Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Omertà of Motherhood

There is a strange thing that happens with Motherhood. It may happen with Fatherhood too, but I don't have any direct experience of that.

This thing that happens is a strange pledge of silence that mothers appear to take. It's one of those pledges that nobody has told me about, or perhaps I fell asleep during that section of the ante-natal classes. The odd thing is, the pledge of silence is broken by other mothers occasionally, but only if you break it first. Like members of a secret society who must exchange obscure pass-codes to identify themselves, mothers will speak of Secret Things only if you know the Magic Words to say first.

But what are these Secret Things? And what are the Magic Words? And, more importantly, am I safe revealing these Secret Things and Magic Words to the uninitiated? It's a risk I'm willing to take...

The Secret Things are in fact anything bad whatsoever about motherhood. Not the casual stuff that there are amusing memes about on Facebook, like finding it vexing that your children won't put their shoes on. But the serious downsides. The moments where you really hate it and wonder if becoming a mother was genuinely one of your worst life decisions, but you daren't say so out loud, because it's not The Done Thing to admit that you fear you're genuinely shit at mothering. And the Magic Words? Admitting to the Secret Things. Admitting your weaknesses, and your fears, and the bad moments, and the negativity. And the moment you do so, someone will sidle up to you and say "me too" and you'll suddenly discover that you're not alone, and that other people are stuggling too, but nobody is daring to be the first person to say so.

It's a Catch-22. Nobody will speak of the Secret Things, unless someone else speaks of the Secret Things. 

It starts early on. Even when you're pregnant, you are told about birth, and you make plans, and you do know the technicalities of what might go wrong, or what interventions might be required. But it's only after you've come home with your baby, only after you've discovered what "slight tearing" actually feels like that you have honest conversations about birth trauma*. Up until then, you occasionally hear muttered phrases like, "she had a rough time" or, "it didn't quite go to plan, but mother and baby are fine now".

Then there's breastfeeding, the nirvana of perfect motherhood, the blissful bonding, the ideal start for a baby, etc etc. Except for me. And all the other people. It was excruciatingly painful until LittleBear had his tongue tie snipped (at ten weeks old), and then merely uncomfortable after that. But outside a close circle of friends, breastfeeding was either something you were doing or something you weren't. It was never discussed as painful, or messy or miserable. I hated it. I hated admitting that I hated it. I hated being "bad" at it.

There have been few moments in motherhood worse than hating breastfeeding. It was like an admission of being fundamentally, intrinsically wrong at mothering. And yet it didn't seem to be something I was allowed to say. Until I did, and I found I wasn't alone.

Then there's early motherhood. Everyone owns up to the sleep-deprivation, to the bewilderment, to the uncertainty about whether they're doing it right. But nobody spoke up and said, "I hate this. I want my life back. I'm terrified that this is the worst decision I've ever made. This is not a source of constant joy and wonder, this is a hellish delirium of monotony and fear". But then I did, and I found that while some people looked at me in confusion, and stepped away from the crazy lady, as they continued to bond with, and adore, their newborn baby, others fell on me, weeping with relief and said, "me too. Thank you for saying what I was thinking."

And so it goes on.

Over and over again I've found myself seeming to be alone in my fears and doubts. And then I've taken the plunge and spoken up, only to find other people breathing a deep sigh and saying, "me too".

I found it when LittleBear wouldn't eat "normal" food, and I found there was no such thing as "normal". I found there were children who wouldn't touch fruit, or would only eat brown food, or all manner of inconvenient and trying variations on strange eating habits. But it was only ever the mothers whose little darlings ate sushi who were publicly commenting on the fact. The negative feelings, the sense of guilt, the rage felt about the child who wouldn't eat perfectly innocuous food were all dark, guilty secrets that couldn't be spoken out loud.

I found it when I hated myself for sending my LittleBear to nursery, thinking I was failing him in some way, dreading the damage I was potentially doing by not being with him every moment of every day. And then I discovered that other people also looked forward to time at work as a small window of sanity in their lives, but that they also tortured themselves with guilt - not just the guilt at leaving their baby with other people, but guilt at feeling relieved to do so. And again, it was only ever the mothers whose children skipped into nursery with a beaming smile who made mention of their experiences of early years care.

And now, I'm finding it all over again. I was chatting to some other mothers outside school last week, with each of us exchanging the odd rueful shrug about the challenges of bath-time or tooth-brushing. I'd had a particularly trying day the previous day, with LittleBear having his daily tantrum about the iniquitous behaviour of his parents in wanting him to be clean and tucked up in bed. And I noticed a certain harried look about a fellow mother, so I bit the bullet...

... "LittleBear nearly pushed me over the edge yesterday," I admitted. "I ended up almost threatening to hit him. I got as far as, 'if you don't sit up and stop screaming and crying, I...' before backing away. I was absolutely livid. But in the end I just said, 'I won't read you a bedtime story' instead of threatening physical violence. And then I went and shut myself in the bathroom and ran the bath. It was better to leave him sobbing on the floor than to risk saying something I'd really regret."

And so the floodgates opened, as my fellow mothers began to unburden themselves about their own frustrations with recalcitrant small boys. Their own battles to rein in their temper. Their own techniques of simply walking away instead of allowing their anger to win. Their desperation in not knowing what to do. Their sense of being bad mothers.

At the start of the conversation, I could have nodded and laughed and recounted an amusing anecdote about LittleBear. But I didn't. I took a risk and admitted something I wasn't proud of. I hate myself for allowing my anger to overtake me to the extent I nearly threatened to hurt my precious son. I didn't threaten and I wouldn't ever hurt him, but even coming close to letting the words pass my lips shook me. But by admitting the darkness in my heart, not only did I discover I wasn't alone, but I allowed a friend to discover that she wasn't alone.

But because of the Omertà of Motherhood, so much of the darkness remains locked in our hearts, hidden from the world for fear it will be condemned. We wall away inside ourselves all the thoughts and actions that make us feel like bad mothers, and they stay there, festering, persuading us that we are bad mothers, when sometimes all it would take is knowing that we are not alone, that we are not unique, and broken, and wrong, to convince us that we are simply mothers. Not bad mothers. Just mothers. Mothers who are doing their best.

Please, break the omertà, be a pentita. Allow the darkness out, shatter the illusions of calm and perfection that depict a "good" mother, let your friends know that everything is not easy, and wonderful, and lovely. Admit that you struggle, and some days you fail, but you pick yourself up and you keep loving your children, and you keep doing your best even though sometimes it's not as good as you want it to be.

And if, by any chance, you never lose your temper; you never say things you regret; you never wish your children would just shut up and go away for a while; you never feel like a failure ... feel free to maintain your own omertà.

* This is one of the few codes of secrecy I understand. Nobody wants to be the one to terrify a new mother-to-be with worst case scenarios.

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