The perfect mother is a saint, with the body of a vixen, the sharp mind of a tax attorney, supermodel looks and the homemaking skills of a domestic goddess.
Fail on any of these fronts and you can scratch your child’s name from invites to this season’s best birthday parties.
Yummy Mummies, the poster girls for modern mothering, are more about style than substance.
Somehow the very intimate act of mothering has become a high-stakes game played out in the very-public arenas of our schools, play centres, mothers’ groups and preschools.
Maybe it’s no surprise that in an age where women squeeze motherhood in to career ladder ascent, that some approach mothering as another project to master, with the baby a project to be managed. Mothering becomes cerebral rather than emotional.
We leave our jobs, which provide us with a very clear sense of identity, and tumble down a rabbit hole into a world where our sense of self evaporates. We move on a set path from school to university, to work – and that work defines us. There’s usually little time to invest in other pursuits or hobbies – it’s no wonder that when we give up our jobs to sit at home alone and rock the baby, we fear we’ve disappeared.
As we scrabble for the mission statement in the chaos of mothering, we learn to improvise. We make motherhood itself the new battle ground and our babies the weapons.
We hold grimly to the need for a sense of self, and while our working life is suspended, we’ll damn well make a success of this mothering business to eek out some self-esteem.
Often isolated from the aunts and mothers who would once have provided a guide rope for this new chapter of our lives, we grope in the dark and try to cope by drawing on the skill set gained in our working lives – not always the best tools for the job.
The mother-competition starts from the moment of conception; was it natural or assisted? How much weight will you gain? Of course you’ll do pre natal yogalates and plan a no-drugs, no-fuss labour? Or what about one of those wonderful vaginal by-passes (aka caesarean) where the primal can be supplanted by technology?
From here it’s an all-out war for milestones; who got the first tooth, slept through the night first, smiles first and takes to the breast like a natural. Woe betide the ‘difficult child’ who makes mummy look bad at Mothers’ Group. His perceived flaws are only ammunition for a mother’s attack on herself.
I’d decided that I was already a failure at motherhood after needing a caesarean with my first child and then completely stuffing up the whole breastfeeding thing.
I was the only one in my mother’s group who needed artificial support both to birth and then feed my child. The sense of failure was immense.
Earnest discussions in mother’s groups debate the merits of immunisation, Montessori preschools and organic baby food.
Mothering has becoming a serious business and we all want to be the best mother we can be – it’s just that this sort of mother seems to be rather remote and disconnected, fraught with guilt over every choice and too busy focusing on what sort of parent she appears to be, to really connect with her intuitive abilities.
These days young couples save up for a baby: but only after they’ve bought the big house and had a big international holiday. Children have become a lifestyle, rather than intuitive, choice.
And it’s easy to get caught up in the world of designer parenting, where the brand of your pram, cot linen and bibs are all signposts of how good a mother you are.
Some of this is caused by the trickle-down effect of branding, after adult clothing, household appliances and even toilet seats came in for a designer makeover, marketers had to look further afield for branding opportunities – and now we have reached the stage where your child can have a fully branded childhood, from birth (the hospital is so important) to the who your obstetrician was, what brand baby wore in hospital and who designed your maternity bra.
Branding your child through their association with a certain school is not a new idea, in fact it has been a popular tradition in Melbourne especially, for generations. It’s just that what was once the privilege of the very rich, has now also become accessible to the cashed-up middle class and as such is more widespread.
The idea of being at the best school, with the best name, was a big theme in my novel Gucci Mamas. The protagonist Mim becomes confused by why, when she is paying the top fees in the state and sending her children to one of the country’s most elite schools, she hates even stepping foot in the grounds and has rumblings of discontent about the school. How could something so prestigious and expensive be flawed – surely the problem must be in her, not the school? It’s a clear case of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
And it’s easy to see why we get sucked in by such concerns, in a time when we are having smaller families that at any other stage in history we have become a tad hysterical about achieving ‘perfect’ outcomes at every stage of the parenting game. There is a much greater propensity for hot-housing kids – for wrapping them in cotton wool – and for them to be the vessels for their parent’s hopes and dreams.
But life is not perfect, as the Gucci Mamas find out – and the more they try to soothe themselves with a façade of perfection, the more their inner discontent grows.
It’s easy to forget that our children are not simply extensions of ourselves; their achievements, their failures and struggles do not reflect our abilities as parents. That’s the essence of mother guilt; the flaw is always yours.
Modern mothering is fraught with over thinking. We over-stimulate, over-schedule, pathologise their every quirk and idiosyncrasy and expect so much from our poor kids who become little more than trophies. We want exceptional children – to have a ‘normal’ child is really a shame – let him be outstanding – if not for his obvious giftedness then at the very least for the magnitude of his disorder.
When we wrote Gucci Mamas, my co-writer Lisa Blundell and I wanted to have a bit of a laugh at how competitively some women treat mothering, but along the way we were occasionally sobered by just how sad that can be.