Motherhood won't exorcise demons, but don't feel guilty
Published 02/08/2014 | 02:30
I RECENTLY met a woman who revealed that when her first born was 12 weeks old, she went into the garden at four in the afternoon and did a shot of vodka before smoking a Marlboro Light.
It was one of the calmest moments she had experienced in three months. The baby hadn't stopped crying for two days - neither of them had - and when she finally got her child down for a nap, her mind turned immediately to alcohol.
"This is the first time I've admitted it," she said, still guilt-ridden by the memory. Her daughter is now four years old.
It reminded me of my own experience of very early motherhood, when I was shell-shocked and demented and went to a friend's party a few weeks after giving birth. I remember the surprised looks on people's faces; they had written me off socially for the next 15 months, and yet there I was, drinking white wine with ice in it (the ice would water it down, right?), smiling and laughing about the emergency C-section I had recently undergone ("I mean, I was so out of it that I started singing The Muppet Babies theme tune in theatre, ahahahahahaha!").
I hadn't drunk alcohol for more than 10 months and I was sick in the taxi home. The next day, when I felt physically and emotionally terrible for having gone on a bender while my daughter was being cared for by her grandmother, I justified it by telling myself that I bloody well deserved a blowout after almost a year of enforced sobriety and heartburn and, oh yeah, the whole 40-odd-hours-of-intense-pain-before-being-slashed-from-hip-to-hip thing.
But I do look back now and think I wasn't right in the head. I think that if somebody had pulled me aside and suggested that I might like a lie-down and a nice chat, they would have been perfectly within their rights.
Motherhood is hard because there is an assumption that it will instantly take away all your demons and make an honest woman out of you, and then it doesn't - and the guilt is endless. I sometimes think that the reason the newborn stage is so difficult has nothing to do with the newborn (whom you will always end up looking after on autopilot), and everything to do with the supposed loss of the old you.
Your flaws do not vanish as a reward for going through labour. You still feel cross and frustrated and lonely and miserable, and sometimes desperate for a drink, just as you did before. Why do they not tell you this in the antenatal classes?
Like everyone else, I shuddered to learn that Peaches Geldof's son had been alone with her lifeless body for up to 17 hours. It does seem unthinkable that someone would take drugs while in sole charge of a child, but then I suppose that is addiction for you. It doesn't choose its moments and it doesn't decide to bog off just because someone happens to have become a mother.
It is there for ever, an immovable feature of one's life that people just have to try to get around, with rehab and therapy and whatever else. But that doesn't always happen, not even when small children are involved.
In this respect, Peaches screwed up - and we all do from time to time - and now, tragically, she is dead. But why are we all so shocked that her well-documented problem with drugs refused to go away when she became a mother? Why did we think that motherhood, which is not exactly a walk in the park, would do for her what Narcotics Anonymous has for others?
A feminist blogger called Glosswitch wrote brilliantly on this for the New Statesman. She recalled waking up in hospital when her first child was four months old, having fallen down a staircase after drinking raspberry vodka.
"That one can be a mother, a mother who loves her children very much, yet still do selfish, self-destructive things, is hard for people to accept," she wrote. "It is inconvenient.
"Mothers should not be weak - they exist to absorb the weaknesses of others - so human frailty cannot be part of the motherhood story."
If mums do ever lose themselves in the bottle, they are expected to do it furtively - a quick bowl of sauvignon after the kids are asleep and before the husband returns from work. Gin is "mother's ruin", after all.
The language that surrounds mums and alcohol is tinged with shame; at all times they must be sober and clear-headed to deal with crying babies or needy husbands, and on their heads be it if they let loose and there is nobody sober enough to administer the Calpol or drive to A&E in the early hours of the morning.
Fathers do not get the same treatment. They get to wet the baby's head and nobody bats an eyelid if, a month after a child is born, they are sneaking in a couple of pints after work. In a so-called post-feminist world, that does seem a bit odd. Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne, David Bowie, Jack Nicholson... their rock'n'roll behaviour is celebrated, while the fact that they are fathers is almost entirely ignored.
Yet the current cult of motherhood paints women with the saintly glow of an Instagram filter. Women must bake organic, Annabel Karmel muffins for their offspring and take them to weekly Monkey Music classes while remembering to practise meditation when the child is having their strictly enforced daily nap.
"Becoming a mother was like becoming me," Peaches told a magazine, shortly before her death in April. "After years of struggling to know myself, feeling lost at sea, rudderless and troubled, having babies through which to correct the multiple mistakes of my own traumatic childhood was beyond healing."
I wonder if things might have been different for poor Peaches had she not felt the need to subscribe so heavily to the cult of motherhood. And if we weren't all so blinded by this cult, so incapable of seeing mothers as anything other than robotic machines who exist only as extensions of their children, might she still be here now? (© Daily Telegraph, London)