The motherhood myths that do women no favours

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

"She's crying, I'd better give her back to her mum."

So said a friend who held my newborn baby, as she dutifully placed the precious bundle into my arms.

I gazed at my little one with what may have looked like bliss or adoration, but was actually terror. How on earth was I meant to know what to do with a crying baby? I ran through a list of possibilities – feed her? cuddle her? get her to sleep? – and decided to go with a cuddle. She stopped crying. Phew.

"How's it all going?" my friend continued our conversation in the newly quiet hospital room.

I looked at her nervously, about to confess something big. Something horrific. Big breath. "I have no idea what I'm doing," I whispered, almost expecting an emergency alarm to go off at those words, followed by a horde of nurses rushing in to abruptly take the baby from me.

"I'm just making it up as I go."

But instead of being shocked and horrified, my friend – already a mum of two – laughed.

"That's what being a mum is," she said. "That's what we're all doing."

Well, blow me down. I'd honestly thought that every woman who delivered a child also gave birth to a newfound knowledge in child raising, a motherly instinct that knows the right thing to do and has the answer to every question.

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Perhaps I can be forgiven for naively believing this. After all, I cottoned on to the truth quickly after having my baby, before I could even sit down without an ice pack underneath my bits.

Many fathers, though, don't seem to have had a similar epiphany.

In a recent column in The Times UK writer Robert Crampton marvelled about the lists his wife leaves him, and how life would be utter chaos if men weren't treated like – let's be frank – children.

This, however, is a topic for another day.

It's this passage that caught my eye: "I'm sorry if this sounds — and indeed is — sexist, but most women seem instinctively to know more than most men about how best to bring up children. Most of us recognise this."

It's a really common myth: that mums know what they're doing, while dads are fumbling through.

A lot of the friends I made when my baby was born, other mums of newborns, were classic examples of the effect this myth has. Many of these women were solely responsible for their babies, despite being married or in long-term relationships with men. That's a hell of a load to take on.

A few of the new dads simply said (loudly, I might add, without any hint of embarrassment), "I don't know what to do, so I leave it to my wife. I'll step in to the parenting thing when the kid's older."

It's an attitude I've come across time and time again.

To me, it's simply an excuse for laziness. Harsh? Maybe. But in my household, there are two parents who need to step up at every point of our children's lives. Neither of us can pick and choose which parts of parenting we take on.

I mean, can you imagine a mother saying she's going to skip this stage of her child's life and step back in later? Me either.

And the reason she won't say that isn't because any woman knows what she's doing in motherhood. Far from it.

Every mother I've come across admits to making it all up as she goes along, because she has to.

Whether she has a baby, a toddler, a tween or teen, she needs to keep that kid alive and as looked after and healthy as she can. It's as simple – and as terrifyingly complicated – as that.

And men are capable – yes, they are – of doing the very same.

It's not about instinct or skill, it's about changing the disgusting nappy, cuddling an inconsolable child in the middle of the night, turning on the sixth load of washing that week, listening to your kid sound out each letter in the word 'cat' as they learn to read. Just being there. Building a relationship.

That stuff doesn't come down to gender, it comes down to effort.

Believing otherwise is simply an excuse for letting women take on the lion's share of the domestic work.