An article in last Friday’s Daily Mail made for interesting reading: according to a recent survey by a baby products company, the average time that it takes for new mothers to get on top of the changes that have occurred in their lives is – on average – four months and 23 days. Up to this point, life can be a bit of blur – a mixture of sleep deprivation and of worry about the baby. After this point, various ‘watershed moments’ seem to happen which reassure a mother that all is on track and she is doing not badly really:
Of course, a report like this comes with various caveats, most notably the fact that statistics are dangerous. To begin with, statistics on previous performance are not necessarily a guide to future performance. ‘Mastering motherhood’ is not something that happens simply by waiting around for a magical date – that 4 months, 23 days – to arrive; motherhood comes with a lot of hard work, unconditional love, and help. Statistics that identify ‘averages’ are particularly dangerous: for those who beat the date, there can be an unrealistic sense of euphoria; for those who miss it, there can be an unreasonable sense of failure. Motherhood is not a competition, and yet so many elements of our society seem to encourage us to think of it as such, to the inevitable detriment of the mothers themselves.
Above all, though, motherhood is arguably not something that you can and should ‘master’ (do notice the androcentric language used in this phrase, if nothing else!). Motherhood is a biological, emotional, social, cognitive state of being and of action. It is necessary for the survival of the human race, and it is a hugely important role that many women are able to be, just as many men are able to be fathers, giving both them and their children a deep and fulfilling dimension to their lives. Motherhood is also a process, for life, not a stage to be completed and left behind. Mothers are incredibly important people in our world; we should value them in their roles throughout their lives – we should honour and encourage them, and we should support them.
And this is what really came through for me in the survey reported in the Daily Mail – the sense of loneliness and lack of support for new mothers. 20% of the mothers surveyed said that they didn’t talk to anyone about their fears because they did not want to be thought of as a failure (the curse of our competitive parenting culture striking again), and the result of this was that they must have felt lonelier and more isolated in the very days when they needed most help. 60% felt for a time that they weren’t capable of being a mother. Imagine the loneliness and feelings bordering on despair that will have descended at those times.
Women have been having babies for millennia. As a human race, we know a huge amount about having babies; more so now than ever before, with advances in technology, psychology and medicine, to name but a few. Mothers today should feel empowered, supported and surrounded by understanding. That they don’t is a failing in our society. It is society that is preventing mothers from feeling supported and cared for: a lack of extended families with wise women who have gone before, a cut-throat ‘winner takes all’ culture, and – although I hesitate to say it – a residual, often subconscious, but very real sense that motherhood keeps women in a socially inferior place.
So – plenty to do, still. And we can start by ignoring surveys that tell us how long it takes to “master motherhood”.