Tuesday 20 February 2018

Keeping mum: what they don't tell you about motherhood

As Adele speaks out about the unspoken reality of becoming a mother, and a splinter group of authors share warts 'n' all accounts of parenting, our reporter surveys the motherhood backlash

Truth: Mum-of-one Adele admitted in an interview that she wished she could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted
Truth: Mum-of-one Adele admitted in an interview that she wished she could do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted
Honest: Sarah Fischer wrote 'The Mother Bliss Lie: Regretting Motherhood'

Tanya Sweeney

The way many women have told it, motherhood is a Cath Kidston-clad, Bugaboo-included walk in the park. The best thing you'll ever do, the most enriching love you'll ever feel, the sleepless nights and dirty nappies, a mere blip on the vista of Boden catalogue bliss. All is made better with an afternoon of cupcake-making and a cute video of your kid that you can stick on Facebook.

This chocolate-box postcard from the chalkface of maternity kept women bound to a code of silence for years. When women become mothers, they are meant to take the role on with slavish devotion, endless love and supreme gratitude. A normal person's reaction to getting pooed on, feeling lonely or low, missing one's old life, or sleepless nights… well, it doesn't usually get a look-in. New mums are meant to enjoy, revel in or put up with every fart, tantrum and milk-stained top. Those who don't, often admit to feeling a bit lost at sea.

Even Adele found that millions in the bank and global adulation can't make motherhood any easier: "All my friends and I felt pressurised into having kids, because that's what adults do," she told 'Vanity Fair' magazine. "I love my son more than anything, but on a daily basis, if I have a minute or two, I wish I could do whatever the f*** I want, whenever I want. Every single day I feel like that."

Adele admits she turned a corner by admitting one home truth to a pal, and just like that, a problem shared was a problem halved.

Honest: Sarah Fischer wrote 'The Mother Bliss Lie: Regretting Motherhood'
Honest: Sarah Fischer wrote 'The Mother Bliss Lie: Regretting Motherhood'

"One day, I said to a friend, 'I f***in' hate this,' and she burst into tears and said, 'I f***in' hate this, too,'" she said. "And it was done. It lifted."

A growing number of mums are seeking solidarity in numbers. Fighting back against this age-old conceit that motherhood is bliss, they find that the truth is setting them - and every other woman - free. While mums have always said that parenthood isn't easy, they've said so with good-natured stoicism. Now, for the first time, women are challenging the taboos and referring to themselves as individuals first, and mothers second.

Maia Dunphy launched a blog for women who just happen to be parents, and hit on an intriguing home truth when she vowed to take on the 'pureed pawpaw and kale chip brigade'.

"Some women are just expected to naturally cope, naturally deal with parenthood and the burdens that come with it," Maia is quoted as saying. "I can tell you from my experience that it's not like that. My identity, our identity, is being blurred from this top-view narrative on how we should behave as women, as parents."

Even science has shown that pregnancy and motherhood isn't all maternal glow. Rates of ante-natal depression are high among pregnant women in Ireland, according to a new survey launched by Trinity College Dublin. One in six pregnant women - or 16pc of pregnant women - attending maternity services across Ireland are at probable risk of depression during their pregnancy.

More recently, a study on the health of first-time mums uncovered that many women faced a number of challenges to their mental, physical and sexual health. Twenty-eight per cent of mums experienced anxiety, while half experienced painful sex at three months postpartum (one quarter of mothers had not resumed having sex).

Even more worryingly, the research indicates that women aren't being asked about symptoms in the first few months of motherhood, but aren't reporting them either. Evidence, either way, that a mum's health ebbs out of view once she becomes a parent.

The internet, too, has become the battleground for this new movement against smug parents, and with good reason: it is, after all, the one place where parenthood is glorified and filtered. Facebook has given parents an unprecedented way of bragging about having an ordinary life, and the backlash is afoot. As The Motherhood Challenge - which sees women nominating friends to post three photos that show how happy they are to be a mum - got underway, non-mums took to the site in their droves to brand it smug, insensitive and upsetting to non-mums.

In recent months, there has been a swell of 'scummy mummy' literature, with writers like Ayelet Waldman, Jennifer Senior and Jowita Bydlowska articulating the unpalatable truth: that motherhood isn't unlike running a rather boring non-profit organisation, and making a ham-fisted job of it is easier than one might think.

Elisa Albert also managed to take the temperature of the culture of modern motherhood to impressive effect in her debut novel 'After Birth'. Where Lionel Shriver was vilified about writing about maternal ambivalence in 'We Need To Talk About Kevin' in 2003, Albert has been lauded as a frank truth-teller.

According to clinical psychologist Owen Connolly (counsellor.ie), those who have believed in the romance of motherhood in the past have been sold something of a pup.

"Some women find motherhood extremely difficult, especially when they've thought they would be at home having a great time cooing over little ones and sharing quality time," he says. "We've a bright, intelligent group of Irish women with degrees and careers, and they go into motherhood and grieve that loss, and grieve the company of adults. It can be extremely difficult for some to take."

Media messages have long perpetuated the myth of ideal motherhood, which is why Connolly is especially welcoming of this new wave of honest mums: "The most damaging things are [parenting] books that act like a scare tactic," he observes. "So much media aimed at women and mums in particular tells them they're wrong about everything. It would be so much more helpful for people to tell the truth.

"In counselling, we try to get that person to love themselves first. When you're on a plane and something goes wrong, you put your own oxygen mask before tending to a child. That should apply to life. As a parent you need to be oxygenated. Your sense of self and value is primary, yet there's an automatic selflessness associated with motherhood."

The long shadow of the fabled, selfless Irish Mammy also looms large for modern-day parents: "A young woman who has worked hard at school and college won't see the world the same way her grandmother did, and even when she becomes a parent she can't get away from the way in which she sees the world."

Stateside, there is a growing faction of women who are not just saying that motherhood is occasionally unpleasant; they're admitting to regretting becoming a mother in the first place. The movement got its start nearly 10 years ago when Corinne Maier, a French psychoanalyst, writer, and mother of two in Brussels, wrote candidly about her own regret in 'No Kids: 40 Reasons Not to Have Children'.

In Germany, novelist Sarah Fischer's recent book 'The Mother Bliss Lie: Regretting Motherhood' tackles the idea that motherhood is a pretty miserable existence when compared to the detached experience of many fathers. Elsewhere, there are sub-communities on online forums like Quora and Reddit, and even a Facebook group called 'I Regret Having Children', with mothers galore confessing to feelings of shame, disappointment, and fear.

On feminist website The Vagenda, an anonymous mother called Tammy writes: "Don't get me wrong, I love my kids. But it comes at a huge cost; mentally, emotionally and physically. My body was ruined. I had to have surgeries later in life to repair what was done to me by forcing an almost 9lb child through my body. And worse yet, it seems as though expressing this honestly makes me a monster ... It seems as though your entire self becomes nothing more than a functional enabler for your kids' success."

For his part, Connolly has yet to encounter clients who have regretted becoming mothers outright. Rather, he encounters clients who grieve heavily for the women they once were.

Irish Independent

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