Have you ever had a day when you just felt like you were not good enough, as a mother?
Did you feel as though you ‘failed’ at giving birth?
Do you sometimes wonder whether you’re just failing in general in this whole ‘motherhood’ thing?
I’m not sure whether it’s comforting or depressing to hear this about the state of our society, but if you’ve felt any of these things you’re in good company.
The Goddess Myth – Why Do So Many Mothers Feel Bad?
A recent TIME survey found half of all 913 new mothers surveyed felt guilt, shame, regret or anger.
And although most of these feelings were blamed on unexpected complications or a lack of support, they left mothers feeling bad about their mothering.
The thing is, it’s actually really difficult to fail at motherhood.
But if that’s the case, why do so many of us feel bad about our mothering?
The Goddess Myth – Is Motherhood Really A Natural And Beautiful Journey?
You’ll never feel more beautiful than when you’re growing a baby.
You can escape pregnancy discomforts by eating a healthy diet, avoiding hormones, and saying no to medications. A natural waterbirth will leave you feeling empowered. And you’ll never find a better way to bond than by breastfeeding for at least two years.
It all sounds attainable and wonderful, right? After all, as women we’re built to grow and nourish new human beings.
Certainly, all of the above can be wonderful experiences and are attainable for many women.
However, not everyone enjoys pregnancy. Not all women can avoid medications. And many women wean their babies well before two years.
And you know what? Absolutely none of those things defines ‘success’ in motherhood, and the lack of them doesn’t define failure.
Even so, many women feel like failures when their experiences of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding or parenting in general don’t unfold completely naturally.
Where Does The Push For ‘Natural’ Motherhood Come From?
In past generations, women had unmedicated births. Many breastfed, and homemade food was the only kind available. DIY wasn’t trendy, it was just life.
When modern medicine took off in the twentieth century, the vast majority of women gave birth in hospitals. Anesthesia during birth became popular, and in the US twilight birth was used, even as recently as the 1970s.
By the 1910s, trans fats were introduced into the food supply, through processed and packaged foods, and by the 1950s frozen dinners and fast foods steadily grew in popularity.
After a time, people became concerned about the potential effects of interfering with normal birth physiology. More than a century after the advent of processed foods, many have now begun to see, and worry about, their effects on health.
Dedicated midwives, researchers, doctors, and passionate mothers are working to raise awareness about these potential problems.
However, somewhere along the way, positive intentions have turned into mother shaming, dangerous advice, and immense pressure.
How Did Information Become Pressure And Shame?
The Internet – the information highway that provides connections between billions of people all over the world – has many benefits for mothers. However, although it has been a useful tool for learning, it has also become a place where non-evidence-based information can easily pass as fact. It’s a place where mothers seek support and advice, but where they are sometimes given dangerous information, and often shamed.
Even evidence-based websites are filled with commenters who share opinion as fact. There’s a place for opinion, and there’s a place for anecdotes, but often they are mixed together with genuine facts. This makes it challenging for new mothers to navigate through all this material, and they are left feeling like they have failed for not measuring up to an arbitrary standard.
Evidence is available to help us make informed decisions. It’s vital we know the benefits and risks of birth and parenting options. The purpose of evidence isn’t to shame. But when it’s mixed with a million comments, it can be hard to see that.
The pressure, the old wives’ tales, and other information used to come from a few books, your mother, neighbourhood mothers, and a few well-meaning friends. But today, it all comes in the form of comments from Internet ‘experts’ and even self-proclaimed Internet trolls.
For everything you do, there’s an article that questions it. And many are emotionally charged opinions with a touch of factual information. Just enough facts are thrown in, often out of context, to make you question all of your choices.
We need evidenced information, and opinion also has its place, but are we getting too much opinion? Do we feel too much pressure? Too much shame? And is that underlying feeling of failure closing us off to the bits of evidence we do need to have?
Why Are Mothers Feeling Shame?
