Despite what TV shows display, there is no universal experience
In the television sitcom Motherland, it’s a mum-eat-mum world. Main character Julia, who works in PR, is seen speeding along a road to deliver her two children to school, hitting speed bump after speed bump before they arrive at the main gates.
Running towards the classroom, they are stopped by a teacher who asks Julia whether she’s forgotten it is half term. Later, the hassled mum has a fraught exchange with her own mother, who has recently decided to take a step back from taking care of her grandchildren in favour of having a second to herself — the nerve! As Julia fields calls from her boss asking her to step up her performance at work, you get the impression it’s all just seconds from falling apart.
It is familiar territory for television writers who make entertaining comedy poking fun at the fraught lifestyles parents lead as they try to juggle the demands of parenthood and life in the 21st century — childcare, heavy workloads and complicated friendships. It speaks to the experience of many. Just a few examples that spring to mind are Catastrophe, The Letdown and Breeders, where a couple struggle with their own baggage every parent inevitably carries and is present in their relationship with their child after they decide to procreate.
There’s a necessary lie that all people must tell themselves when they decide — or find themselves — embarking on parenthood. “That won’t be us,” they say, settling down to enjoy one of these sitcoms as an exaggerated introduction to life with children. But years of relishing the misfortunes of characters on TV takes its toll, and eventually it is natural to wonder if this is what it’s really like and if so, why or how does anyone do it at all?
This negative messaging is further compounded as soon as you feel comfortable sharing the news of your impending new arrival with friends and family. “Enjoy your free time now,” one friend advises with the best of intentions, while another cautions: “You won’t sleep a wink for years after the baby is born.”
Ultrasound clutched in hand, the joy and excitement felt during that 12-week milestone scan soon fades into the background. The warnings of others take precedence as jaded parents repeat the words said to them when they first told others they were expecting a baby. That’s without even mentioning the horror stories told to women about the process of giving birth.
It would almost make you long for the days when no one was allowed to speak ill of parenting. In the past, there was an expectation of total bliss and perfection once baby arrived, and woe betide any “bad mother” who suggested otherwise. But that wasn’t right either because it crushed women in particular, with fathers often portrayed as clueless onlookers without much of a stake in the entire process. Rightly so, years of work have gone into banishing this expectation of total happiness after your baby is born. But the danger now is that parenthood is being portrayed solely as a nightmare without any mention of the reasons why someone decides to become one in the first place.
That’s why it was so refreshing when presenter Laura Whitmore shared a post on Instagram last year after welcoming her baby. “I’ve been told I won’t be able to leave the house and should feel s***. But I actually feel the best I’ve felt ever and the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life. And maybe feel a bit guilty for feeling good as I’ve been told I shouldn’t. But I’ve created something incredible,” she said.
As is often the case, she faced criticism for her views as fellow parents flocked to the comments section of her Instagram page, condemning the first-time parent for making other parents who weren’t having a good time feel like they “weren’t normal”. In fairness, Ms Whitmore wrote one short Instagram caption, obviously without the nuance those who seek to cancel others would seek in the online world.
But looking back at that post now, as an expectant mother it does reassure me that a wide range of experiences are possible post-birth and that along with the challenging days, you can have others that are immensely happy. It certainly isn’t the case that talking about good experiences diminishes or negates the experience of those who don’t feel the same.
This dichotomy is just a continuation of the expectation that women are in constant competition and like we’re expected to do in most areas, constantly compare and contrast our experience with that of others — even when it comes to something as personal as your experience of parenthood and all that goes with it.
Dreading motherhood does none of us any favours. It’s natural to look at how others are coping with a hectic time of life but there’s not one experience that is universal and instead, we’d be better served by trying to figure out for ourselves, our friends and families how we can make things better by giving a balanced view of parenthood, instead of an entirely positive or negative one.