Thursday, 15 May 2014

What Kind of Mother Does Society Want Us To Be?

Society has considerable expectations around women as mothers; the kind of mother we will be, the things we will do and, therefore, the sort of children we will produce – these are matters that Society, like a strict and judgmental Aunt, has strong views on. And to make it easier, Society likes to give us little labels, quite as if we were Spice Girls: Tiger Mother, Routine Mother, Hugger Mother, Sancti-Mother, Hipster Mother, Slacker Mother and so on. And hey, who cares that the labels don't actually fit anyone?

In one way, we cannot blame Society for this – after all, our children are part of the story. The way they grow up, the sort of people they will become, will influence the shape of Society in the future. The few who are extremely brilliant or extremely dysfunctional will have, perhaps, a direct impact – by inventing a new type of energy, or killing a president, for example – the vast majority will simply be an organic part of a constantly-shifting mass, gently moving it minute distances in one direction or another.

So, I accept that Society has a vested interest in what we mothers do and how we do it. The problem is, Society’s views on the matter are quite contradictory.

On the one hand, and starting at the beginning, Society wishes us to behave like the High Priestesses of a temple during pregnancy, ensuring that we carefully optimise our chances of producing a perfect baby, because Society likes to work with good raw material. Society wants us to form strong bonds with our babies, because that way they are more likely to be emotionally stable and less inclined to riot or throw rocks at the police. Society likes us to breastfeed, because that will limit the likelihood of obesity in later life, and instill good early eating habits for the same reason. Society wants us to listen and respond to the needs of our children, because this gives them self-confidence and makes them less likely to become alcoholics or drug-addicts.

Society, you see, is a complete catastrophist, and incapable of nuanced response, always dealing in crazed disaster headlines, never shades of grey. Things going wrong, for Society, always result in fire! Famine! Dread! never just a bit of a shame.

But – don’t think of getting over-excited and taking all this attachment stuff too far, because Society does not like it when it gets too extreme. Hugger Mothers are too hippy, too free-flowing, too resistant to consumerism, and therefore likely to produce children who may opt out of Society in order to start a commune, or become irritatingly alternative about things like the emotional need for a new kitchen or car. Breastfeed for too long – anything over a year, really – and suddenly it becomes, not a benefit to mother and child, but something weird and a bit off.

Refuse to discipline your child on the basis that you believe in complete tolerance, and Society, just like that strict Aunt, will get very finger-wagging about the need for boundaries. Tend constantly to the needs of your child rather than your own, and Society will tell you that you are raising a monster. Fail to dress nicely and have your hair done regularly while you go about this business of raising children, and Society will silently accuse you of Letting Yourself Go.

Yes, Society is utterly inconsistent in its expectations around mothers, and sending out hopelessly mixed messages.

The real question is, how much should all this matter to us? Of course, it’s nice to feel in step with our world, to bask in the light of social approval around our ‘choices’, but does it really matter a damn what Society thinks?

Well, yes, I would argue. For me, anyway. Because I am not at all immune to the need for general good opinion. Perhaps I lack the courage of my convictions, but I still like a little pat on the back from time to time, the feeling that I am doing the right thing in the eyes of Society. And so when I let my children sleep in my bed for too long (until about three months ago actually, in the case of the three-year-old), I find myself hiding this information from those around me, because I know they are going to say sternly, ‘that child needs her own bed, you’re just encouraging her to be needy.’ When I breastfed the eldest until he was nearly four, this was a dark secret, known only to my very closest. When brisk friends asked ‘are you still feeding him?’ I would mutter something about ‘not really,’ and turn the subject.

You are probably all thinking what an almighty wimp I am, and you’re probably right. But such, I confess, is the weight of social disapproval.

And so, when I see Society getting every more prescriptive about the ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ way to bring up children, this bothers me. There is so much judgement now around everything mothers do – from the type of car seats we use, to the food we buy, to the kind and amount of exercise our children get and the schools they go to – so much scrutiny and advice, that it is quite head-spinning.

A friend who had her first baby recently asked me, in all sad seriousness, if I thought she was seriously jeopardising her baby’s future if she didn’t buy a flat-lying pram, even though she couldn’t fit it into her car boot, ‘because the books say its bad for his back if he doesn’t sleep lying flat.’ I said I truly thought he would be ok, and then I thought how mean Society is to put mothers under extra, totally unnecessary pressure. But also how Society is fundamentally decent, and would undoubtedly back off it only it knew how unhelpful all this stuff is.

So, I thought I would tell it: Society, back off! Stop watching and judging us. We will do our best, and it will be good enough. The things we don’t do are because we cannot reasonably accommodate them within our lives. As the old saying has it, anything that gets past us, wasn’t meant for us. So leave us a alone and go and peer critically at someone else for a change.

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