Instinctual Mothering: A Memoir; One Womans Journey Through Pregnancy, Delivery, and Postpartum Life
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Children were seen and not heard. Infant mortality was high and having a child did not necessarily mean you would see them through to adulthood. Over the past few decades, everything has changed. We cosset our children. We abide by the cult of motherhood; we worship at the temple of the child. Our children's health and happiness have become of prime importance to us. The psychological influences of mothering and notions of "good" or "bad" parents are stronger today than they have ever been.
The change in our attitude to children — how we parent them, our expectations for them, our love for them — has defined the decades this side of the Second World War.
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And with it, mothering has become one of the most contentious issues around. Mothers are each other's nemeses, bickering among ourselves about our own particular style.
Parenthood has become a fractured and fractious scene. Working mothers can't stand stay-at-home mothers; older ones think their younger versions are too overindulgent. Those who choose not to have children are militant about those who end up having four or more. Hothousing mothers with their endless Kumon maths classes look down on the more laid-back ones who think children should do what they want, when they want.
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The abundance of parenting books point to the way in which our skills have changed. On the one hand, we want to get better and better at it. And yet, conversely, these parenting manuals also point to another change: our increasing insecurity over the way we are bringing up our children. We all want our children to be geniuses. Consequently, there's a war out there. You may not see it, it may not kill you, but if you are a woman with children, you've had shots fired across your bows.
I bet, like me, you've been questioned, taken apart, broken down, demoralised and criticised until you feel like crying. What on earth has happened to us? The flip side of this is our great desire to change and improve on the way we were brought up — to show, not just to ourselves but to others as well, that we can be brilliant at it.
This means that not only do we seek advice on parenting matters, we are also all very willing to dole it out as well. Enter parenting websites such as Mumsnet and Netmums, online forums for parents to air their problems and ask for help which have, in their own way, turned into clubs. Mumsnet operates from "Mumsnet Towers" and offers not only advice but a book club, special offers, recommended products; it also presents live webchats with everyone from Gordon Brown to Natasha Walter.
But the main appeal of these sites is their "strands": online conversations between users about a variety of topics ranging from the very sad and serious, such as coping with child bereavement, to how to persuade toddlers to eat fruit and vegetables. Although designed to be supportive, the rows and judgmental attitudes evident in the average discussion show that women seem more divided about mothering than ever before, and angrier about each other's choices.
Mumsnet, having just celebrated its 10th birthday, is the leader of the pack and has become a focus for incredibly heated debate. There's been the fallout and subsequent legal battle with parenting guru Gina Ford, Biscuitgate when the prime minister refused to answer any biscuit-related questions and even a breakaway faction of older mothers calling themselves the Moldies who felt Mumsnet pandered to the younger generation.
One area that always provokes angry responses, Roberts says, is the breast-feeding versus bottle-feeding debate. Mothers always feel guilty. There are sensitive areas — working, schooling, etc — and on Mumsnet there are occasional flare-ups and debates and fallings out. We are all trying to be 'good mothers' but sometimes we don't feel we are doing very well at it.
There is not a working mother alive who doesn't feel pangs of guilt about leaving her children. There are probably very few stay-at-home mothers who don't feel frustrated sometimes that they are not fulfilling themselves. It's a culture of 'having it all' and yet very few of us can do this, which is why we get defensive about how we are seen as mothers. Roberts says that this is exactly why she started Mumsnet — to give frustrated, lonely new mothers and others the ability to get some support and see that they are not alone in their choices.
She points to how generous the online community of mothers can be: "There are the headline stories — about how one regular Mumsnetter took an overdose and how other women on the site managed to track her down and save her. But there are other countless stories of women's generosity to each other. I really believe most mothers want to share and support other mothers. I am not sure if I agree with her. I find it almost impossible to talk to mothers without that unspoken element of competition creeping in from both sides. Whether it's about choices around education, feeding, sleeping or even something as simple as the name you have given your child, we are all playing a desperate game of one-upmanship.
