can “go to work in the morning”. That’s just a few of the highlights, and they show up a pattern of quite ferocious self-denial on the mother’s part, as she denies her right to complaint, to uncertainty and to weakness in the burning desire to be good; a good mother, a credit to society, a pillar of her family.

I found Maushart’s arguments very convincing, not least because my own memories of becoming a mother remain fraught with the blows to my self-esteem that accompanied the traumatic upheaval of giving birth. I was most certainly not expecting what came my way with the baby, most of all the sense that I had somehow lost my life and my sense of self. In retrospect I can see why I felt the transition so keenly. I was always someone who liked to have the feeling of control, which is the first thing to go when you have a newborn. I also gain all my deepest pleasures from solitary pursuits – reading, writing, even just being alone. With a child, these look like the worst forms of selfishness. And I also had high standards for myself when it came to nurture. I was good at looking after people, and would expect a great deal from myself even if dealing with a complete stranger. You can imagine the standards I set when it came to my own child. Maushart suggests that ‘the neediness of the helpless newborn presents a woman with the ultimate test of her fitness to nurture. Even for the “best” most settled baby, the new mother must confront the realities of being on 24-hour-a-day call; of long periods without proper rest; of the physically grueling routines […] In this virtual frenzy of caring, many women have reported feeling as if they have ceased to function, or even exist, in their own right.’ Well you can tick that box for me. And like many women, my response to all this was to stop looking after myself, to think of my own comfort, rest and pleasure as luxuries for which I had no more time or energy.

I was also in a very isolated position. Our families lived a distance away, I’d recently begun a PhD, a lonely occupation at best, and not one that any other woman I knew with a baby was undertaking, and we lived in a village with an ageing demographic. There weren’t other families around. And I’m sure Mister Litlove won’t mind if I mention here that his response to having a baby was to spend a lot of time at work, and to keep the best of himself in storage in the office whenever he was at home. I had full responsibility, zero knowledge and no confidence: my belief was that everything the baby did that was negative was because of me. It didn’t help that my only support at this time was Penelope Leach and her bible of childcare, the only book that has ever terrorized me and which I would have done better to chuck out the window of a fast-moving vehicle. To this day I remember Leach’s calm assurance that within a few weeks a good mother could easily learn to distinguish her babies’ cries, and recognize hunger from thirst or tiredness or distress. Well, this did not help my state of mind one little bit. I was a linguist; even though I knew no Italian, Dutch or Spanish, I could figure them out in simple configurations, from context, similarity to other Latin-based languages, and good guessing. By contrast, I had as much chance of reading my child’s cries as I had of simultaneous translation of Russian or Arabic. I press the old, old bruise and ouch, yes, I still bear a grudge towards Penelope Leach. She was incapable of writing a sentence that did not lower my spirits even further.

And what would have made me feel better? The truth, undoubtedly. Hearing it said, and being able to express it myself. If only I had known other women with babies who were prepared to look me in the eye and say ‘it’s a living nightmare some days, isn’t it?’ To this day I have a horror of people who gloss their condition, who declare how marvelous their lives are. I never understood it (and probably still fail to give it enough credit) as a coping strategy in and of itself, a way to keep one’s head above water. I wouldn’t ever say it for fear that someone like me would be the recipient, someone quietly, silently berating herself for being continuously unequal to the occasion, of failing at this seemingly simplest, most natural of processes. I’m not sure you can ever adequately prepare a woman for the identity crisis that is becoming a mother, but you can encourage her to put the right kind of framework in place. To ensure she has good, dependable help available at all times, to divide up the burden of responsibility fairly with her partner, to strengthen the bonds with friends, particularly those with children as their experience and sympathy can be invaluable, to write down on a piece of paper a list of the things she thinks are basic nurturing necessities in her own life and to refer to it regularly, and NOT to dismiss them as silly indulgences.

I do think it’s extremely important that mothers have the right and the opportunity to express themselves about the negative aspects of their lives, and that the audience does not recoil in horror at witnessing the glorious image of serene motherhood besmirched. Otherwise, cooped up alone with her children, there is always the risk that the negativity will tumble out, unwillingly, unwittingly, onto them. No mother would ever do this if she could avoid it, but everyone has their limits. And once mothers have got things off their chests, they need two books. A copy of Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood, so they know they are not alone, and a copy of Sarah Napthali’s Buddhism for Mothers, which is by far and away the calmest, most compassionate, most comforting child care book I’ve ever come across, and believe me, I’ve read a few these days. I wish I’d had them both fourteen years ago.


