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.