Sunday 21 July 2019

Tanya Sweeney: 'Why I felt the pressure to become Supermum after the birth of my first child'

Struggle: Penelope Cruz tells Gwyneth Paltrow how she pushed herself to be “superwoman-like”
Struggle: Penelope Cruz tells Gwyneth Paltrow how she pushed herself to be “superwoman-like”

Tanya Sweeney

Women are a fantastically able lot. They can intuit, they can multitask and they can often shoulder the emotional labour load, doing it all backwards and in heels. Is it any wonder that mothers feel the need to keep all the same plates spinning even after giving birth? Not really, when you look at current cultural messaging.

From Kate Middleton to various mummy influencers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that a glossy blowdry, serene smile, money-can't-buy-it glow and utter fulfilment make up the new-mum package. The only different thing in your life, it would seem, is that there's now seven pounds of cuteness to be '#blessed' with.

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Even Penelope Cruz had admitted to getting caught up in the charade after she gave birth to her son Leo eight years ago.

"The first [time], I pushed myself to be superwoman-like, 'I'll do it natural birth and then 12 hours later I'm out of the hospital in high heels'," she is quoted as telling Gwyneth Paltrow at her recent UK Goop summit.

"Now I look back and say, 'Who asked you to do this? And who asked you to not delegate, to feel like you have to do everything yourself 24 hours a day and forget to take care about yourself?'"

Childbirth is a shock to the system; corporeally, emotionally, psychologically. Douglas Coupland once described falling in love as "a very, very nice car crash that never ends". The same could feasibly be said about becoming a mother.

Yet it's too easy to get caught up in the conceit that you need to be every bit as on-the-grid and as effortlessly fabulous as ever - shock or not.

First things first: we're a society that places huge value on a woman's ornamental worth, and this doesn't stop after motherhood. If, as a woman, you are overweight, ashen-faced, split-ended and unkempt, you're not keeping up your (heavy air quotes here) 'part of the bargain'.

You don't believe me? Take a look at any celebrity tabloid, which faux-frets over a star's welfare and makes noises about them losing control of their lives if they can't shift the stubborn pounds.

Mothers are held to high standards in other ways. This new job as a parent is meant to subsume your entire being. And yet, you're expected to carry on as though it's just one more thing on your heaving to-do list.

But the pressure to be 'superwoman' often comes from within; a likely hangover from 'have it all' feminism, where we're nothing if we're not supremely able on all fronts. After arriving home following the birth of my daughter, I added 'keep the place tidy', 'send thank-you cards' and 'look presentable' to my new to-do list. "You don't have to do the laundry all the time," ventured my partner, utterly bewildered that the machine was now going a mile a minute every day.

Yet somehow, I felt as though I did. At a hugely uncertain time where every day felt like the first day of work - a huge learning curve strewn with hundreds of micro-failures - at least I could look as though I was on top of things, even if I didn't feel it.

In some ways, I let myself off the hook. Five months ago, I had an elective C-section ("too posh to push," came the general reaction to that). I bottle-fed my daughter, and returned to work within three months, which raised many an eyebrow.

Depending on whom you ask, these are considered 'short-cuts', or evidence that I'm not really putting my back into the whole motherhood thing. I'm not giving my child the best start in life, whatever that means. To some, it makes me a 'bad' mother.

There's a new wave of celebrity outliers who are more honest about how messy, exhausting, and frankly unphotogenic motherhood can be.

Stacey Solomon has posted unfiltered pictures of herself looking overtired and overwhelmed, and has admitted to struggling after the birth of her son Rex. Amy Schumer has taken a similarly candid tack, showing the undignified reality of post-partum life.

Maybe they will help to initiate a public conversation about the uncomfortable truths of new motherhood.

But I can totally understand why new mums fall prey to the superwoman trap. No one wants to admit to struggling or losing control with the most natural, beautiful and chubby-cheeked thing in the world. We do it to ourselves, we do, and that's why it really hurts.

Irish Independent

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