When trying to unravel an idea as big as being a mother, where do you begin? In her debut book, Unraveling Motherhood, Irish journalist and mum-of-two Geraldine Walsh seeks to answer that question
“You are so good with her,” they would say as I cradled and shushed my newborn wrapped in blankets and bonnets with fragile, inexperienced arms. She seemed so delicate, as though almost made up of paper-thin skin and wispy breaths; rub her between your fingers and she would turn to dust.
I somewhat felt the same as the exhaustion of early motherhood thinned me out, a porous, unrecognisable ghost floating from a Monday to a Thursday with no sense of sunrise or sunset. But this was temporary motherhood. Surely, it would get better, easier, more tangible.
“So good,” their smile said as I wondered if I held her too tight, at the right angle, or if she needed to smell me under my vapid layers. How far out of my depth would I fall as anxiety stretched into every extremity, my mind protracted with apparent parental catastrophising, and the weight of motherhood and all of its expectations assessed my ability to mother? Why was everything suddenly so difficult, lonely, and ultimately splintering when millions of women instinctively and naturally mothered well before me?
They never said it would be like this. Full of self-doubt, criticism, and questioning. A messy, sweaty, exhausting existence. Temporary but overwhelming. Personally experienced but universally understood. Motherhood is hard, but it is so thrilling in how it’s gently rewarding. It’s confusing.
I have two children. At the sweet ages of nine and five, they entertain and exhaust me in equal measure, but I didn’t expect that their early years would pull me apart. Baby fingers, with sharp talons, unknowingly picked at the pieces, chose what they needed, and tossed aside the bits of me I had grown to like and then fittingly forgot.
I blurred, blended, and rotated in their ownership and around their needs, negating my own while layering on guilt, doubt, and insecurity. But this is what children do. They crave and need our support, love, attention, and nurture. They take and we give. We scaffold them, educate them, ease nightmares, and kiss sore knees before gently applying dinosaur plasters to minimal scratches.
But children, by and large, are not where the complexities of motherhood lie. Expectation pitted against the reality of motherhood has derailed many a mother to a spot on the map that is so alien, obscure, self-deprecating, and simultaneously, strangely curious.
Motherhood sits within prominent traditional cultural values that filter their way into our lives, whether we want them to or not. On the whole, the roots are societal, outdated ideologies, and Instagram performances. As we grow from young girls to adults, we are sold an idea that mothers are the epicentre of comfort and nurture, that they are content, gracious, and self-sacrificing, which inadvertently makes self-care selfish.
Breastfeeding comes naturally, bonding is instantaneous, motherhood is completely fulfilling, a good mother never shouts, and if motherhood is not enough for you, you’re simply not doing it right. There is an expectation that mother knows best, knows all, and will obligingly carry and augment the mental overload while filing the taxes and washing the toddlers’ ringlets as an apple pie bakes in the oven. She does it all. Never complains. Carries on.
Despite today’s mother knowing it’s not the 1950s as she questions this ostensible mothering role, we still live with outdated stereotypes that place motherhood in a very specific box, making the reality rather confusing when the shit quite literally hits the fan. In all the ideologies of motherhood, the mother’s needs are below those of the child, the home, and the greater good of the family.
They devolve a mother’s life to obligation within unrealistic expectations, which can take a significant toll on our mental wellbeing. And so, where does the supposed ideal of motherhood fit within our lives in the 21st century? Which expectations are fitting and which are damaging? And most importantly, how can we choose to mother in a way that nurtures both child and mother? How can we accept and love our version of motherhood, and grow with it?
“Feeling lost in motherhood is one of the most common conversations we have as women"
Feeling lost in motherhood is one of the most common conversations we have as women, largely because the transition to motherhood has been monumentally minimised. The transformation is much like a birth, except there is no one to swaddle and mother us during this transition. It’s up to us to challenge the expectations of motherhood, to witness her completely in her bare-naked glory, pick at her spots, and pluck her hairs. To dress her, feed her, love her, and nourish her. How else are we to truly get to know and understand ourselves unless we get up close and personal?
Our identity has been manipulated by tiny hands, our time placed on permanent fast forward, and our space unceremoniously crammed. But we can unravel our identity, find ourselves, build boundaries, understand our triggers, and recognise our flaws and still be the most wonderful mother we want to be, who our children see.
Balancing the expectations versus the not so perfect reality takes self-compassion, kindness, self-care, and understanding. We are, after all, coming to terms with how we feel and how we expect we “should” feel. There is a large gap between these ideas.
So, start by placing yourself in front of you, open your eyes and truly see the mother you are. Challenge yourself by questioning what a “good enough” mother means to you and check in with your expectations throughout motherhood, not just at the beginning when the tedium is rife, but with all of the varying and challenging stages of parenthood.
Listen to yourself, believe in yourself, create space for you, recognise your capabilities, avoid judgment, acknowledge where you are in motherhood by honouring the multiple transitions you will experience. Recognise that you will have hard days, that you won’t have all of the answers, that you will make mistakes and learn from them. Validate your experiences, emotions, and thoughts. And rest.
After years of challenging those expectations, I feel comfortable enough to say that as a mother, I have been known to raise my voice, to shout, to rage. I struggled to breastfeed, bonding with my first newborn was heart-breaking and complicated, I stormed a battle against maternal anxiety and won, and motherhood has significantly challenged me across a near decade of mothering.
I make no excuses for needing to hold space for myself, to give myself an irreverent time-out from the challenges of motherhood and I am a proud member of the perfectly imperfect mother club. I have found myself in amongst the loose and frayed threads of life, cutting loose the expectations.
The maternal experience is complex and varied with ambivalence, frustration, and the highest of expectations. Unraveling your idea of motherhood, finding your place in this complex role means reminding yourself that you can’t do any more than you are already doing, that you don’t have to match an impossible ideal, that your children are not comparing you or loving you any less for being the wonderfully complex human you are.
Unraveling Motherhood, published by Hatherleigh Pres, is available now, €20.99