The myth of mummy failure

"No matter what your baby does, it has nothing to do with you being a ‘failure'" ... Pinky McKay
"No matter what your baby does, it has nothing to do with you being a ‘failure'" ... Pinky McKay 

“I feel like such a failure.”

I hear this every single day from mothers. The saddest thing is that every time I hear these words, the mother is doing a wonderful job: she is intelligent and responsive with a beautiful connection to her baby. Her baby is proof that she can’t be a failure – alert, animated and engaging. So why is her confidence so shot to pieces?

There’s a range of reasons for new mums sliding down the slippery slope of self-doubt, from struggling against popular advice that doesn’t feel right, to being blamed for having a baby who doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter template of normal – that is, ‘normal’ according to what book she’s read, who’s advising her or what everyone else’s babies are doing … or at least what they say their babies are doing.

There’s a conspiracy of silence that isolates mothers, and because they don’t want to face criticism they perpetuate the very conspiracy that divides and holds them hostage. I experienced this in the past few weeks when I did home visits to three mothers who lived within a block of each other. Each of these mums felt as though they must be doing ‘everything wrong’ because their babies weren’t in routines, sleeping ‘all night’ or feeding well. Their babies were similar ages and they attended the same baby health centre, so there was a very good chance the women were in the same mothers’ group. Because of client confidentiality I couldn’t ask the women if they knew each other, but when I asked each one if they’d discussed it with their mums' groups they all replied, “Oh no, I can’t – everyone else has it so together.”

Another time, when I asked a group of mums how their babies slept, then asked for their individual definitions of sleeping all night, those who said their babies slept all night and those who said their babies didn’t weren’t all that different. The mums who said their babies slept from 7pm til 7am (incidentally, in infant sleep studies, ‘all night’ is defined as five hours) actually did things like giving a dream feed, popped the dummy in a few times or patted their babies to resettle. One mum co-slept and breastfed during the night, but because her baby didn’t actually wake fully and her feet didn’t hit the floor, she was happy enough that she and her baby slept ‘all night’. On the other hand, mums who did these same things considered that because they had to attend to their babies overnight, they hadn’t slept ‘all night’. In fact, out of eight mums, only one baby actually slept ‘all night’ without needing anything. Interestingly, this mother contacted me when she had her second baby because he was a classic high-needs baby who had shattered her self-image as competent mum.

When asked if they’d discussed their problems with their mums' groups they all replied, 'Oh no, I can’t – everyone else has it so together'

But no matter what your baby does, it has nothing to do with you being a ‘failure’; nor have you caused difficult behaviour or bad habits through ‘accidental parenting’ (whatever that may be). Some babies are extra sensitive and find too much stimulation overwhelming, especially in the early weeks; others are sensitive to foods (if you’re breastfeeding, you may find that some changes to your diet can alleviate your baby’s discomfort). Some babies are what I call ‘high interest’ babies, who are alert and find it more difficult to ‘switch off’ to get to sleep; others simply don’t need as much sleep as the charts say (remember that any chart shows ‘averages’, so there’ll always be babies either side of average).

Then, of course, things can always go pear-shaped as your baby reaches milestones – and it can happen no matter how consistent you are, because the way your baby experiences the world is changing.

The truth is that some babies are ‘easier’ than others, some mums have better support networks, and some mums have more honest friends – friends who admit that being a mum can be a tough gig, that babies don’t fit conveniently into their organised lives, and that they too feel ‘out of control’,  at least on some days.

So if you ever feel like a failure, sit for a moment and gaze at your unique child. Nuzzle her soft downy head and breathe in her sweet baby smell. Accept that if things are tough right now it’s not your fault, and that it’s okay to reach out for help. Know that you can’t have a baby this beautiful, this bright and this lovely unless you’re doing a damn good job. You are a great mother!

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