Removing the rose-tinted glasses

Being a mum isn’t as easy as the movies make it out to be – there’s no director yelling, “Cut!” when you’re up all night with a crying baby. Do today’s mothers expect too much of themselves?

Modern Kiwi women are choosing to have babies much later in life than their parents’ generation. We spend our twenties travelling, studying, socialising, and building our careers. By the time we feel ready to take on motherhood around the age of 30 – the median age for New Zealand women having children – we’re already used to independence and financial freedom. We’re also conditioned by the images we’ve seen on TV and in women’s magazines, showing slim celebrity mums with model looks, passionate relationships, successful careers, and designer wardrobes.

Yet, there’s a significant disconnect between the fantasy world represented in the media and the real world we experience every day in our own homes. Much as we’d like to believe we, too, can have the charmed life of the movie-star mum, for the vast majority of women, this ideal is simply an unobtainable dream.

If wishes were horses

Quite often, the rose-tinted view of motherhood that we’ve prepared ourselves for isn’t at all what results. Before giving birth, you may think that mothering will come naturally, and that being a ‘good mother’ means your baby is contented, happy, cooing and gurgling. You believe that motherhood will be easier than having a busy job outside of the home – after all, stay-at-home mums have it so easy, don’t they?

You may be quite certain that your partner will be equally involved in both parenting and taking care of the home, and that your child’s grandparents will want to be fully involved in their new grandchild’s life and supportive of your parenting decisions. You’ve possibly decided that you’ll either feel ready to go back to work precisely when you’ve planned to end your maternity leave, or that you’ll be completely happy with your decision to stay at home full-time with your child and leave work without looking back. You may believe you’ve finally found your calling, and that being a parent will give you a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfilment in your life. Life will essentially carry on as it always has, and the baby will fit right in to your current lifestyle. It’ll be easy, right?

While our twenty-something selves have practiced the concept of giving up one thing in return for something else we really wanted – relinquishing junk food to fit into a new dress, or putting off an immediate income in order to study for a university degree – with babies, the sacrifices add up. Living on two-minute noodles while saving for a house deposit is one thing when it’s just you (or just you and your partner), but when you have a child, the word ‘surrender’ takes on a whole new meaning!

As a parent, you forfeit sleep, freedom, money, and even your career path (for a while). And it’s not just the big things, but the small, everyday things you take for granted – going to the toilet in peace, having a shower when you want and for as long as you want, taking a moment to think, watching TV without interruption, eating a hot meal, or even having a conversation that’s not punctuated with demands for attention.

And when your expectations don’t quite match up with reality, you can feel disappointed, angry, or overwhelmed. Here are some ways to cope.

Weathering the change

Take a deep breath, and stop mentally beating yourself up for getting it so very wrong. Perfection is impossible, even for those celluloid beauties gracing the covers of the tabloids. How you cope with your child or children will depend on several factors, particularly on your own experience of being parented, and also on the level of support you have from friends, your family, and your community.

The most basic reality is every child is different. Kids come into the world with their own temperaments. Some babies are flexible and easy to get into feeding and sleep routines, while others are unpredictable. Some children are socially confident, while others are shy and anxious. Some children are placid and compliant, while others are strong-willed and defiant, requiring every ounce of patience you have and then some. How you manage your child’s temperament is up to you – what kind of child you get is beyond your control, so there’s no sense lamenting your failure to give birth to a little angel when you’re being kept on your toes by a little mischief-maker.

 Keep in mind that everyone’s situation is different, and that while plenty of parents manage just fine once they get the hang of having a child, there are many women who seem to have it together but are quietly falling apart behind the scenes.

Get over the guilt

Do you feel guilty all the time? Upset that you’re not the ‘perfect’ parent, or that you didn’t breastfeed, or you chose not to go back to work, or you did go back to work but you weren’t ready, or that you don’t think you play with your kids enough? Do you catch yourself saying, “Bad mummy!” or recounting terrible mummy moments to the other mums at your coffee group?

Mums often feel lonely, isolated, and overwhelmed with their new responsibilities. Learning to juggle housework, laundry, preparing meals, breastfeeding, and baby care is no mean feat. It can feel like every day is the same, and that you’re not appreciated by your partner for everything that you do, or by your child for everything you’ve sacrificed. Society still undervalues the role of mothers, and it can feel as though while your life has changed significantly, your partner’s life has continued in much the same way.

It’s important to recognise that these feelings are normal and natural, and you’re not alone. Be compassionate with yourself, and reassure yourself that finding motherhood difficult is a typical, authentic feeling – it does not mean that you are weak or a bad parent. Here are some ways to navigate the common pitfalls of new parenting.