22 thoughts on “The Mask of Motherhood

  1. This is so well said, Litlove. And I think it applies to more than motherhood, though that is probably the most common and most commonly intense experience that many women share. I haven’t read Buddhism for Mothers, but I’m going to look for it now. I remember when my children were babies, I realized how impossibly demanding and contradictory the expectations of mothers now are. In the time period I was researching it was enough if your child reached adolescence. Not that I’d want to go back to those days of (God forbid) mortality. But that showed my state of wind, thinking wistfully, that gee, survival was enough then.

  2. I liked Buddhism for Mothers. I also struggle with what to say with pregnant women and new mothers to be. In many ways it’s such a hormonally charged time that I think whatever you say runs the risk of being the wrong thing to say. It can very difficult to have conversations with other mothers too as what you say about your own choices and experiences is so often heard as judgment of theirs.

    I’ve really struggled with the issue of whether to have a second child and it has got me thinking that in other spheres we are treated as individuals but as mothers we are suddenly all expected to be the same and almost expected to deny our hard won self knowledge. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of raising my daughter and there have been plenty of happy moments along the way- but it has also been hard, hard relentless work. And ultimately I have concluded that we probably couldn’t cope with another. Amongst other things I have quite low energy levels and I need a lot of sleep to function. I would be spread too thin with another child. Of course, I’d like to think I could have it all and it does seem that as other women evidently cope just fine I *should* be able to as well. But I’m not other people and I have to work within my own limitations and make a reasoned decision about what will be most conducive to a good life for me and those around me.

  3. As you know, Litlove, I am not a mother, but I hope to become and yet fear becoming one in about equal measure. I instinctively feel the truth of what you’re saying; I’ve already begun articulating some of my fears and needs to my husband so that there is no veil even pre-conception about what I believe is my right and need to maintain a semblance of self. I am going to print out this post and give it to him to read. And I am going to keep it close in the event of my own status ever changing from childless woman to mother with child.

  4. thank heaven i discovered blogging 2 years in. i poured out my deepest darkest mothering secrets only to discover that everyone else had pretty much the same issues. it helped me drop the guilt and become a better parent.

  5. Pingback: The Mask of Motherhood

  6. I’m poised to buy both books after reading this: Maushart’s book for me and the Buddhism book for a friend who’s about to have a baby. I enjoyed large chunks of my kids’ babyhoods, but other chunks were deeply, horribly boring and sad. There’s such an abyss between the expectations that society brings to parenting and the actual experience of it, and you address that so well here.

  7. As you know I don’t have children and by choice I never will. When I was a kid I was what my mom would call a little pitcher with big ears and I would tune into conversations my mom had with other mothers and suspicion grew that there were things not being said, that the cheer and the jokes were covering something up. Of course now I have more of an idea about what they were hiding. A former coworker of mine age 60 with three grown children and a few grandchildren told me once how smart I was for not having children and even though she loved hers if she had it to do over again she wouldn’t. That made me sad. Hopefully books like Maushart’s and women like yourself who are willing to talk about what it is really like to be a mother make a difference so women can make the choice with full knowledge and not look back on their lives at 60 and wish it had been different.

  8. All true. Motherhood is hard! I think it’s Margaret Atwood who wrote an essay on the subject, to the effect that mothers betray their daughters by not warning them of the darkness.

    Thank goodness for internet forums, blogging, etc — it helped me tremendously. I think we’re a little closer to approaching honesty online, safe in our anonymity, but we still have a way to go to be able to have these conversations face to face.

  9. I think this is very interesting. I am not very good at being different in different situations. What you see is what you get (I think this may be a real problem for interviews). I probably find being a parent about as difficult/rewarding as anyone else but I do not gloss over the difficulties. A (childless) colleague said to me recently “you hate your children, don’t you?” She was joking but I was a little hurt. Thinking about it, I realised that I am the only person in the office who ever says anything negative about having children. She’ll thank me when she has children of her own, I suppose.

  10. Oh, yes. I remember those days, Litlove. It took me a long time to have children, and they were joyously received when they finally came. I loved and enjoyed them tremendously. But, no one can prepare you for the sleep deprivation, the isolation, the fears and worries, the feeling that your life will never be the same (because it won’t) and the unrelenting responsibility. I used to joke that I had my first child…and then the next thing I remember was turning 50. Not so far from the truth. But, there really is life after motherhood, dear hearts.

  11. I hope Penelope Leach’s books are no longer in print (I hate to say that about any book, but in this case…). She must have made a whole generation of women even more stressed out than they already were being new mothers!

