Why do we have such a hard time admitting to the realities of parenthood?
This morning a dear friend of mine who has just given birth to her second baby posted a question on her Facebook page. She has another child who has just turned one, and she wanted advice on how to get her eldest to sit still for an hour during sacrament meeting. Her husband is the bishop and so she sits in sacrament meeting on her own with her two very young babies. In less than 3 hours, there were 14 comments, all giving well meaning advice on how to make a one year old sit still for an hour. That is, 13 comments giving advice, and then mine, the only one telling her that one year olds are not actually meant to be sitting still for an hour, and I’d be worried to find one that did.
One piece of advice was that there should be no food, toys or games during sacrament, as the child should be learning that this is a special time. It got me thinking, that to anyone outside of our culture, the idea of making a baby sit still for an hour would be absurd. However, to many LDS mothers, this would mark a significant milestone, if not indeed the absolute peak so far, of their career as a “Mother in Zion”. Growing up in the LDS culture, the perfect family to me was a mother who stayed home, a father who worked hard and served in important church callings, children who were thrilled to learn the Articles of Faith and sit reverently during sacrament meeting. It seemed so simple. Of course I grew up and realised that it really isn’t all as simple as it seems, and in fact, “perfection” is a mere myth as there is no such thing as the perfect mother, father, child or family. Why, then, do we work so hard to perpetuate this myth instead of admitting that actually, the reality isn’t always that pretty?
I grew up yearning to be a mother. Through my later teenage years it was like an ache, I needed to have a child. When I was married at 21, I was ready for children immediately, and shortly after our first year of marriage we welcomed our first daughter into our family. I fell in love with her instantly, and I named her “Mia” quite simply, because it meant “mine” and she was everything I’d always wanted.
And that’s the version we frequently hear, from each other, from the pulpit, from our prophets. What we don’t hear is this: I vomited almost every day for 9 months during pregnancy, I went through an excruciating labour with no pain relief, I still have flashbacks of the birth to this day, I endured the pain of stitches for two weeks after the birth, I tried so hard to breastfeed but eventually gave up feeling like a failure after my baby cried constantly for the food I couldn’t give her, I almost went insane with sleep deprivation, after being at home for 6 months I realised I was bored senseless, and getting depressed, and very poor on a student’s income, and struggling to finish my degree. I could go on but I’m sure you get the idea.
I was particularly put out by the fact that no one, not even my own mother, had warned me about the reality of being a parent. I was completely unprepared for what lay ahead of me. I even wondered if, after experiencing parenthood first hand, I would chosen it so willingly and so early in my life knowing what it was really like. I decided, somewhat subconsciously, that I’d never perpetuate this motherhood myth and that I’d always be painfully honest about pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood. When asked about the birth, I’d say: “It was so awful I wanted to die, I still get flashbacks sometimes.” When my second baby was born, I was frequently asked how my eldest was enjoying her new sister. I’d reply honestly: “She hates it, I have to watch her all the time because she’s horribly jealous and always trying to pinch and bite her. She even pushed her off the couch the other day when I went to answer the phone.” When asked if I found it hard work having a part time job, I’d reply: “I barely give them a thought when I’m at work, and it’s a relief that someone else is worrying if they’re entertained, fed and not squabbling for 22 hours a week”. When I’m asked when baby number 3 is going to make an appearance: “No, two is more than enough for me, besides, I really don’t want to start changing nappies and breastfeeding again.”
I can understand to some extent why we may not be forthcoming about the long hard toil that makes up the majority of parenthood. It can be a vicious circle – we think we are the only ones who struggle, as everyone else seems to be getting along fine. We see our children as an extension of ourselves, and so their “failures” – which may be anything from talking back, not eating up their vegetables, keeping us up all night, throwing a tantrum in the supermarket – become a reflection of our perceived failures as a parent. We keep quiet, and those looking into our families see the sanitised “Sunday” version, and think they are the only ones who struggle. And so they keep quiet. And so it goes on. And nobody even acknowledges even that these things are all in fact normal childhood behaviours.
If someone dares to admit they have a “problem”, or ask for help, we all have the answers, the advice, the well-meaning wisdom they need. We give it liberally, however I wonder are we really being helpful? Or are we sending out the message that we have it all figured out, it’s all easy when you know how. How often do we say: “You know, you’re doing a great job, don’t worry so much”, or: “I wish I knew the answer to that, but I don’t, it’s hard for me too.”
I think another reason that we don’t voice our concerns may be the way we are “prepared” (or “primed” or “brainwashed” – substitute that as you will!) to be parents, particularly as young women. Our roles as mothers are meant to be more important to us than anything else at all. To set our hearts on anything other then motherhood is not what God would have us do. “No other success can compensate for failure in the home”. It’s a pretty strong message, no matter how you look at it. Unfortunately our interpretation of the word “success” can mean different things. I would think it’s a fair assumption that to many LDS women, their version of success is having the “perfect” family like the one I described at the beginning. Success is being a shiny happy family. Success is turning out an army of Stripling Warriors in the last days. Success is having children who thrive in the love of their mother who is always there for them, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
For these reasons and many others, when we are young and idealistic we have a tendency to look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. For me, I often saw children giving their parents a hard time, and thinking that my children would be different. My children would have impeccable manners, my children would be adorable, they would go to bed on time, they wouldn’t eat sugar ever, etc etc. We babysit some cute kids for a couple of hours every once in a while and think we know it all. We never realise that other people’s children are always far better behaved for anyone other than their parents.
Fast forward a few years and you’re there, living out the ideal that you’ve always held. You’ve married your returned missionary in the temple. He has an important calling, and so do you. You have a couple of children. You are, by your original standards, successful. Yet, it’s not how you thought. You love your children, but you’re exhausted. The constant grind of preparing food, doing laundry, dishes, going without adult conversation for days on end is making you wonder where your personality went. Your hopes and dreams are lost in sleepless nights and wondering how many more meals that you’ve lovingly prepared will end up on the floor you’ve just washed.
We literally lose ourselves in our role, and when we stop to wonder why our days aren’t filled with teaching our children to sing while riding round town on bicycles and dancing in the mountains, we blame ourselves. We are taught that if we make the right choices, we will be blessed and happy. If we aren’t blessed and happy then surely we are doing something wrong? We judge ourselves harshly. We assume that others will too, and sometimes sadly we are proven right by the unspoken yet unmistakeable disapproval from others. We are stubbornly determined to be a success, or at least appear to be.
We may worry that speaking about our children or family life in a negative way will cause others to think that we don’t love our offspring with all our hearts. The suggestion that we feel unfulfilled, that being a wife and mother simply doesn’t give us everything we need to be completely happy, can feel like we’re betraying those we love the most. If we love them, then they are enough to make us perfectly happy, surely? Well, I for one am not afraid to hold up my hands and say actually, no. I need more than that. I need to be more than a wife and mother. For women who find true happiness in these roles, I admire you, I respect you, and in fact I’m even a little envious. For me and for many others, it’s just not the case. Some continue to manage to find a way to cope, and maintain the pleasant façade that forever perpetuates the myth to all around. And some, like me, brace themselves for the criticism and judgement and the guilt, and leave the home and their children to work a little, or volunteer, or have a hobby, or further our education, with the notions that we’re selfish and fleeing our responsibilities ringing in our ears.
Even when I’m brutally honest I find it hard to articulate – and impart – what the reality of parenthood really means. Often to those without children who are still looking towards the ideal, my honesty falls on deaf ears. When my eldest daughter was a toddler, I was talking to one of my best friends on the phone, and she expressed how much she wanted to get married and start a family. She felt that she was getting left behind as most of her friends were married or getting married. She’d had enough of being on the YSA scheme and wanted to settle down. We were 22. I told her that I had some advice and arranged to meet her for lunch.
My daughter made the point I’d wanted to make perfectly. She refused to sit down and kept running round the restaurant, shouting loudly, she cried and screamed when I tried to get her to do a quiet activity at the table, and I felt sorry for the people round us trying to have a nice peaceful lunch. Between chasing her and trying to dry off the drink she spilled all over me, I gave my advice: You have no idea how lucky you are. You can sleep when you want. You can leave the house whenever you want, to swim, to shop, to go for a run. You could get on a train to London or Paris tonight if you wanted and it would be no big deal. Enjoy it, don’t wish it away!!
She laughed at me for being so dramatic, cooed over how incredibly cute by daughter was and said she was ready for dating advice now, then easily slipped into talking about every eligible LDS man in the British Isles for the next hour or so. She remained unhappily single for four more years having the time of her life, before getting married and having two babies less than a year apart. Sigh. You may remember her from the start of this piece. Still, the heart wants what it wants, and the maternal instinct is strong, I only need to think of myself before reality hit and I can completely understand.
So, if I could go back in time, if somehow someone could have imparted to me somehow the full reality and not just the pleasant myth, would I still choose to be a parent? Well, first they would need to show me why it is that every child has their parents wrapped around their little finger, despite everything I’ve described. I’d need to see the long summer days playing on the beach, making daisy chains in the park, dancing to Rihanna in the living room. I’d need to feel how delicious it is to have your newborn falling asleep on your chest and staying there all night long. I’d need to see the handmade birthday cards, to read the Mother’s day poems written just for me. I’d need to feel my daughter’s arms around me, with her whispering in my ear that she wants me to be her Mummy for a hundred years.
Show me all that, and I’d take it in a heartbeat, with everything that comes alongside. Maybe a little mythology is good for the human race after all. But please, let’s keep it real and be honest about the whole picture, and not just the Disney-esque moments that make it all worthwhile.