This column appeared in the Border Mail on July 21, 2010. Mums and mums to be need to cut themselves some slack and be kinder to themselves.
I’ve reposted this in support of the ‘Just Speak Up’ Campaign for Post Natal Depression Week launched today.
Mums search for answers to deal with competitive urge
Elizabeth Jolley is one of my favourite authors. I have always loved her acute observations of the family and especially of mothers; some of the mothers are far from perfect.
Her insights into the family extended beyond her fiction writing and were recorded in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and in a talk delivered in 1977 at The First Australian Conference on the Family and Health entitled “The Changing Family – Who Cares?” Here she repeatedly asked, “Where do I go for help?” reflecting on the difficulties facing families of the day. Her own responses to that question included the family doctor, clinic sister, the wise woman of the village and even thoughts from the author Tolstoy, famous for his quote about unhappy families, who suggested ‘It is not given to the Mother to know what is right for her child’.
Surely Tolstoy got it wrong. Don’t mothers instinctively know what is best for their child and exactly what to do when that new life is placed into their arms? Or was the Russian right? Mothering has always involved instinct and learning, but it seems the learning component now has prominence, with every aspect of child rearing researched and dissected.
My baby raising days are long gone, (some of my contemporaries have even entered the world of grandbabies), but as a breastfeeding counsellor I maintained a strong link with mums-to-be and new mums. My continuing interest in families and how they function finds me on sites where new mothers discuss – probably more openly than we ever did – their thoughts and fears about mothering and parenting.
Many of these discussions do still happen in mothers’ groups and with friends and families, but increasingly are taking place on blogs – more than 800,000 of them globally. Some mums describe them as a lifeline; a place they can go without fear of being labelled a failure.
If the latest research from the UK which examines the growing trend of the “Competitive Mum” is anything to go by this fear of failure is rising. The quest for perfection is going beyond the babies and children, (who’s first to reach their milestones), to the mothers themselves; almost a third of those surveyed exercise vigorously to get their pre-birth figures back in the same way as a celebrity mum. (The research also showed that of the 3,000 mothers interviewed 80 per cent found their competitive nature ‘ridiculous’, but didn’t know what to do about it.) Could the competitiveness be an attempt to cope with the feelings of inadequacy which strike every new mother at some time, or a reflection that the further we move away from Maslow’s first level of needs, our basic life needs, the more we intellectualise about everything we do?
But have things changed that much? Jolley in her 1977 talk cited the clinic sister, the well meaning neighbour and the baby books – an ocean of information – as adding to the ‘feelings of inadequacy in the mother’. That ocean appears to have reached almost tsunami proportions where new mums are floundering and reaching for any lifeline – friends, family or a parent blog – they can hang onto to stop them from drowning.
Elizabeth Jolley did find a lifeline, not in the baby books or from the clinic sister but from another writer, Dostoevesky who wrote the following to a young mother almost 130 years ago. ‘Be kind and let your child understand that you are kind.’ Perhaps kindness, especially to herself, is the only lifeline any mother needs.