Revealed: the secret price of motherhood. Suffocating boredom
It's taken one mum 10 years to admit that, despite loving her three children, she despises the full-time 'job' of being a mother.
Published 13/03/2014 | 02:30
All of my life I've been an intermittent diary-writer. The teenage ones are mortifying; the twenties are full of joy alongside naive confidence; but by far, the saddest pages are those written soon after being floored by the tsunami of first-time motherhood.
Even after a good birth, I was blind-sided by the transformation of my existence; the complete loss of identity and the suffocating monotony of being yoked to a little one all day.
It's lucky that I had those pages to fill: confessing out-loud anything but joy at mothering is tantamount to being a bad person; it violates a taboo, and worse, feels like a betrayal of one's child.
Like TS Eliot's J Alfred Prufrock measuring out his life in coffee spoons, I felt a profound sense of marking mine out in scoops of formula milk and reached similarly soulless depths.
In the West, we live in an age that regards mothers' negative feelings (even subconscious ones) as potentially toxic to children.
Thanks to the child-rearing manuals (which are actually mother-rearing rule books) that emerged in the mid-20th Century and kicked off with Dr Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care – the best-selling book in American history after the Bible – all sympathies suddenly switched to the child.
Post-Freudian psychoanalysis told us that a mother's moods could cause mental illness in her children. Influential literature such as DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and decades of movies such as Mommie Dearest and Psycho alarmed audiences with a fear of maternally induced psychic paralysis.
The theme of ambivalent motherhood was still so shocking by 2005 that it caused Lionel's Shriver's incredible novel We Need To Talk About Kevin to win The Orange Prize, sell more than one million copies and become a book-club favourite with mothers everywhere.
Even though it posed the idea that Kevin was possibly born evil, none of us could read it without identifying with the mother's sense of monotony and vowing to do more one-on-one play to off-set the likelihood of family members being impaled by a crossbow.
By now, we've had 2,000 years of the most ubiquitous yet most powerless mother in the Virgin Mary (she wasn't even allowed the human luxury of sex).
We've been raised on fairytales of evil step-mothers versus benign fairy godmothers; celebrity mums with unbrushed hair are jeered at as slatternly losers, and we all long to be the woman in the washing powder adverts, so beautiful, slender and calm that when her baby smears puréed mango all over her new coat, she smiles adoringly, rather than kicking the shit out of the fridge door.
So don't you dare say that being a mum can be dull. It is mandatory to enjoy motherhood at all times, especially when you are in the presence of your impressionable kids.
It doesn't matter if you've read Peppa Pig 15 times in a row; played 'shop' for an hour; waited 25 minutes for a two-year-old to dress herself and not finished a single one of the 'proper' jobs you need to do. This stuff is fun! Remember – you are having FUN! It is frankly unnatural to question such rewarding pleasures.
It has taken me 10 years to fully admit to myself that despite loving my kids with the force of a lioness, I regularly despise the unpaid, full-time 'job' of being a mother.
It is not the chivvying, cajoling, feeding, organising, bathing or entertaining – I can abide that stuff on a sort of dumbed-down, automatic pilot. And no pleasure compares to watching them in the school play.
It is the painful mental atrophy that compresses my brain when I have been in their company for too long, say, 15 minutes. I'm kidding. On average, my limit is three to four full days of single-handed mothering. That's when I crack.
It is a topic swaddled in a cultural conspiracy of silence. When teaching ante-natal classes, I crush the rose-tinted spectacles of new motherhood beneath my high-heels (I can wear them now that I no longer run the risk of maiming a crawler) because I wish that someone had told me that although I was about to start a cataclysmic and often hilarious journey, I would also weep at the repetitive drudgery.
I literally bow at the altar of full-time mothers. How do they do it?
I asked devoted mother of three, 'Best Daily' columnist and founder of The Positive Birth Movement, Milli Hill, if she ever feels this way.
"It's difficult for modern women because we are used to a level of intellectual stimulation all the time. With babies, we aren't using the same parts of our brains. It's not boring exactly – that sounds unkind to my children – but writing means that I can think about an article I'm planning while changing a nappy.
"Most of the time I'm too sleep-deprived to be bored. I'm making sure that I survive and everybody has a pulse by the end of the day."
Like Milli (who you may have spotted is much nicer than me), writing has been my sanity-preserver over the last decade and the explosion in mummy-bloggers must surely be evidence of women cleverly negotiating this boredom challenge.
Milli agrees: "When I had my first baby, I didn't know anybody else with a baby. Everyone else was at work. As hard as it is, you have to force yourself to get out of the house and meet other people with small babies.
"It's like starting your social circle all over again. It can be very intimidating and feels a bit silly but you have to find someone you can connect with.
"Having said that, the internet has changed things so much. As a blogger, campaigner and opinionated meddler, I'm like so many women I know – spending time staying connected to the real world via the internet."
A gorgeous new book, launched last week, reveals that this is very much a First World problem. In On Becoming a Mother, Brigid McConville has studied a "World's worth of wisdom" in portraying pregnancy, birth and the first year of life through hundreds of global cultures.
"Boredom is an issue in our culture because new mums are so isolated. After all the high emotion of a birth, you're back home, on your own. This does not happen in other cultures because you are always part of a wider group.
"In stable communities across India, Africa and in Aboriginal tribes, new mums are celebrated and not left alone for 40 days," she explains.
"They are not allowed to lift a finger. They may have an initial few days of seclusion to avoid infection, but then they are visited by many people who all bring food and gifts. They don't get the boredom that comes with isolation and looking after a baby alone. They are celebrated.
"Then when it is time to emerge, the woman is dressed to kill and paraded to show off her new baby. In Uganda, they wear a sash as a sign of their new status as a mother."
However, Brigid – also a mother of three – believes that in this country, they are now starting to benefit from mothers who raised their sons to be better dads.
She's right. Sometimes, just a few hours of dad taking the nipper to the park is all it takes to reboot the white cells and revive you into a happy mum again.
When her own children were young, Brigid McConville also found sanity as a freelance journalist and author: "I did forget to pick the kids up from school a few times because I'd spent two to three hours in a concentrated trance."
Good to know it's not just me – and it's not just you.
'On Becoming a Mother' by Brighid McConville is out now.