“I had three kids and I coped!”
I meet many new mums who are afraid to ask their own mums for help, knowing that the unspoken end of this sentence will be some variation on “... so why can’t you?”
I feel sad when I see these mums, struggling to recover from giving birth and come to terms with the incessant demands of caring for a newborn, often experiencing symptoms of anxiety or postnatal depression as well. However, because of throw-away lines from their mums about how they managed ‘in my day', these overwhelmed women are too anxious to ask their own mothers for help because they fear they will be judged or criticised.
Lexie, mother of Ella, now six months old, says, “I felt so fragile that I couldn't let go of my mother’s comments. There is such stigma about coping that I really wondered if I was a bad mother or if there was something wrong with me because I was so stressed.”
It isn't only brand new mums who can feel discouraged by their own mums’ seemingly unsupportive behaviour. Dina, mum of a toddler, recently complained to me about her mother who was visiting. Dina said, “My mum only gets to see her grandson a few days each year but the whole time she is here she has a broom or a duster in her hand, and every time Jack says 'Nana' her response to him is 'Not now, Jack, I’m busy.' Then she tells me he is ‘spoilt’ because I give him too much attention.”
Dina describes her mum as a typical 1960s housewife, with expectations that a ‘good’ mother will have a clean house and well-behaved (as in, seen and not heard) children. She admits that her own parenting is in stark contrast – children’s toys scattered about, spontaneous, child-centred activities, mud and sand play and allowing her toddler to ‘help’ when she does housework.
I explained to Dina that her mum is probably doing her best to help in the only way she knows – by tidying up. Also, it may help to appreciate just how much parenting styles have changed since the early seventies when Dinah was a baby, when mothers were told that too much attention would spoil little ones. For instance, one of the few books available to mothers at this time, Baby and Childcare by Benjamin Spock, advises: “Make out a schedule for yourself, that requires you to be busy with housework or anything else for most of the time baby is awake. Go at it with great bustle – to impress baby and to impress yourself. When he frets and raises his arms, explain to him in a friendly but very firm tone that this job and that job must get done by this afternoon.” With advice such as this (and Spock was considered permissive!) is it any wonder that your mother might not understand your seemingly ‘child centred’ approach, or why you don’t prioritise things like housework, laundry and having a delicious dinner (complete with dessert) on the table when your hardworking hubby walks in the door?
Of course, your own mother is your primary role model, so she is a powerful influence. However, instead of allowing her voice to ring in your head (“tidy house, tidy mind!”) and detract from your experience of being the mother you want to be, you could try asking yourself, ‘what do I like about my own mother, and what do I want to do differently?’ Then make your own choices. This can be liberating for you and your mum.
As Dina says, “Now I realise that I don’t have to measure up to my mum’s expectations of a good mother by having a spotless house, and I don’t expect her to be a singing, dancing Nana. It has taken the pressure off and we seem to be getting on without the unspoken friction between us.”
Pinky McKay is the author of 4 books published by Penguin: Parenting By Heart, Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 ways to Calm the Crying and Toddler Tactics. She offers an online Mummy Mentor program that includes a structured information series, an archive of recorded interviews with professionals and researchers in child development and women’s health, as well as monthly Q and A calls for members. Check it out at www.parentingbyheart.com.au.