By Karly Stilling
Am I doing enough?
This question haunts me as a new mother. Is my baby getting enough stimulation? Too much stimulation?
Enough sleep? Too much sleep?
Enough milk? Too much milk?
My life revolves around these questions. I sit on my couch while my baby naps, scrolling through an Instagram feed full of baby nutritionists and physical therapists, a Facebook feed of cloth diapering groups and breastfeeding support.
The amount of information and advice is staggering. I follow sleep experts and movement specialists. I belong to a Facebook group for mums who are exclusively pumping, and several for mums who are exclusively breastfeeding. I belong to a natural sleep (i.e. cosleeping) group and a safe sleep (i.e. anti-cosleeping) group. My phone’s camera roll is a wasteland of screenshots of advice and infographics (plus approximately 80 million pictures of my daughter, of course). All in search of the answer to that question—am I doing enough?
Motherhood is hard, especially the early days. Everyone knows it, it’s part of our cultural language. Becoming a ‘new parent,’ I was told over and over, is the hardest and most rewarding thing I’d ever do.
But these conversations are muddied by the glorified images of motherhood that inundate my life as a new mother—candy-coloured feeds of mums who have shiny hair and Pinterest-worthy homes, who somehow have time to populate carefully curated social media feeds with photos of their impeccably dressed infants immersed in thoughtful play.
No surprise there, really, since motherhood is an extension of the female body and the female body has long been grounds for objectification and critique, much of it coming from other women. In the case of motherhood, it comes almost exclusively from other mums.
It’s hard not to see these images and wince at the disparity between them and my own life as a mother: covered in spit up and breast milk, perpetually surrounded by piles of laundry in various stages of the washing process, and snapping at my partner for the smallest thing.
I knew motherhood would be hard. But nothing prepared me for the weight of complete responsibility for the health and happiness of another human. For the anxiety of worrying that the tiniest thing might damage my child for life. That I might not nurture her development enough, that I might say or do something—or not say or do something—that would be damaging to her growth.
And the other thing I didn’t realise until a few months in is that there are a million right and wrong ways to do any one thing.
Breast is best / fed is best.
Sleep training will harm your child / not learning to self soothe will harm your child.
You’re spoiling your baby / newborns can’t be spoiled.
Babies cry because they need something / sometimes babies cry for no reason.
No wonder it feels impossible to figure out the right thing to do. No wonder I spend so much time worrying.
When I find something that works, it’s easy to become sanctimonious about it. Have you tried this? I ask my new mum friends. We’re doing this, and it really works. I can’t help myself. Everyone thinks their way is best.
And of course we do—we’re all trying to do the best for our children, and if we didn’t think the way we were doing things was the right way then we wouldn’t be doing it.
The idea of there being one right way to do things as a mother—a ‘perfect’ way to mother—has long been held up in front of women of child-bearing age, but it hasn’t always existed. At its core, the perfect mother ideal is a luxury: it requires enough socio-economic security to worry about something beyond simple survival. Go back to the Middle Ages, and I doubt you’d find peasants worrying about balancing a nap schedule around outings to the market and sensory play. In many parts of the world, children are part of the fabric of a household. Babies are worn on the back or the hip and go where the mother goes, or they’re left in the care of close relatives who live either in the home or close by.
In the Western nuclear family unit, rarely do extended family groups live in such close proximity. Mothers work more outside of the home, and children are more often entrusted into the care of childminders and daycares out of necessity. That means that the pressure on mothers to both work and fulfill the role of primary caregiver is immense.
I could write a whole other article on how the structure of paternal and maternal leave within various Western societies creates a bedrock of inequality that cannot be overcome until fathers and mothers are expected to take equal part in both child rearing and earning income (and I might). But the basic outcome is this: from birth, mothers perform the role of primary caregiver—and this continues once they return to work.
“The dilemma of mothering and the contemporary workplace…. is the tension between being treated equally as gender neutral and being recognized as having particular skills.”Sarah Knott
Mothers bear the brunt of this arrangement, whether we want to or not. By default, we are the ones who become responsible for the day-to-day decisions that make up a childhood: what to eat and when, how to approach sleep, how to dress, how to play, which activities to join.
Add to that pressure the ever-changing advice on child rearing. What now seems ridiculous was common advice 50 years ago. What our parents did isn’t the way things are done anymore. Take the list below, given to mothers in a North Carolina hospital in the 1960s—it includes advice such as allowing baby to nurse for only five minutes on the first day, and being considerate enough not to smoke while baby is in the room.
With ever-changing advice and opinions on how to raise a healthy child, how can mothers know what’s right?
Is there even a ‘right’ way?
There’s one saying I heard a lot while I was pregnant that I don’t think I really understood until a few months into motherhood: you are the best parent for your child. My analytical side says, maybe but also maybe not? There are lots of terrible parents out there, and believing that I am the best parent for my daughter requires a kind of faith in fate that I don’t possess. But there’s something to it, an understanding that’s growing in me.
In truth, I’m only beginning to untangle the ways that motherhood makes me feel inadequate. But I’m also only starting to discover the knowing that comes when I pick my daughter up and she beams in delight as she reaches down to touch my face: that I can do anything. That, in her eyes at least, I am her perfect mother.
So I will make mistakes, I will inevitably damage my child in some unavoidable way. But no one will love her better than I do.