Stop Demonising Mothers

Friday, August 10, 2007 0:47 | Filed in Life, Media, Politics, The Pickards

I was watching a TV programme the other night — I only caught a few minutes of it because it was annoying me so I exercised my incredible ability to change the channel, but it was still enough, when coupled with another thing to inspire this rant.

Basically, the program was looking at some people who had become mothers as teenagers and was talking to them about life with a new baby. I don’t know whether or not the segment I watched was out of context, but it seemed very disapproving of the idea. You got the impression teenage mum = bad; single mum = bad and so on. It was almost Portilloesque.

Now I know we want to discourage teen pregnancy, because we want to encourage people to get an education, a career etc first, but some of implied criticism seemed asinine at best, and demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of parenting in many cases.

For example, this particular teenage mum ended up admitting that she sometimes felt close to tears, she sometimes felt that she couldn’t cope, and that while she’d never want to not have her child, she sometimes resented her child and wanted her life back. This came across to me as though the documentary was trying to imply not only that she’d made bad choices (and that it was possibly her mother’s fault anyway for having been a teen mother herself), that we should feel sorry for her, and because she was young, she probably wasn’t making as good a parent as she would otherwise have done.

Bollocks to that. I’ve got two children, and I know what it’s like.

I was twenty-eight when my first child was born. While I personally, being a man and therefore considerably less subject to pregnancy hormones, didn’t suffer from post-natal depression, it is a recognised condition. I was aware of this before I had children. I would have imagined TV documentary makers to also have heard of it, but maybe that’s expecting a bit much.

However, to find a mother with a new baby therefore tearful or unable to cope should not be taken as an implied signal of her inferiority as a mother, it should be taken as a response to her body’s hormone balance suddenly shifting drastically — along with considerable lifestyle changes.

Then you’ve got the “couldn’t cope” bit. I think most parents have felt like that at one time or another. Whether it’s pacing the floor at three in the morning trying to get the screaming demon on your shoulder to just be quiet, just for a moment, because your head is hurting and lack of sleep is driving you crazy, whether it’s just the lack of sleep or what — of course you can’t bloody cope. Nobody can be expected to cope with that. What you have to do is to somehow get through it, without killing yourself, the baby, or having a nervous breakdown.

And it isn’t always that easy.

I remember one time having to look after the little ‘un by myself, and after about three hours of constant screaming I decided I was being a little unfair, and stopped screaming at him — naah, only joking — after about three hours of him screaming at me, despite food, water, clean nappies, cuddles, rock-a-byes and every single thing I could try (and believe me, I tried a lot of things) — I was really starting to feel a little stressed.

I couldn’t condone anyone hurting their child but I could understand it: right at that point I got the feeling that I just wanted him to shut up. I was barely capable of any rational thought other than how can I make him shut up?, meaning of course that I’d really rather he stopped crying.

I was aware of how stressed I was, and of the fact that despite the fact I loved my little baby to bits (now no longer a baby, but I still love him), I knew I was at the end of my tether.

So — and quite sensibly in my opinion — I put him down in his cot, where he would be safe, and I went and sat downstairs for fifteen minutes, ignoring the crying. I used the time to have a cup of tea and calm down, and then went back upstairs again feeling much better, and was able to cope with the crying comfortably for the extra half hour or so it lasted.

Except for the guilt; I felt that I must be an awful Dad to have had to do that, and to have felt like that. Rationally, I think it actually shows me in a good light: aware of my limitations, and realising that it’s better for me to get a break, even if it means the baby is left to cry, than being driven ever closer to breaking point. Everyone’s got a breaking point somewhere, and anyone who has not looked after a small, screaming and won’t shut up baby, simply can’t understand what that constant noise can do to you.

That doesn’t stop me feeling bad about it though: I know every parent I’ve mentioned it to has been confident that I’ve nothing to feel guilty about, but you still somehow feel that it’s showing you up: you’re not the perfect parent you ought to be.

So I do understand someone saying that they’ve felt that they “couldn’t cope” from time to time. It’s not a teenage mum thing; it’s not a single-parent thing; it’s not a bad parent thing. What it is is a new parent thing — once you’re about three months in, it starts getting easier to deal with.

Similarly, second time around isn’t so bad — there may be just as much (or even more) crying but this time you know from experience that this will eventually pass; you’ve just got to hang together and get through it.

And finally, there’s the whole ‘I want my life back’ thing.

Well who doesn’t? I used to have nice holidays with my wife; we used to be able to go out together more regularly; we used to have more money. What’s wrong with hankering back to that now and again, or feeling slightly envious of people without children, when they get to go on nicer holidays?

It doesn’t mean I want to give up my children, it doesn’t mean that I’d rather not have them, it’s just being aware of what you have to give up — or at least put on hold — in order to have children, and sometimes missing it. I still think I’ve got the better end of the deal, but I’m envious from time to time of some parts of the other deal.

Again, that’s not something exclusively associated with teenage mothers — although it is possible that maybe they’ve never had the chance to do some of these things, and so maybe they feel it more, but I would imagine all parents would feel like this to some extent, now and again.

It’s natural. Doesn’t make me a bad Dad. Doesn’t make the teenage mums bad mothers. It just shows they’re human.

And then there was the other, coincidental thing. The thing that tipped me over the edge from just ranting to the GLW about this, and turned it into a fully-fledged blog rant, where I expect you lot to listen too. And that’s the kerfuffle surrounding formula milk.

They’ve already banned advertising for formula milk for babies under six months, and apparently, they want to ban the advertising of formula milk altogether. Because, as we’re repeatedly told breast is best.

Yes, we know that. I think, as a parent, you should try to breastfeed your baby. I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for someone who doesn’t want to try, because it will “interfere with their lifestyle” — if you don’t want your lifestyle interfered with, children aren’t for you in the first place. However I do object to the demonisation of people who’ve tried breastfeeding only to find that for some reason it didn’t work for them.

My older child refused to take breast milk and didn’t feed at all until they gave up and put him on bottled; my wife was in too much pain (difficult birth) after our second child to breastfeed initially, so he started on bottled, but then wouldn’t go back. Does that make her a bad mother?

Of course it bloody doesn’t. But the pressures but on parents to Do The Right Thing™ are such that whenever you do anything that goes against the current advice, you feel you’re somehow failing your children, and that you’re a bad parent. Oh sure, the people behind the advice will say that that’s not how they mean it, but that’s how it comes across.

I remember that my wife was in floods of tears when she announced to me that she’d had to start bottle feeding our first child, because we’d planned for her to breastfeed, and she was worried that I would be angry with her for bottle feeding him, and that I would feel she was a bad mother, and that I would hate her.

Now maybe just after birth she was a little hormonal — particularly over the ‘hating her’ bit — but even so, the fact that she felt so pressurised by the advice into thinking that even though she’d tried, I was going to be angry?

What new mothers need is support and encouragement: help them to breastfeed by all means, but don’t brow beat them and make them feel inferior if they are unable to.

Is it any wonder so many mothers suffer from post-natal depression when the medical profession give the impression that if you don’t do everything right, you’re a bad parent? Or more usually, a bad mother, as frequently they seem to be assumed to be the one responsible for looking after the child…

Giving Dads equal responsibilities — and rights — when it comes to children is an integral part of this whole ‘sexual equality’ thing that we’re supposed to be in favour of. In an age of sexual equality, that ought to mean doing half the work, and in the case of divorces, having an equal chance of custody.

Instead, what we normally get is (if you’re more old-fashioned, read ‘mother’ instead of ‘parent’):

  • If you bottle-feed, you’re a bad parent.
  • If your child goes to the wrong school, you’re a bad parent.
  • If your child doesn’t get to play outside enough, you’re a bad parent.
  • If your child gets too much sun, you’re a bad parent.
  • If you don’t spend enough time with your child, you’re a bad parent.
  • If your child doesn’t get it’s vaccinations, you’re a bad parent.
  • If you allow your child to do unsafe things, you’re a bad parent.
  • If you mollycoddle your child too much, you’re a bad parent.
  • If you listen to the wrong advice, you’re a bad parent

Is it any wonder so many parents wander around with a vague feeling of guilt and inadequacy?