  12. Lilian – your comment about survival being enough certainly brought a wry smile to my face! In another childcare book I was reading, the author was laughing about the way that we act as if we lived in the most dangerous era ever, when in fact life has never been healthier. It is so hard to keep all these things in proportion because your emotional response to your own children is always a bit over the top (mine certainly is and I have to keep it firmly anchored whenever possible). You’re also quite right that mothering is not the only place where this sort of glossing happens.

    Ms Make Tea – oh your comment sounds so familiar to me. Chronic fatigue made the decision for me to only have the one child, but essentially my reasons were exactly the same as yours. And for years I was hung up on thinking that I ‘should’ want another child, when quite honestly I didn’t. I wouldn’t not have had my son for the world, or foregone the lessons that motherhood has taught me. But I didn’t have the stamina or the spaciousness for two.

    Di – I really do think that women are perfectly capable of making a good, clean transition into motherhood. But I also think it depends on having the right information and the right structures in place. When the baby comes you’re tired and busier than you’ve ever been in your life (though it also feels like nothing is happening). Any expectant mother needs to think about what they’d need under those circumstances. A supportive partner is probably the first and biggest want. I think you can manage without most other things if that’s in place. And you know I’ve got my fingers crossed for you; I’ve no doubt it will happen in the right time.

    Emily – I heartily wish that blogs had been around when my son was little. To think of the comfort that community provides! I’m always impressed by the compassion and the support your audience brings to your site every day.

    Charlotte – I knew you would understand. I think you manage the demands of motherhood just wonderfully well whilst keeping a hold of your self and your career. It’s a tough equation. The very best of luck to your pregnant friend – Buddhism for Mothers is a delight and very calming.

    Stefanie – if there’s one thing this planet doesn’t need right now, it’s a population explosion. And the one basic, most important fight in feminism is for choice. It was a great day when women had sufficient control over their bodies not to have to face endless pregnancies. Motherhood isn’t easy and you have to want it – I most certainly agree that it’s important that women should have a free choice because an unloved, unwanted child is just the saddest thing.

    Isabella – I will have to look out that essay – Atwood’s view is always worth hearing. And I do so agree that blogging has provided a lifeline to so many mothers. It’s the isolation that really drags you down, and the support of the online community is wonderful. I really wish I’d had access to it when my son was small.

    Belgianwaffle – how very interesting. I really like the thought of your coherence; sounds to me a lot more healthy than endless compliance to whichever audience is at hand. I’m offended on your behalf by the colleague’s remark. In my experience, children are tuned in to what’s real, and are often dissatisfied and unsettled by unwarranted praise or saccharine adult remarks. It’s a shame that we tend to lose that quality as we get older! Children really need to be seen for what they are and for what they do, and I think it’s a mistake to act otherwise. Your colleague will thank you one day, and anyone with children would know just what you mean.

    Anon – oh that’s a great line about turning 50 – made me laugh out loud! The really confusing thing about children is that they change just as you get used to them. Now I feel like I’m the one following my child around the house waiting for a crumb of conversation or a little game. Ha! The irony! This is, as you say, life after motherhood. 🙂

    Danielle – hugs to you! Penelope Leach’s books are still going strong, but in all fairness I think she’s updated them since I had my son, and I hope they are a bit less inclined to view mothers as miracle workers. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend her as a place for new mothers to start. In fact, I would probably recommend new mothers to stock up on comfort reads – far better for them! 😉

  13. This post resonates with me, although I am not a mother myself I have been involved with the daily care of babies and children for over thirty years so have a pretty good idea of what is involved and how, as a woman, one copes.
    For the past sixteen years I have been involved intimately with new mothers and their babies. I work privately as a maternity nurse and have had numerous conversations with women who are experiencing the roller coaster of emotions after giving birth. I do all I can to prepare them for the early months of motherhood, but having seen so many different responses know it is almost impossible to tell mothers to be what it will be like for them. It is a different expierience for everyone, although without doubt many of the differing emotions and conflicting thoughts are universal amongst mothers.
    Over the years I have seen many women desperate to be all things to all people- a “good” mother, a wife, continue a career, and still feel a person in their own right. I try to tell them that is ok to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility, that there are days when they will feel bored stiff with the seemingly endless routine that is part of having a young child and that they have as much right to do their own thing now and again without feeling guilty. The phrase I often use is that they are “a good enough parent”.
    These two books are ones I hav’nt read but intend to do so soon as they appear to address issues which are glossed over in the many parenting manuals. A parenting manual may be needed but my concern over many of those around at present make some mother’s feel a failure if they are unable to follow them to the letter.
    Boosting a mother’s own instincts, which she may not believe in in the first few muddled, chaotic and sleep deprived months is the part of my job which I feel is the most important.

