If we’re honest about parenting, we’ll feel so much better
Broadcaster and author Louise McSharry tells Claire O'Mahony why she believes we need more candid conversations about the realities of parenting
When Louise McSharry was pregnant with her first son Sam, now two-and-a-half years old, she had certain assumptions about what motherhood would be like. "I thought that overnight I would become this patient and benevolent creature, who would never use a harsh word and who would never be frustrated, and that all of my selfishness would go away."
The reality of becoming a mother was somewhat different, and she admits it was a huge shock. "I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I had no comprehension of how all- encompassing it would be and just how much you sacrifice," says the 2FM broadcaster, who is expecting her second baby this summer.
This difference between the expectations and the realities of early parenthood can be distressing, and it's a widely experienced phenomenon. According to new research conducted by WaterWipes, 57pc of Irish parents feel like they are failing during the first year of parenting. Of this percentage, mothers are more likely to feel this way than dads, and 44pc of parents don't talk about their struggles for fear of being judged.
As a response, WaterWipes has launched #ThisIsParenthood, a global project to document the realities of parenting through an honest lens, and Louise is a spokesperson for the campaign. She describes getting involved with #ThisIsParenthood as "a no brainer", and says that since she's had Sam, she's done everything she can to try and encourage people to be very honest about the challenges that parents face.
She explains: "I really struggled with breastfeeding, which was something I found extremely difficult. I was so committed to doing it that, to be honest, I almost pushed it to the detriment of my relationship with Sam.
"I just put myself under a huge amount of pressure and I really felt like everyone else got it, and was having no problems, and that I was the only one who was struggling. I felt totally alone and I think that's because we're sold this notion of parenthood, or certainly motherhood anyway, that everything is perfect all the time and that's not the reality."
There's also the challenge of adapting to the fact that your life is no longer your own, she believes. "A friend of me described it as: you walk through a door into a room and the door closes behind you, and you cannot go back. That was very much how I felt. I really felt that, in a way, I was mourning my own life and it took me a really long time to adjust to that. But I feel like I'm kind of there, but it has taken a couple of years."
She goes on maternity leave from her morning radio show this month, and this time around, she thinks that motherhood will be a different experience, primarily because she doesn't want to put the same amount of pressure on herself that she did after having Sam. "I just feel more confident in my skills. I think a big one for me is that I still want to breastfeed and I'm definitely going to try, but I think I'm also going to forgive myself if it doesn't work.
"That was a really hard thing for me the first time and that, in itself, is quite comforting because I can feel myself stressing already about it and how it's going to go and what's going to happen," she says. "But I have already given myself permission to discuss it with my family and discuss it with my husband. I have a plan, so if it doesn't go the way I want it to go, I can prioritise the time with the new baby and bonding with the new baby, rather than obsessing about that one element, which is kind of what I did the last time."
As to how much of a role social media plays in creating this picture of 'perfect' parenthood, for her, she's found it to have both a negative and a positive impact. "We all curate our own social-media feeds, so it depends on who you are following," she points out.
"If you're following people who are perfect all day, every day, and never post a picture with a hair out of place, or their children seem to be upset or they never have the television on, then you're going to feel like you're not measuring up. But I don't think that's realistic. Whereas, if you choose to follow people who you relate to or who are posting what is, in my opinion, a more realistic picture of parenthood, then I think it can be a supportive place."
She has three friends in her life who are also mothers, and they will check in with each other about everything from ear infections to where to get the best baby clothes, to things like, 'He won't stop taking his nappy off'.
"I would say some of my most important friends are friends that I've made since I've had Sam, because I really desperately needed the friendship they could offer me," she says
"As soon as I made some friends who were also mothers, who were also willing to admit that they were struggling or that things were hard, or the people I could text and say he's been crying for an hour and I don't know what to do - that didn't feel like an admittance of failure... I felt so much more comfortable. I really believe if we're honest about this stuff, we'll all feel so much better."
And in other times of need, there's always the internet. "I don't know how people parented before Google - genuinely," she says. "Obviously, you have to take everything on the internet with a pinch of salt, but I must have been on Google for over seven hours a day when Sam was born. Now, it's less these days, but I still would refer to Google fairly frequently if I have a question."
As a working mother, she believes that it's all about trying to achieve balance. When she gets ready for work in the morning, Sam has started to say 'No work', which she acknowledges is difficult to hear. "I'm trying to teach him that, first of all, it's good for me to go to work, and second of all, we go to work so that we can have a house to live in and eat and all of those things, so that he understands that."
She's not taking a long maternity leave and hopes to be back in work by September, although this isn't set in stone. "You just don't know how these things are going to go really. I really want to be kind to myself this time, because I think that was what was lacking the last time. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, but I think I will be looking forward to getting back to work, to be honest."
Sam is now at the age where they are beginning to have great conversations, as well as being able to have family meals together, whereas she admits it was slightly chaotic before. Sam loves buses and trains and being outside. He also really loves babies, and Louise thinks he understands the concept that he's going to have a new sibling.
"I've had to go over and separate him from other people's babies. He'll just watch them for an hour. We've talked about it throughout the pregnancy. But the reality of it will be different, I think, when he realises that he has to share his mam and dad. ... to be honest, when I was pregnant for the first time, it was an abstract concept and hard to get my head around, so I wouldn't expect him to have a very sophisticated understanding of it!"
Watch the #ThisIsParenthood documentary on YouTube: