A mother’s place is in the wrong

No­body’s per­fect, but that doesn’t stop us striv­ing for an A* in moth­er­hood – es­pe­cially at backto-school time. No won­der al­most 90 per cent of us suf­fer from ma­ter­nal guilt. The good news? There is a way to con­quer it, says Lola Borg

The Sunday Telegraph - Stella - - #ONE DAY - il­lus­tra­tions: bill bragg

MY SON STILL TALKS about the time when, in a fit of tem­per, I threw his Ac­tion Man across the room and broke both its legs. That was 16 years ago. Hind­sight means

I can smile – just – but I re­mem­ber feel­ing rid­dled with re­morse at this and all the other far more se­ri­ous ‘crimes’ I’ve com­mit­ted as a mother. Work­ing. Be­ing a lousy cook. Hav­ing a life – and a short fuse. This time of year, af­ter sum­mer hol­i­days spent to­gether, is peak guilt sea­son: the pull-back to a ‘nor­mal’ work­ing life and the jit­ters of the school re­turn, mean­ing less time to­gether.

And I’m not alone. Stud­ies have sug­gested there is a gen­der bias to­wards the ‘long ice­berg of guilt’, as the nov­el­ist Edna O’Brien called it, and women – par­tic­u­larly moth­ers – get the fuzzy end of the lol­lipop. It seems that moth­ers to­day feel it more than ever. My mum, for ex­am­ple, felt that once she had clothed and fed her chil­dren her task was more or less done. By com­par­i­son, my gen­er­a­tion has greater ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal pres­sures: so­cial-me­dia judge­ments, as well as wildly high ex­pec­ta­tions from teach­ers, other moth­ers, and above all, our­selves. I asked one work­ing mother what she felt guilty about and she wearily replied, like Mar­lon Brando in The Wild One, ‘ What have you got?’

Most feel­ings of ma­ter­nal guilt can be grouped un­der the head­ing ‘Sim­ply Not Be­ing Good Enough’. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by baby­care prod­uct com­pany NUK, 87 per cent of moth­ers feel guilty at some point, with 21 per cent feel­ing this way most or all of the time. It can be any­thing from think­ing that we have too lit­tle time for our chil­dren or show­ing scant pa­tience (which essen­tially boils down to the heinous crime of ‘ be­ing hu­man’). Moth­ers I spoke to for this piece felt wretched about many things: what they fed their chil­dren; how much screen time they al­lowed; how of­ten they yelled at them.

It’s other moth­ers, says re­search, who are per­ceived as the most judge­men­tal ( just visit Mum­snet if in any doubt). Our most re­cent crime is our ‘smart­phone fix­a­tion’; some 72 per cent of moth­ers are sup­pos­edly ‘stunt­ing’ their chil­dren’s be­hav­iour and mak­ing them ‘lonely’ by star­ing at screens.

Laura Van­derkam, au­thor of I Know How

She Does It, sug­gests women have al­ways felt guilt. ‘In pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, that might have cen­tred on dif­fer­ent things, like how clean your house was, or how many com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions you were in­volved in, along with whether the kids were do­ing all right,’ she says. ‘Now the guilt has moved more to child rear­ing and whether you’ve lum­bered other peo­ple with ex­tra work at the of­fice. But there’s al­ways been guilt.’

Ah yes. Guilt, we know, is about the mis­match be­tween our ex­pec­ta­tions and re­al­ity. ‘Ma­ter­nal guilt’ has many com­plex strands, not least the un­de­ni­able bi­o­log­i­cal and hor­monal ba­sis that ren­ders a wo­man wholly in­vested in her child. Then there is work, long the source of anx­i­ety. ‘Moth­ers can still see the idea of go­ing to work and earn­ing their own money as a “choice”,’ says Suzie Hay­man, re­la­tion­ship coun­sel­lor and trustee of the char­ity Fam­ily Lives. ‘And there­fore they worry that they are “rob­bing” their fam­ily of their time and com­mit­ment. Men sim­ply do not feel this way.’