In many cases, normal physiological birth, breastfeeding, and healthy whole foods have immense benefits. Evidence supports this. We know there are risks to medications, interventions, and processed foods.
However, we must balance benefits against risks in each unique situation. We need to acknowledge our societal limitations. For example, we might want to breastfeed exclusively but we need to go back to work just two weeks postpartum. And although natural physiology often unfolds well, we also need to remember complications sometimes occur.
When we refuse to look at each mother as a unique individual, capable of making good choices in her situation, we’re part of the shaming problem.
Every time we add emotionally charged opinion and accusations to evidence-based information, we apply unnecessary pressure.
When we fall victim to, or encourage, the goddess myth – the idea pregnancy and motherhood are always beautiful, empowering and positive journeys – we set ourselves and others up to feel like failures when the journey is difficult.
How Do We Avoid Making Mothers Feel Like Failures?
My first pregnancy unfolded without a hitch. My birth was an out of hospital, midwife attended, textbook birth. My son came out, he latched, and all was well – until I reached six weeks postpartum and I still had severe pelvic pain.
No one told me recovery, for some women, can take 6-12 months, even after a ‘perfect’ birth. No one mentioned sometimes nature is a tad unfriendly, even when you make the ‘right’ choices.
What was physically challenging became mentally challenging too, because I didn’t expect that sometimes natural physiology fails us. It’s the exception but, as mothers, we really need to know that.
Yes, we’re designed to grow a baby, give birth, and nourish a baby. Sometimes we even feel like goddesses (and we really deserve some goddess-style treatment, because growing a baby is a lot of work). And sometimes breastfeeding is like the glue that bonds us to our new babies. So yes, sometimes motherhood is purely and naturally beautiful.
However, pregnancy can sometimes feel like a nightmare. Pregnancy is about vomiting so much you need medication. Sometimes true fetal distress means a necessary c-section. Occasionally an untreated thyroid disorder, insufficient glandular tissue, or early mother-baby separation affects your breastfeeding plans. And sometimes you’re so tired, or money is so tight, that you hit the box aisles in the grocery store for meals and snacks.
And you know what? None of these things makes you a bad mother. It doesn't mean you’re uneducated or you’ve made bad choices. None of this suggests you didn’t properly calculate the benefits and risks of your choices.
All it means is the idea of ‘motherhood-equals-picture-perfect-goddess’ is a myth. It means sometimes nature doesn’t go as it should, and sometimes society completely fails us.
And sometimes, it means you’re simply choosing what works best for you and your family!
“The more you love your decisions, the less you need others to love them”.
You’re A Good Mother; You’re Not Failing
The TIME survey not only found more than half of new mothers sometimes felt bad about their mothering, it also showed that mothers want to make the ‘right’ choices.
More than half of the mothers said natural birth was extremely or very important, but 43% ended up needing or choosing medications or epidurals, and 22% had unplanned c-sections.
Most mothers were aware of the benefits of physiological birth but either weren’t properly supported in their situation, or it needed to be changed. Neither scenario makes a mother a failure.
Having accurate information about c-section rates and choosing a provider you trust are vital to help you make choices. But to suggest a medicated birth is ever a failure is never okay. You cannot fail in birth.
Breastfeeding is often more difficult than many mothers expect. Of those surveyed, 20% planned to breastfeed for at least a year, but fewer than half managed it.
This suggests women who want to breastfeed aren’t getting adequate support. It doesn’t mean mothers are failing.
We need breastfeeding information and support; it’s a public health issue, but it is not a question of mothers succeeding or failing. We need to help mothers make informed and healthy choices, even if it means choosing donor milk or formula.
Yes, motherhood is a ‘natural’ thing. But it doesn’t mean modern knowledge, medicine, conveniences, etc. are signs of failure.
As mothers, we need to be confident in our choices, rather than accept the shame others try to put on us or on our fellow mothers. We should be the positive force we need in our society.
Are you struggling with feeling bad in motherhood? Be sure to read Motherhood Shouldn’t Be This Hard – 6 Things We Need To Change.