The Ideal Mother isn’t kind. She might only be a cultural myth. But this idealisation of the perfect caregiver is a harmful omnipresence in all of our families.
The notion of the Ideal Mother – as portrayed in misogynist rags like the Daily Mail or argued about on mummy forums – is the unattainable benchmark we mums measure ourselves against.
She makes us feel like crap if we don’t live up to her exacting standards. She pushes and pushes and pushes us to achieve more and more in her name.
Many of us are aware that we’ve embodied this myth and of the harm that it does.
But, when I read a passage in Brigid Shulte’s Overwhelmed… the other day, I realised that our partners ALSO have their own versions and they’re causing havoc with our relationships.*
The Ideal Mother doesn’t only whisper in the ears of us mums. She stands behind fathers too. She’s the voice of criticism you hear when your co-parent questions the way you do things.
And, frankly – unless your co-parent actually does all of the things she’s criticising – she’s full of crap.
My husband’s Ideal Mother
My husband’s Ideal Mother believes that all food must be home cooked always (and preferably very complicated and varied).
She also believes that food shopping should be done on a daily basis – in order to accommodate the family’s particular fancy that day and to make sure everything is absolutely fresh.
She believes that children should always walk to and from school (never be driven), no matter how tired they are. And that no snacks should be administered between school and dinner time, as it spoils the appetite.
His Ideal Mother doesn’t usually hold a lot of power, to be honest. My husband normally leaves for work before 8am and gets home after 5.30 – by which time, I’ve broken most of her rules without her even seeing.
But she’ll sometimes comment – if the kids’ leftovers include oven chips, for instance.
And she ruthlessly sabotages my husband’s every single trip to the supermarket – stripping the ‘useful’ food off the list (crisps, cereal bars, strawberries) and substituting it with what she considers to be the ‘proper stuff’ (strictly seasonal fruit and veg, no packaged snacks).
But this week, she got a taste of her own medicine.
My husband and I have been experimenting with our roles this week. He’s had two weeks off work and a mountain of extreme DIY to get through. I’m juggling my usual workload with getting ahead in time for my reduced summer holiday hours. The kids are at school for another couple of weeks before they break up.
Last week, him being here all the time (although admittedly up to his neck in kitchen remodelling and deck building) didn’t impact on my parenting. Except that the Ideal Mother in him got more of a chance to get on my nerves.
I carried on doing the morning work of getting the kids up, fed, dressed, brushed, teeth-cleaned, packed lunches made, and to school. I did all the coaxing, cajoling, bargaining needed to get two small, tired children somewhere they’d rather not go on time.
And I carried on doing the afternoon work of picking up the kids, feeding them, taking them to the park/home, feeding them some more, clearing up after them, etc. I could go on, but you know the script.
I carried on doing all of the stuff I usually do either side of the intense, short work day that I cram into school hours each week. While he carried on not doing any of that stuff and focusing on the DIY.
Then something clicked. I realised I didn’t have to be doing any of that stuff this week. And I really, really liked the idea of watching him do it instead.
So we switched roles.
Doing all the stuff
This week, I’ve been starting work at 8am and finishing at 5ish. And he’s been doing most of the mum work I usually do alone.
He has agonised over packed lunches for our two fussy-about-different-foods kids.
He has worried about whether there was enough cucumber to last the week. And had to forego his own morning toast in order to give the kids the last bit of bread for sandwiches.
He has witnessed Nelly’s well-timed meltdowns to delay exit from the house every school morning and succumbed to driving the school run to get them there on time.
He has suffered picking up two tired, hungry kids from school with no snacks because he chose to deviate from the shopping list at the weekend before he understood the implications.
He has had to cook emergency ‘I am hungry RIGHT NOW’ kids’ dinners. And then sweated to deliver hastily home-cooked food that they won’t eat. Don’t like.
He has done all of this and hundreds more mundane, thankless, stressful, necessary tasks to keep everything ticking over.
And he has basically told his Ideal Mother where to go.
The grand eviction
He’s just done the first full food shop I think he’s ever done. With consideration for what the kids need for packed lunches and after-school refuelling.
He has actually bought ready-made chicken goujons (after trying to flatten, breadcrumb and pan-fry them by hand last week on a school night only for my son to declare he wasn’t hungry).
He has let go of so many of his ‘Ideal Mother’ perceptions because he has had to deal with the realities.
“You’ve changed,” I told him this morning. “I like it.”
And then there were two
I know her eviction might not last forever. She’s been living with us for a long, long time and she’s bound to try and sneak back in.
But for now, for this week, it’s just the two of us doing the parenting. And we find ourselves in near-perfect alignment on how we’re going to do it.
What’s more, without her in the room, I feel sublimely heard, understood, and supported. And that’s something to hold onto for a long time.
* Brigid Shutle, Overwhelmed. How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time (London: 2014), p. 158, reporting the words of Jessica DeGroot of the ThirdPath Institute, Philadelphia:
“‘When couples are angry with each other, standing in their living rooms, fighting about ways to create more time and not seeing any, they don’t realize that there are these other invisible forces in the room with them…” The ideal worker, the ideal mother, and the provider father are right there, pulling the strings. “They’re the ones creating the stress.”‘