But let’s not be duped here. This idea that work is a choice and that women have for mil­len­nia been tied to the hearth is a rel­a­tively re­cent con­struct, says writer Re­becca Sol­nit, who at­tempts to up­end this myth in her new book, The Mother of All Ques­tions. ‘There was a brief era in the Western world when in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion made run­ning a home eas­ier and many mid­dle­class women weren’t part of the wageearn­ing econ­omy,’ she writes. ‘This pe­riod lasted sev­eral decades, but it didn’t start five mil­lion years ago.’ There is am­ple ev­i­dence from an­thro­pol­o­gists, she says, that con­tra­dicts the ‘Man the Hunter’ story – the idea that the nat­u­ral order of things is for women to stay at home while men bring back the ba­con. We all know that this is no longer the norm in the in­dus­tri­alised world: women in the US make up 47 per cent of wage earn­ers, while 70 per cent of women work in the UK. But in the wider world, says Sol­nit, ‘ Women are grow­ing food, car­ry­ing water and fire­wood, herd­ing live­stock, pound­ing cas­sava root.’ She adds: ‘ We need to stop telling the story about the wo­man who stayed home, wait­ing for her man. She wasn’t sit­ting around. She was busy. She still is.’

It’s im­por­tant to stress that ‘ma­ter­nal guilt’ is not just a sub­jec­tive, woolly con­cept. It’s moth­ers, not fa­thers, who are over­whelm­ingly pros­e­cuted for their chil­dren’s school tru­ancy, to give just one ex­am­ple (mak­ing up three­fifths of those con­victed), and are three times more likely than fa­thers to be jailed for it.

We also grew up with a back­drop of psy­cho­an­a­lytic thought that held moth­ers to ac­count for their child’s devel­op­ment, with prob­a­bly the most cruel be­ing the ‘re­frig­er­a­tor moth­ers’ of the 1950s, whose sup­posed cold­ness ‘caused’ autism in their chil­dren. It’s a the­ory now dis­cred­ited, but the gen­eral idea lingers. Lit­tle Jack grows up to be a psy­chopath? Blame the mother.

As chil­dren grow into stroppy teenagers, guilt doesn’t lessen but rather mu­tates. Moth­ers of­ten be­lieve that they are en­tirely re­spon­si­ble for their child’s hap­pi­ness (ther­a­pists see this fre­quently); they are at ‘fault’ and also the ones who must ‘fix it’, es­pe­cially with chil­dren who take drugs, drink or have so­cial or men­tal pres­sures. Then it becomes about what you might have done dif­fer­ently or where you have ‘failed’.

‘My daugh­ter hit her teenage years at 100 miles an hour,’ says Fiona Rus­sell-Wells*, 52, a lawyer. ‘She started par­ty­ing, bunk­ing off school. A few weeks ago, she had a party while we were away, trashed the house and has shown no re­morse. I saw the house and thought, “I hate you!” Then I felt so guilty – think­ing that feels like such a be­trayal as a mother. But rather than putting her bad be­hav­iour down to her be­ing a teenager, I feel guilty that I’ve done some­thing wrong: I’ve not been there enough, or I’ve been there too much; I didn’t en­cour­age her to be in­de­pen­dent or I was too con­trol­ling. Who knows what I did wrong?’

‘ Un­like my hus­band, I still try to an­a­lyse prob­lems with my teenage chil­dren,’ says Jane Kel­lock, 54, a fash­ion fore­caster. ‘My daugh­ter is not par­tic­u­larly sporty, for ex­am­ple, and I feel guilty about that. He doesn’t. Should I have taken to her more sport­ing events? When I did, she hated it, but I feel it’s a lack of some­thing on my part.’

Layer on top the per­ni­cious de­mands, both on chil­dren and par­ents, of what we might call the cur­rent ‘cult of per­fec­tion’, fu­elled by so­cial me­dia. ‘There is a de­mand not just to be the best you can be, but The Best. Full stop,’ says Hay­man. ‘And many women re­gard any­thing short of this as fail­ure.’

But there is the odd shaft of sun­light. ‘Guilt is a very useful emo­tion be­cause if you’ve hurt some­one, you feel bad un­til you make amends,’ says Van­derkam. ‘Guilt is mis­placed when that’s not the case, and fre­quently, it isn’t. No one is hurt when you get your work done and leave the of­fice at 5.30pm (even if your col­leagues are still there). No one is hurt if your kid watches TV, or has a bor­ing sand­wich for lunch. If you can be ra­tio­nal about whether some­one has been truly hurt, then a lot of the guilt dis­ap­pears.’

Guilt can be also pos­i­tive, a cat­a­lyst to stop a dam­ag­ing pat­tern of be­hav­iour. Ther­a­pists of­ten see women who wouldn’t in­sti­gate change for them­selves, but will for their chil­dren, out of a de­sire to be a bet­ter mother than their own. On that front, says Kel­lock, ‘I’d rather be this way. I can’t say I haven’t loved my chil­dren enough – that’s one thing I don’t feel guilty about.’

Moth­ers of­ten be­lieve they are en­tirely re­spon­si­ble for their chil­dren’s hap­pi­ness; that they must ‘fix’ it

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