The typical view of motherhood is that it is pure joy. From the moment, you are pregnant, you are supposed to bask in the glory of your upcoming, and most significant (we are told) role in life: being a mother. The moment the baby is born, you are supposed to feel an uncontrollable, natural surge of unconditional love. The moment the baby is born, you are supposed to retreat as an individual and be entirely consumed with the baby’s needs, forgetting yourself, your needs, desires, and aspirations. You are supposed to no longer claim space in our society as someone who matters in her own right. You are supposed to have few needs of your own and be happy to sacrifice them at the altar of your child. You are supposed to do it all with a smile on your face.
From early childhood, we (men and women alike), as members of a society, are exposed to the idea that motherhood is a woman’s calling, the ultimate achievement and fulfilment. Alongside, we are exposed to the idea that motherhood is a purely joyful and positive experience. We are told that motherhood is the indispensable condition that women need to meet in order to express their true nature. Being sterile is, to this day, still depicted as a woman’s worst fate, a flaw that will reflect in her personality.
Motherhood is depicted as an easy, natural, instinctive and happy experience. The stereotype of the happy, fulfilled mother is ingrained in us from early childhood. Because of this, motherhood is also depicted as a generic experience, the same for all women. This is the only model to which women are expected to aspire.
The purpose of a society is to reproduce itself. It does this through roles, norms, standards and expectations and through consequences and punishment for breaching the rules. Depicting motherhood as a happy, positive, natural and instinctive experience is one way in which society maintains and reproduces itself. This view ofmotherhood strips the whole experience of women’s actual experiences. It deprives us of the opportunity to experience childbirth and motherhood as a personal and subjective experience. Indeed, allowing motherhood to be depicted a very personal and subjective experience (which involves the possibility that many women’s reality may differ from the presented norm) opens the door to women being able to begin to tear down the stereotype of the happy, fulfilled mother upon which the reproduction of society is based.
The depiction of happy, easy motherhood represents an attempt to deprive a mother of her individual voice, of the opportunity to express her divergent views or experience of motherhood. If she dares contradict the accepted view, she will be the one depicted as flawed and inadequate and labelled a bad mother or a depressed one. There is no room left for her struggles to be seen as a normal part of motherhood.
The dominant discourse about women’s biological ability to carry babies and feed them is extrapolated and projected onto, and confused with, another area of maternal experience: child rearing, mothering and children’s education.
Whilst women’s biological ability to have children is a fact, that they should be entirely responsible for the care, upbringing and education of the children is not. Womanhood is not synonymous with motherhood and motherhood is not synonymous with childcare responsibilities. Yet, our society still views these activities as women’s work. Rather, the social and cultural, not biological, expectation that women will assume childcare and mothering responsibilities is part of the ways in which a moral, social and cultural drive for social control and order is expressed and maintained.
Despite the progress made by the feminist movement of the 1960s, the representation of motherhood remains a dichotomous one: the good mother vs the bad mother. It is a black and white picture that does not permit shades of grey within which women can place their personal, subjective and divergent experiences of motherhood. Mothers have been forced to pick one of two sides. Those who side with the good mother ideology are forced to adhere almost unconditionally to social and cultural stereotypes and to over-identify with social representations of the pre-established maternal role described above. This, in turn, requires them to mother in an impersonal way, following the rules, behaviours and standards that fit the image of the good mother. Social media is full of these polished and sanitised images of motherhood. There is no room for finding your own way in this model.
One of the behaviours associated with the ideal mother model is the suppression of the expression of any dissatisfaction with motherhood. In other words, she actively keeps silent about her struggles and internalises them as a personal failure.
What does this have to do with mental health and wellbeing?
Mothers simply cannot avoid the contradiction of the myths of motherhood. If motherhood is portrayed as the fulfilment of female nature (‘how I should be as a mother’) rather than a period of identity shift/crisis (how do I feel about this new situation for which I did not prepare, what does it all mean for me and how do I find my own way through this’), women will internalise any struggle with it as a sign of personal deficiency and incompetence and feel inadequate, incapable, unworthy and like failures.
Some of the consequences and punishments used to short-circuit expressions of dissonant motherhood include judgement and harsh criticism, attempt at censorship and self-silencing. Those who dare express a divergent view are shut down, criticised and judged for their choices, as many mothers find on social media. In this context, mothers will most likely choose to remain silent (self-silence) and struggle alone with feelings of frustration, anxiety, guilt, self-doubt, resentment, and anger. Sustained internalised struggles fester and can lead to isolation, depression and potentially trauma.
Dr Fabienne Therapy Coaching Training acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which we live, work and play, the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin nation. We recognise their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities and we pay our respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.