If you’re not in the UK, you may not be aware of the “MMR” scare. MMR is a vaccine for Measles, Mumps and Rubella (hence the name) given to children at about thirteen months old in the UK. About four to five years ago, there was a study — widely and typically sensationally reported in the media — suggesting that there was a link between the vaccine and autism: that the vaccine might somehow trigger children into being autistic.

This is just about the most typical situation a parent will find themselves in. If you don’t give them the vaccine, you’re not protecting them from potentially life-threatening diseases. If you do give them the vaccine, you might muck up their life by giving them autism. You’re the parent, it’s your call: which risks do you want to take with your child’s life?

Seemingly, there’s no ‘safe’ option. Juggle the risks and roll the dice.

We decided to vaccinate our children: a number of scientists had dismissed the study, medical advice was still suggesting to have the vaccine, and I judged the risk of autism smaller than the risk of measles, mumps or rubella, and my wife agreed. I’ve got to say, “playing the odds” with the lives of my children wasn’t particularly pleasant, but I couldn’t think of a better way to do it.

Even though I agreed with the early study being dismissed, that didn’t stop me worrying about it. Okay, I’m fairly confident I’m right, but confident enough to bet my child’s future on it?

Fortunately, after we’d made the decision — indeed, the day after our eldest child had had the injection — there was a documentary about the vaccine which seemed to discredit the initial study, seeming to imply that the person behind the initial study had a vested interest in coming up with those particular results, and implying that he was now somewhat of a snake oil salesman of the medical world.

I’ve not studied the report in detail, and I’m not a doctor, but it did ease my fears significantly, and left me feeling more confident that we’d made the right decision in vaccination.

But that’s what it’s like all the time as a parent. You’re constantly having to make judgement calls that will have a major impact on the lives of your children. Some you’ll get right; some you’ll get wrong. Being a parent is a bloody hard job.

And I’ve had just about enough of people implying parents are being stupid or making wrong decisions, or that they should do this, or that, or the other. We know it’s an important job; we already take it seriously, and we don’t want — or need — another lecture about it?

Publish the advice: that’s fine. But don’t put down or demonise parents who for some reason don’t sign up to every part of that advice. They might be wrong, but chances are they’re trying their best.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Comments to Stop Demonising Mothers

  1. mark fairlamb says:

    August 10th, 2007 at 11:02 am

    we wish we’d had ours earlier – we both had more energy back in the day.
    i’ve heard the only link between mmr and autism is that you can only diagnose autism around the time of your child’s development that they get the vaccine – so it’s obviously the vaccine’s fault!
    our 2 had / have formula milk and a couple of well-developed little bruisers.
    do you not find that a lot of people that give medical advice about bringing up kids don’t have kids of their own?

  2. aka R'acquel says:

    March 12th, 2008 at 2:33 am

    My kid had autism at birth (if not in utero already).

    Great post & vent.

    My favourite parts of this post was,

    “What it is is a new parent thing” though in our case, and in the lives of other’s i know – it’s more like 8-11 months on average when kids only just start to *begin* sleeping through.

    Loved the “Do The Right Thing” being turned into a bloody trademark. Spot on.

    Like, quit demonising and try offering some bloody assistance instead (if you think you can do it better than the so-called “Bad Parent” that is…)?!

  3. Gita Madhu says:

    May 4th, 2011 at 5:25 am

    I came to this page by doing a google search for demonising mothers. I’m no longer a young mom although I’m so thankful for what you’ve written as I do remember those days. While I was not a single mom I was as good as one as my husband had to run around as a freelance journalist to keep us provided.
    Even before I became a mom, I was exposed to the strains of demonising mom psychology and my poor late mom ate the bitter fruit of this harvest quite often in her later years.
    I am now seeing myself as a demon in my 26 year old son’s eyes quite often and often wonder how much the serials he watches help with this.
    And I’m not alone-a good number of my women friends face this.
    Strangely I’m unable to find studies on this

  4. Lois says:

    September 2nd, 2012 at 2:35 am

    Yo, good lokion out! Gonna make it work now.

  5. hkhfeqfmkmp says:

    September 5th, 2012 at 2:14 am

    Tiryb0 , [url=]fcynwvjyhnuf[/url], [link=]xvocowvpqvre[/link],

Leave a comment