Focus on the positives. Instead of tallying up your shortcomings, make note of your strengths as a parent and as an individual. You cannot be everything to everyone, so recognise the things you do with or for your child and give yourself credit for them.

Filter the advice you’re receiving. Once you have children, other people don’t hesitate to give advice whether you ask for it or not. Endeavour not to take this advice as criticism (even if it is!).  In most cases, people do want to help, so try to take their advice with that in mind rather than interpreting it as a personal judgement of your parenting. And only take on the advice that works for you.  If someone is telling you what you ‘should” do and it doesn’t fit with your beliefs, kindly thank them for their thoughts and then mentally set their words aside. What works for one parent or child may not necessarily be right for your family, but try to avoid reacting in a defensive manner. Managing feedback from parents or the in-laws can be particularly challenging, and if you feel constantly undermined, try talking about it with the family member. But avoid doing this when you’re feeling wound up or picked on. Say something like, “I understand you’re trying to be helpful. However, I do have my own ideas about how I want to parent my child, and I would really appreciate it if you could respect my choices.” 

Accept and ask for help. If your friends or family members offer to babysit, help out with housework, pick-ups, or shopping – take them up on it. Don’t see this as a sign of weakness or people offering out of obligation. Ask family members to help out (accepting that they may decline). Arrange a regular time with grandparents when they’ll take the kids, although some grandparents may prefer to only look after one young child at a time, so you might need to divide children between family members or friends. Use the time for yourself to go for a walk, do some shopping, sit with your feet up, read a book, or simply spend the time with a friend.

Ask your partner for support. Many dads are hands-on and involved in parenting, but there are plenty who don’t know when and how to jump in, or who may feel timid about messing up if they don’t do things the ‘right’ way. Arrange for your partner to take the baby to the park on a weekend morning so you can sleep in, or schedule a regular night each week or fortnight when you go out with a friend, to a movie, the gym, or a yoga class.

Don’t take for granted the help you receive. It’s common for parents to feel annoyed or frustrated with grandparents about how they look after grandchildren, such as spoiling them with treats, TV, or staying up late, or alternatively, being too strict. Some feel grandparents aren’t accommodating or available enough. Appreciate the support you do get. It’s reasonable for grandparents to have their own rules when they’re in charge. However, if you have a real problem with how they manage your children, and they’re not prepared to change, you may have to decide whether you want them to look after your children.

Talk with your partner. Research in New Zealand has found the majority of dads don’t talk with anyone about parenting issues, and if they do, it’s typically a friend who is also a father. This suggests the majority of couples aren’t actually communicating about parenting. Make time to do this – after the kids are asleep! Be honest about what you find difficult and clear about what you need from each other. Avoid blame or criticism.

Seek company. Meet other parents from antenatal classes or join a Plunket group or coffee group. Get together with a friend and walk your babies in the park or at the beach. Take your child to music or gym groups and meet other parents. If you crave company that isn’t child-focused, set up a book club with friends and get together once a month for an evening with nibbles and wine. 

Be honest and open. While it’s difficult to acknowledge you’re struggling, you’re more likely to get support and understanding if you admit it’s hard. If people perceive you’re coping, they will be less likely to offer assistance. Be honest with your friends, and if you encounter judgement, don’t take it on. Find someone who validates your experience – someone who agrees that yes, it is hard, and then suggests ways of coping rather than just telling you to ‘get over it’ or ‘toughen up’.

Be aware of your expectations. Often we’re driving ourselves on the basis of expectations we’re not even conscious of. Consider your expectations – of yourself, your child, your partner, your friends. Did you have a preconceived idea of how your child would behave or how you would maintain your previous lifestyle/body/relationship?

Lower your expectations. For yourself, your partner, your child, and your family and friends. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself or your children to other mothers and children – especially celebrities! Hollywood stars have personal trainers, chefs, nannies, and housekeepers. If your child is fed, clothed, safe, and loved you’re already doing a good enough job

The expectations we bring to parenting are not ‘absolute truths’. They’re based on ideas we’ve learned from our family and friends, but also, too often, from TV, movies, and gossip magazines which present a glossy, unreal perspective of modern motherhood that nobody can live up to – not even the women portraying it.

Distress and dissatisfaction are typically a result of the gap between what we wish our life to be like and how we perceive our life actually is. If you can learn to let go of your expectations and accept how things are in this moment, you can reduce your stress – and start enjoying being just the kind of mum you are. 

 Rebecca Daly-Peoples
Clinical Psychologist

This articel has previously been published in Littlies magazine.