For if our children are successful, or deemed by our peer group to be "successful", then all the pain and heartache and sleepless nights and worry will have been worth it. What about those of us who have average children? Who lead average lives? Why do we feel we are doing it all wrong? I know I'm not a great mother. I'm a bit slack, a bit selfish sometimes. But I love my children. I treat them with respect.
I do the best I can for them. However, I am relentlessly bombarded by the feeling that I haven't quite made the grade. Every time I talk to another mother, they seem to be doing a better job of parenting. Their children play more sports than mine, they are academically more competent, they read books all the time, they are constantly on playdates, they are popular, witty, funny. Their mothers cook food from scratch, have coffee mornings with other mothers, help read in school, enrol them for extra tuition.
I do none of this and it makes me feel useless. I never thought anyone really judged me about all this until one day I heard someone in the local shop say: "I feel sorry for Lucy's children.
Mask of Motherhood
It must be hard being brought up by such an erratic mother. I nearly spluttered with rage.
And then I fled back to my car, sat in the front seat and burst into tears. Was it true? Are the choices I am making — to be a stay-at-home mother who also works from home and is therefore pushed when it comes to time and my own sanity — messing up my children's lives? In Stephanie Calman's Confessions of a Bad Mother , she talks of how she feels that other mothers are "doing it properly", whereas she isn't.
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She even started the Bad Mothers Club, an online group where other frustrated mothers could air their grievances at the "perfect" mothers marching the streets with their Bugaboo baby buggies and organic ewe's milk for their babies. As Calman puts it, Bad Mothers give their children chicken nuggets for tea, put the television on to get a break, slump down after the children have gone to bed and hit the wine.
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These mothers, she points out, are not the ones cutting out shapes to help the children with tomorrow's art project. They are not downloading educational books on to their children's iPods. They are not living their lives through a mummy manual and yet they are still feeling guilty about it. Working mothers, in particular, spend most of their lives in a state of miserable guilt.
This is not surprising. Even a rudimentary look at the strands on Mumsnet reveals a deep schism when it comes to working mothers. They must be the most criticised group of women ever. Babies are crazy , they seem to be saying. Read together, these books seem to reject the entire idea of expertise. These books make an invaluable contribution to the literature on motherhood.
The more women are able to speak about the significant challenges of new motherhood, particularly in a country with so little material, medical, social, and emotional support for new mothers not to mention the shameful lack of parental leave, rampant pregnancy discrimination , and an administration determined to strip maternity care out of health care coverage , the more likely women are to actually get the support that makes early motherhood survivable.
Further, these books present a serious challenge to the still-pervasive, amazingly idea that motherhood is all saccharine joy, the stuff of Hallmark cards, or beneath the notice of serious writers. If I had read them as a new mother, they would have helped me to feel less like a failure, and less alone. I perceive these books as radical and brave.
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I feel seen. These books are shaping the contours of a new genre. Menkedick spent most of her twenties living abroad and ultimately married a Mexican man. But her purpose is primarily to call our attention to books equally deserving of that spotlight, rather than to examine whiteness itself. Beyond missed opportunities for additional complexity in individual books, the more grievous problem here is the way these books together create a new dominant narrative about motherhood.
Whiteness means that Waldman can call herself a bad mommy and, though she received plenty of internet censure for it, not actually risk having her children taken away from her. Protective services, including the removal of children and court-mandated parenting classes, acts as a form of surveillance for black and brown mothers, giving rise to the nickname Jane Crow.
Women crossing the border seeking asylum have been forcibly separated from their children, and blamed for their own victimization because they put their children in danger. Both also take up notably different postures with respect to mothering. Dungy admits to being exhausted by motherhood, particularly by her rigorous schedule of teaching and travel with a small child.
But she does not seem burdened by it. She does not seem to have been unprepared.
Against the isolation that is a hallmark of many of the motherhood memoirs, Garbes is connected to a web of friends, and she pays tribute to the many women whose texts, visits, and emails helped her navigate the early days of motherhood. Heather Kirn Lanier, whose Vela essay last year about raising a daughter with a rare genetic syndrome garnered so much attention, has a book under contract with Penguin. Looking beyond the genre of the motherhood memoir also reveals a more diverse set of writing mothers.