Is it just me, or are mothers treated like schoolgirls?
As a mother, I have remembered what it felt like to be a child – my indignance about being told what to do all the time, the lack of freedom, the enforced blind obedience to authority, feeling patronised, insignificant, powerless and small. I even hated being called a ‘kid’ – I found it dismissive (just like I now feel when I am called ‘Mum’ by someone who doesn’t know my name). The reason why I remember this now? Because motherhood is the first time since I was a schoolgirl that I have been made to feel this small.
It starts in hospital with midwives who treat highly educated, professional, independent and successful women as if they are three years old. ‘Please can I have an extra blanket?’ you ask, freezing cold the night after giving birth. ‘Why?’ matron tuts disapprovingly. ‘Oh if you must – go to the cupboard over there and get yourself one.’ Or you ask where the kettle is so you can make a hot water bottle to soothe your aching back, and are told not to be so silly, of course that’s not allowed; it would be a danger to the baby. When I insisted my waters had broken, the midwife said to me ‘Are you sure you haven’t just wet yourself?’ I wanted to scream, I am 32, not four! But because I was a terrified new mother, freaking out to find herself in hospital and in premature labour, I just begged her for help. Then you go home where you’re all too likely to be bullied some more by some cow of a health visitor who has too many self-important opinions and too little understanding (if I sound angry, it’s because I am).
One way in which I believe mothers are being treated like – or treat themselves like – schoolgirls is in the conformist pack mentality. Little girls want to fit in, to be like one another, not to be left out. In your twenties and thirties, women get to explore much more freedom to be ‘themselves’ – but as soon as we become mothers, we feel a pressure to be just like the other females. To be as good a mother as everyone else is. In this we are sadly often blind to our own unique ability as a mother. Mothers watch one another covertly, making sure they are not being outperformed by another mother; making sure they do what the other mothers are doing. One mother puts her baby’s hat on; everyone else follows. Everyone wants to learn the same baby songs. Everyone (everyone who’s anyone, darling) has the same brand or two of pushchair.
Why do mothers so often display an unthinking, sheep like obedience? Is it because we are so insecure and afraid of not measuring up to everyone else? I hesitate to say this, but I believe many new mothers (including myself) are too easily influenced and, more specifically, guilt-tripped, into buying certain products and performing certain hugely laborious and tedious tasks. Tsk! Tsk! emanates from expensive packaging. ‘70% of mothers have one of our products and we’re endorsed by the FSID’ – oh dear, the mother worries, why didn’t I buy one of these insanely expensive things if everyone else has one?
There are many irritating things about motherhood which I suspect men, were they doing the mothering role, would never put up with. Take cleaning, for instance. If men were mothers, I have no doubt they would say hang the environment right now, let’s just have disposable single use sterile products such as breast shields and bottles for expressing or milk storage, to save us all this bloody washing up and drying and sterilising. You can get disposable everything else from razors to sandwich bags, but mothers still have to clean and clean and clean because disposable things are not made available to them. Most mothers probably don’t realise disposable expressing kits even exist, but from my time in the neonatal units, I know full well that they do – hospitals are allowed to buy huge boxes of dozens and dozens of them, and they don’t cost that much. It’s just that we, the public, are not allowed to buy them (believe me, I have looked into it, and found they don’t sell to the public – ‘you’re far from the first mother to contact us to ask about this,’ one company told me).
There is something of the martyr in motherhood that makes women feel guilty if they admit they would really rather not spend precious hours of the day (and the middle of the night) repeatedly doing dull menial tasks such as cleaning breastpumps, then carefully airdrying them to ensure they are ready for the next expressing session. And there is something of the bossy matron in the companies which peddle these cleaning products to mothers – Tommee Tippee, for instance (God that brand name annoys me), with its many fussy little rules on how to fill a steriliser with exactly Xmls of water (no more, no less). Or Medela (I hate them too!) and Nuk, who stress that various products are not meant to be put in the dishwasher (oh no! That would make it much too easy and convenient. The mother MUST scrub things with a special brush, no less. Well, Medela and Nuk, I put your products in the dishwasher and they are JUST FINE!) And in the very language of it all – flanges and nipple correctors and all that finger-wagging stuff. We are clearly supposed to be cheerfully, industriously chained to the kitchen sink, still. It was when I found myself sterilising the steriliser that I realised it had gone too far, I had become too obedient. I decided to listen to what the many doctors in the neonatal units had told us and give up sterilising altogether, as it is out of date advice that it is necessary. In fact sterilisers breed bacteria.
And woe betide the mother who admits to buying commercial baby purees, or bottlefeeding, or allowing her baby something containing sugar, or planning to send her child to nursery so she can go back to work (‘Ah, the poor little thing!’ some interfering woman she barely knows is bound to react). The mother who breaks the rules is like the naughty girl at school: an outcast with her peers; in disgrace with her teachers.
And don’t get me started on the school rules of motherhood. Yes, routines are good when they work, but as our favourite Welsh valleys neonatal nurse L always said: ‘Ev-er-y baby is an in-div-id-u-al.’ Yet the likes of Gina Ford and the authors of What to Expect When You’re Expecting not only try to dictate to mothers a rigid timetable for the baby/pregnancy, but for the mother herself – when the mother should eat breakfast, the exact half an hour when she is allowed to take some time for herself. Baby MUST be changed and ready for the day by 7am and no later!!! Pregnant women must pay immense attention to eating a super healthy diet and exercising!!! One wonders what the Gina Ford-ites would say if confronted with a mother who (like me) eats sausage sandwiches and doesn’t want to live her life by a school-like timetable because she is capable of making her own decisions and loves freedom and knows deep within her what is right for her baby.