Mothers are not mythical creatures. They do not have superpowers. They are human, just like everybody else. There is an unrealistic expectation for women to be ‘good’ mothers just for the fact that they can produce babies. That’s not always the case.
A uterus is an organ; it doesn’t qualify women to be excellent parents. It doesn’t come with a certificate of good motherhood. That is something that either happens or doesn’t, based on an assortment of factors, not least of which is a woman’s mental health. Wanting to be a good mother and being one are two different things because some things will always be beyond our control as women.
First of all, the law does not empower us to decide whether we want to carry babies to term. And when we do have babies, we are hit hard by the complexity of parenting. Nothing prepares you for the level of sacrifice that comes with raising children; for the way they take over every aspect of your life. Or the seemingly obvious reality that once they’re out, there’s no going back – ever. Fathers have the option to wash their hands off the sons and daughters of women, but typically, mothers do not have the luxury. There is an unspoken understanding that women must take responsibility for their children. Men can be given a pass, and they often are.
Which is not to excuse mothers by blaming fathers. It is to say that the expectation on women to keep babies, raise them, and raise them well, bends disproportionately towards women.
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There’s that, and there’s also the debate about what good motherhood is. Who gets to define what a good mother is or isn’t? And why should some external definition drown out the voices of the humans who beget the humans? People parent differently because people are different. Beyond keeping your kids washed, fed, housed, and educated, definitions of good mothering differ wildly. I have a six-year-old who still sleeps in my bed. Some mothers put their kids in their own beds, or rooms, much earlier than six. These are two different approaches to home training, which shouldn’t be classified as right and wrong, good and bad. They are what they are. That’s it.
But way before you start the business of child-rearing, you need to bond with your child. Again, it is assumed that women bond with their children as soon as they leave the womb. There is an assumption that as soon as the child latches on your breast and looks into your eyes, a magical connection occurs. That’s not true for every woman. There are so many things at play in the birthing cycle. You have to consider how the baby was conceived, the entire pregnancy experience, and how the child was born. The golden thread that ties all these elements together is the mother’s state of mind. If there is a problem there, more problems will arise for both mother and child once the rigours of daily life begin to take their toll.
I consider myself lucky for bonding with my child both in the womb and in the world. Even so, much as I love her, I couldn’t express that love in the first few hours of her life. I was exhausted after many, many hours of labour, and I just wanted to sleep. I remember the nurse trying to teach me how to breastfeed her, but I couldn’t do it. It would be about a day and a half before I got the hang of the whole breastfeeding thing, meaning that my daughter didn’t get fed adequately for hours. Does that make me a bad mum? It’s not anyone’s place to say.
I’m not advocating for child abuse. No child should ever be mistreated. What I’m saying is that ‘good motherhood’ is a spectrum. Mothers come with different experiences, methods and approaches, and they should not be judged for it. Neither should they be judged if they are genuinely struggling with motherhood as a concept. Being a parent is hard. Not every woman can activate that infamous ‘maternal instinct’; some women don’t have it at all. It’s unfair to expect women to fit into society’s template of what a good mother should be.
Parenting is personal and should not become the subject of general debate. And finally, let’s normalise honesty. Women should be able to speak openly about how hard it is to be mothers without being chastised. None of us can be Mary, the mother of God. And folks need to make peace with that.
Ms Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation