I was Whatsapp-reflecting with a friend the other day (n.b. this is a special kind of reflection, popular amongst parents who have little time to converse, involving diary-like voice notes which serve to articulate - and in the process clarify - a range of thoughts for both others and ourselves). He mentioned that he notices a kind of competition between families, even when they are already friends, in the way that personal challenges are shared. Or rather, in the way that they’re not shared - for fear of giving a less than perfect impression of how one is coping as a mother or father. I realised then that there is actually a lot of shame associated with parenting today. Shame that we are not doing it quite right, or loving every moment as we should, or following through on all that we’d planned to do. How utterly tragic that on top of every other emotion that a parent goes through on a daily basis, he or she might also feel ashamed that things are simply not as they should be.
There are just so many expectations. I know from my own experience that often these are not external, but crafted and imposed by myself. The main one that I will admit to you all is this: I expected to love motherhood every single moment. I expected to adore those first cuddles after being woken up in the morning, to be endlessly loving and patient, to play imaginary games for long stretches every day, and to go for restorative walks in the countryside with my baby in a wrap. I didn’t expect to feel groggy every single morning and filled with a bit of dread that the day has started so early. I didn’t expect to bubble with impatience so regularly, or to not want to pretend to have a picnic in the spare room every day, or to find walking long distances with my baby in a wrap pretty uncomfortable. In all these things, I essentially felt quite disappointed with myself.
Maybe this resonates with you or maybe it’s not understandable at all. The point of this post is not to join the thousands of voices across the virtual world who comically explode with frustration about parenting, but to reflect on why so many of us feel ashamed when we struggle a bit.
I firmly believe that one contributing factor is the lack of togetherness here in our society in the West. Mostly every household is an island, largely unaware of its neighbours and certainly reticent to call on them for help. However busy a diary can be made, mothers essentially operate - internally and externally - alone. And this is extremely dangerous to wellbeing. When you are an island surrounded by thousands of other islands, it doesn’t matter THAT much if there is a forest fire. But when you belong to one land mass, that fire matters a lot. And so our relatively isolated experiences of parenthood can make us feel a lot less worthy, safe and connected than we really are. We also feel much less able to share our experiences with others and consult on solutions; the sensitive, impermeable wall of defence has been put up for self-preservation.
Another factor I was reflecting on is our culture of image. We are saturated with superficial images of family life, a perfect home, a holiday, or even success and happiness - and we unconsciously create idols of them. When our experience of reality doesn’t correspond to these images, it is easy to feel incompetent and disappointed. We are then ashamed to share our different experiences with others, because they just don’t seem good enough. Yes, we all have an inherent attraction to beauty, which is no doubt why Instagram is full of rose-tinted parenting moments rather than snaps of messy homes and stained vests soaking in sinks. But in projecting all these images of ourselves, and in letting ourselves be shaped by others, we somehow lose the ability to be honest.
There are no doubt countless other factors. But just because they exist, shouldn’t mean that we now accept shame as an inevitable part of life. If we feel ashamed that we are not being, doing and feeling quite as expected, there is a much more positive next step: the aforementioned reflection. Reflection helps us to avoid the two extremes of being complacent and taking a ‘this is me’ approach to parenting, or feeling permanently guilty and stuck in undesirable patterns. I find it very helpful, sometimes alone and sometimes with another, to reflect carefully on what I did that was positive and what could do with improvement, or eradication! We are not static - either an amazing parent or a strict one or an unfun one. Every day presents new challenges that we should feel able to share. We have the capacity to change ourselves and our home environment, little by little, day by day. And for this noble effort, how can we feel ashamed?