I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about motherhood recently, specifically around how to make sure my girl and I have a happy mother daughter relationship – one that serves both of us long into the future.
Like many mums of my generation, I feel blessed and cursed by the growing science around parenting.
As a serial perfectionist, a connoisseur of self-help lit, a natural worrier, a deep-thinker, I’ve always tackled motherhood like a complicated subject that needs to be researched and mastered.
But things have ramped up in the last couple of months. Maybe it’s the time of the year, or the feeling of having moved onto a new stage in motherhood with my children all of a sudden aged five and nearly seven? Or the nagging realisation that I’m deep in my own personal midlife flux.
Whatever it is, I’m fixated on the circularity of it all – being a mother, being a daughter, having a mother, having a daughter. I keep picking over my past, peering down at my present and projecting onto the future.
“The only way to teach your daughter how to recognize and state her emotional needs is to do so yourself.”
(Christiane Northrup, Mother-Daughter Wisdom*)
RECOGNISING UNHELPFUL PATTERNS
I’ve currently got four self-help (or personal growth) books on the go. Two are about writing and two are about motherhood, so really all of them about working through creativity, getting past my stuck points, and recognising unhelpful patterns.
I don’t know about you, but this kind of literature tends to light up what I already know, as well as teaching me things I hadn’t thought of.
My latest addition to my ever-expanding self-help bookshelf is Christiane Northrup’s Mother-Daughter Wisdom*. It’s a whopper at 700 pages long, and I’m not halfway through it yet, but a passage right at the beginning struck a chord with me:
A loving, nurturing mother tends to become the very center of her family’s health and happiness…
This nurturing role can be enormously fulfilling. It can also deteriorate into martyrdom if a mother gives her children and spouse the love and care she doesn’t feel that she herself is worthy of receiving…
A woman who has the courage to break the martyrdom cycle will be ensuring her own health and helping her daughter or other loved ones do the same. The only way to teach your daughter how to recognize and state her emotional needs is to do so yourself. And when your daughter witnesses this, she will be less likely to carry the mother burden on into her own life.*
The mother burden. The martyrdom cycle – Things I’ve been thinking about so much lately.
WORKING OUT YOUR OWN MATERNAL HERITAGE
Becoming a parent holds a super-dazzling spotlight up to your own experience and makes you consider how you want to translate that for your own children. I guess if you had the perfect childhood, you try to emulate that? And if it was undeniably awful you try to do the polar opposite.
Even for those of us who were parented with love and care and consideration, there’s still some emotional residue, some wounds that we try to heal by making different parenting choices.
But if you do identify some things that you don’t want to pass onto the next generation, breaking that cycle is tough.
THE MOTHER BURDEN
My mum was all-sacrificing in my honour. Every single day she gave me as much love, time and energy as she could muster, while leaving none for herself.
She didn’t go out socially with friends. She didn’t buy herself new clothes, or treat herself to an afternoon off. I never saw her looking after herself.
She worked a crappy job doing killer night shifts so that she could be there for me in my waking hours. She was always, always knackered.
She poured everything she had into me. And I appreciate all that it cost her. And yet…
That’s a lot of pressure to put on a child. And as we aged and our roles changed, that model of motherhood ceased to serve either of us well.
That’s why I’ve always been determined not to go down that route. Particularly with my daughter.
Except, time and again, I have found myself slipping back into it. Looking back, I can see that many, many of the choices I’ve made since becoming a mum have been made trying to replicate her colossal version of motherhood.
RELIVING THE MODEL OF MOTHERHOOD
When I had my son, I didn’t know how to accept help, or take time off from the all-consuming task of being a new mother. I struggled on, isolated in our farm cottage, with my refluxy, insomniac baby crying all day and all night. I believed deep down that this was just what women had to do.
I also knew that my mum had had a similarly tough time with me as a baby. She had survived it this way so I had to as well. Anything less heroic felt like being a bad mother.
And when it came to going back to work, I found I couldn’t put my kids in nursery because it felt like failing at motherhood. So I ended up working from home, following my mum’s lead, working late into the night when my kids slept – when I should have been resting myself.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
I can see now that so many of my choices around how to parent have been conditioned by the choices my own mother made. Even if ostensibly I’ve tried to do things differently, my default was set and imprinted long ago.
But I’m consciously trying to take back bits of myself. For all our sakes.
Like this morning, when Nell wanted me to play with her and I was just about to jump into the shower. (It was a school day, so time was finite.)
I had two choices:
- Forfeit my morning shower and play.
- Take the shower and encourage her to play on her own.
The first one would always be my default choice. My instinctive choice.
But this morning I chose the shower.
TOWARDS A HEALTHIER VISION OF MOTHERHOOD
Without a doubt, there’s a time in early motherhood when you really can’t grab a shower. But with my kids now aged five and almost seven, we’re way past that time now.
My default martyr-mummy setting is no longer necessary nor, indeed, helpful for either of my children, particularly my daughter.
Performing that small but powerful act of self sacrifice this morning would have been another chip away at Nell’s self-esteem as a female.
Because how can I teach her to love herself, to look after herself and care for her own well being if I show her that a mother’s need for a shower isn’t important? That I don’t deserve those ten minutes to look after myself?
THE BEAUTY OF THE BURDEN
I’ve also come to realise that perhaps the martyr-mummy role is so seductive to me because it has benefits way beyond keeping my daughter happy.
For example, I get a big oxytocin rush when I swoop in as supermummy and favourite playmate. And there’s also the undeniable kick that every martyr-mother gets whenever her kids give her the opportunity to deny her own needs – a kind of masochistic thrill that plays into the myth of long-suffering mother.
TAKE THE DAMN SHOWER
So you see, when you look at it hard – and I really have been – this kind of self-denial is neither altruistic nor kind.
This morning, Nell learned that my right to have a shower in the morning trumps her desire for my attention. It still honestly feels so transgressive for me to write that. Even though I know it’s utterly logical.
But looking forwards, what kind of woman do I hope she’ll be? How do I want her to feel if she becomes a mum?
Do I want her to feel that she has to neglect herself always? That she has to lose herself in her child? That if she’s not suffering, and giving everything she’s doing a bad job?
I want her to take the damn shower.
* Christiane Northrup, Mother-Daughter Wisdom. Understanding the Crucial Link Between Mothers, Daughters, and Health (2005: NY), p. 13.