Being a mum is a competitive business.
Firstly, there’s the material decisions – what to buy, from where, and what it says about you. There will always be a newer version of a car seat, a more expensive pushchair, or more beautiful or exclusive baby clothing that you just haven’t got.
Then there are the strange comparisons made between children. “I can’t believe how big/small/noisy/quiet/clingy/confident your child is.” “What age did he start walking? Mine was walking independently at 6 months.” “How many words can he say? My 1 year old has a vocabulary of 250 words, and can count to 10. In 15 different languages,”.
And finally there is the strangest competition of them all. The contest to prove who is suffering most as a mum.
After attending a few baby groups and mummy meetings you start to recognise this beginning of a passive aggressive showdown. In the early days of motherhood you might be tempted to enter the ring, but as you focus less on your own misery and begin to look at the world as a functioning human being again, you try to avoid these conversations at all cost, because you know there are no winners.
They always begin the same way. Discussions about birthing experiences. Someone soldiered through with only gas and air. That’s nothing; someone else only got one paracetamol to help her manage through birth and getting her stitches. Then a trump card is played – someone only just made it to the hospital, they laboured in the back of a taxi because they couldn’t get hold of their partner, they forgot the batteries for their tens machine and to add insult to injury they stubbed their toe when picking up heir hospital bag. You can see where I’m going with this.
But these badges of honour don’t just get awarded for physical endurance and suffering. Every miserable detail of pregnancy, labour, birth and baby-related traumas are fair game to be shared out over coffee and exchanged in return for sympathetic looks and hugs.
Now don’t get me wrong, after only just surviving the past year with Baby R, and at times desperate for some recognition, I am as guilty of the next mum for sharing my horrors and seeking comfort from the sympathy of strangers. I would go so far as to say that I think it is healthy and therapeutic to talk through these experiences with other mums, and that engaging in these discussions can make it easier to let go of some of the pain.
But there are some mums I have met who are unwilling to act to make changes to their lifestyles which might alleviate some of their suffering. An example of this is a mum I know who is still getting up to sooth and feed her 18 month old baby 5-10 times per night, despite working full-time. She has the support of a partner, extended family and friends, as well as professional resources at her disposal; and yet she is unwilling to actually do anything to improve her family’s sleep situation. She is addicted to the sympathy elicited from her peers, the reward for her ongoing misery.
As much as I despair every time I meet this mum, the sadness I feel for her runs deep. It frustrates me to have the same conversation with her over and over again, for her to tell me how exhausted she is and that she is broken and that she would do anything for some rest. I remember that feeling – Baby R has only been sleeping reliably for 2 months so it was not that long ago that I was not coping myself – but I also remember making the decision to end the misery and work towards trying to improve my life. Unlike this other mum, I acted on good advice and tried different things. I did more and talked less, looked for the improvements and not the setbacks, and slowly happiness not desperation became my everyday reality.
One of the unifying truths of motherhood is that it is hard. It is hard in ways you don’t know and simply cannot appreciate before having children. And it is lonely, and it hurts, and your body hurts. We all know this, we have all experienced this to some level, and we all find a way through it. No one should feel like they have to deliberately extend their suffering for attention or to justify themselves, to feel like a good mum or a proper mum.
All our experiences of motherhood are different. For some, the pain begins and ends in the delivery suite, but for others it endures and starts to define many aspects of their lives and themselves. Everyone thinks they want to participate in mummy misery top trumps, but there is no real glory in winning the competition for the most unhappy mum or the mum who worries the most. We need to remember this – I need to remember this -and we need to remember to be as kind as we can be to one another.