  14. Even though I don’t really know myself, I would have guessed at what Emily said — that blogging and other aspects of the internet are a big help here, for those who have access to it and know where to go. My sister-in-law just had a baby and has a “mommy blog” and I can see that it’s a great outlet and source of comfort for her.

  15. Fran H-B – where were you when I had my baby?? I really appreciate your comment, and the wisdom that informs it. I couldn’t agree with you more – it’s the mother’s belief in her own instincts (and help in locating them!) that helps more than anything. When you have a baby you get told so many conflicting things, and when you know nothing, you have no basis on which to judge them. And babies are so precious; it seems that anything less than perfection just isn’t good enough. I think the notion of the ‘good enough’ mother can be salvationary. Once I’d decided that showing my son how to make mistakes might be as important as showing him how to get things right, I felt I took a big step forward. Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

    Dorothy – I do so wish I’d been able to blog when my son was born – it would have made a great deal of difference. The very best of luck to your sister-in-law! I’ll have to find her in your blogroll and call by!

  16. I wholeheartedly agree that women should hear the negatives about motherhood before and during their early mothering experiences–it’s so helpful to know you’re not alone in your negative feelings. I think the baby group I belonged to in my neighborhood was really helpful to me when I was a new parent–and if I was having my children now I would probably turn to the blogging community for advice and support. But I will say this–the only people who really seemed to understand how difficult it was having a young baby were other new mothers. My own mother and mother-in-law had seemingly forgotten how trying early motherhood had been for them (did they block it out?), and trying to explain to a pregnant woman what she was in for was nearly impossible. I would get questions from pregnant friends, and try to tell them what having a new baby was like, but it never seemed to register. I was probably scaring the heck out of them, so maybe they were blocking me out! So while I agree that women need to have an honest dialogue about the difficulties of parenting, I also know that it’s not the easiest thing to accomplish!

  17. Gentle Reader – I take my hat off to you – you are able to find just the best groups to join that are fun and supportive. There was nothing like that where I lived, and things would have been much better if I’d found even one friend going through the same experiences. I agree it’s really difficult to approach women who are expecting and tell them what’s ahead. I notice that several people who comment regularly here and who are expecting or have recently had children haven’t said anything on this post – and I do worry that it’s offensive to them. Those early days are such a struggle to stay whole and coherent. And yet, I do wonder whether it’s possible to say, imagine yourself really busy and really tired and doing something difficult. What would help you? what do you need to feel supported? But this could be idealism on my part, and the very different perspective you gain after a decade or so…..

  18. A lurker here. I read Maushart’s book before having my first baby, and found it terrifically helpful. I started reading Leach, but threw her away. Any book that makes a pregnant woman feel guilty for eating junk food!!! well, really. Another book I would say is compulsory for mothers-to-be is Learning to Breastfeed (ed by Lil Deverell and Debbie Tuck). It’s a collection of first-hand stories by all sorts of women about their experience of feeding – from the grandmother who still feeds her grandchildren to the women who were never interested and used formula instead, and everyone in between. It prepares a new mum for the physical and emotional possibilities (good and bad) of breastfeeding – something about which I knew nothing until I had to do it myself!

  19. Alison – thank you so much for coming out of lurkerdom with that extremely helpful recommendation. I’m so glad to hear that you threw Leach away, and that it wasn’t just me who found her intolerable! I’ll check out the book you mention; breast-feeding has become a curiously contentious issue in the UK and it would interest me to see how the authors present their material.

    Grad – you know, I thought it was you. It was the way you said ‘dear hearts’ that made me laugh so, and I just thought that had to be you. But on the off chance it wasn’t, I had to call you anonymous! 🙂

  20. I’ve just reread this post after Samantha reminded me of it at DoctorDi following ‘The Mother’s Mojo: MIA?’ post…and now that I *am* a mother, I am floored by the degree to which your comments and the quotes from Maushart’s book resonate with me, Litlove – at points painfully. But god it’s reassuring to know I’m not alone.

  21. Doctordi – dear friend, you are SO not alone! We’ve pretty much all been there, and it’s just a long slog at certain points. What I can say is that it really does get better. My son has been a huge comfort and an entertainment and an education for me over the past 13 years. They were all uniformly better than the first three! And thank God for the internet, where we can get it all off our chests. Hugs to you.

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