Can We Stop Being Martyrs About Motherhood Please?

Alix O'Neill on embracing the joy of motherhood and trying not to dwell on the 'what ifs'


by Alix O'Neill |
Updated on

A neighbour recently stuck her head round my kitchen window brandishing a couple of bags of nappies. It was a touching, if odd, gesture – I don’t know the woman terribly well and my baby’s not due until December. She then handed me a smaller package – several pairs of paper knickers and some industrial-strength sanitary towels – and told me my vagina would never be the same. Oh, and ‘best start thinking about a waterproof mattress protector’. My husband, who was preparing dinner, involuntarily gaped at my lady bits. When she left, we closed the curtains and sat in silence, our appetites annihilated and spirits crushed.

Pregnancy is an odd time. People you’re barely on first-name terms with want to pat your stomach and impart wisdom (whether or not they’ve had kids themselves) – and you’re meant to be cool with this, because you’re no longer your own person, you see; you’re simply a vessel to handle. For the most part, I don’t mind the constant advice. It’s generally well-meaning. But increasingly, parents want to share not only the good and the bad of raising a human, but the torturously ugly. I’ve been told I’ll spend my days covered in poo and I can say goodbye to my social life, while a friend has vowed never to procreate as several of her mum mates have told her parenting is ‘hell on earth’.

It’s become fashionable to complain about motherhood. Sleepless nights and all-consuming boredom are taken for granted, and it’s now widely accepted as fact that childbirth = vaginal apocalypse. Once, it was bad form to regale a pregnant woman with tales from the labour suite. These days, many mums consider it their duty to tell the ‘truth’ about birth. Why? What am I meant to do with the information? In just over two months, this baby is coming out of me, one way or another. I’m not naive – I don’t expect eight hours of whale song and joss sticks, and unperforated genitals. (I was a 9lb-er and my mum was in labour with me for 24 hours.) But I’m trying to stay positive and not dwell on the what ifs, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be one of the lucky ones.

I didn't go into this pregnancy with my eyes closed. My husband and I have been together for 13 years and married five. We loved our last-minute weekends away and boozy lunches, and thought long and hard about the compromises we’d have to make if we invited a plus-one into our cosy twosome. I'm under no illusions that parenthood will be massively challenging. So there's really no need for perfect strangers to tell me that my days of restful slumber are numbered. It's not helpful – it's just a massive buzzkill.

Look, I get it. Kids can be exhausting and frankly, a pain in the ass. And I’m glad the narrative around motherhood is shifting. The tired trope of the perfect housewife, cooking dinner from scratch and attending every PTA meeting, has been put to bed, mainly thanks to authentic parenting role models like Mother Pukka and Molly Gunn. Finally, women feel comfortable admitting that being a mum is bloody hard work at times.

But I worry we’re moving too far in the other direction. Moaning about children has become the norm, while saying your experience of labour was alright, actually, or telling another mum, ‘You know what? I think I got this’ is viewed as smug. Personally, I’d rather hear the good stuff. It seems ungrateful to bang on about the trials of parenting when there are so many women who desperately want kids and are struggling. Sure, I’ve had days where my back aches and I’m so tired I can’t think straight, but unless I’m feeling particularly down, I’ll tell my friends I’m alright when asked. I’m 34 and it took me almost a year to get pregnant. I realise how lucky I am.

There’s another reason we ought to adjust our mindset towards motherhood. In a recent article for The New York Times, Karen Rinaldi argued that by calling it a sacrifice, we disempower women. How often do we talk about the sacrifices men make when they become fathers? ‘By reframing motherhood as a privilege, we redirect agency back to the mother, celebrating her autonomy,’ Rinaldi writes.

Maybe our standards are too high. Millennials are notorious perfectionists. From our careers to our downtime, we expect to excel in every area of our lives. If we think being a mum is going to be all homemade kale puree and cute Boden tees, disappointment is inevitable. But if we accept that sometimes, there’ll be vomit in your hair and fish fingers on their plate, and that’s OK, I reckon we’re doing just fine.

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