I recently read an interesting article on the possible link between how ideal images of mothers can effect the mood of mothers’ and which may contribute to postnatal depression, ‘Do ideal images of mother impact on postnatal depression?’. I think this is a really important issue and one that needs to be challenged in our society. We need more realistic views on the many ways in which women can be mothers. So that new mothers can find their own way of being a mother without feeling like they are failing. One of the ways in which we can challenge the dominant discourse in society is for mothers to begin talking about and sharing their own experiences with other mothers in an open and collaborative way.
There seems to be a misconception in society and amongst new mothers that women should, on the birth of their baby, know exactly how to be a mother. Terms such as ‘maternal instinct’ suggest a biological and innate sense implying that a woman will know how to be a mother. Many feminists (e.g. Oakley, 1974) have argued against this biological basis, suggesting that this misconception has been perpetrated by men to keep women in a subservient role. Although women, and of course men, might have an innate sense to care, to love and to look after their offspring.
This misconception has helped to create, along with media images, professional studies and a lack of discussion amongst mothers about their experience of motherhood, an image of the ‘perfect mother’. The ‘perfect mother’ is all-knowing, patient, calm, loving and puts her child’s needs before her own. In other words the ‘perfect mother’ is a saint, other worldly and not a realistic role model for new mothers.
But faced with this image the new mother experiences a gap between her own experiences and what she perceives she should be doing as a ‘good mother’; and in this gap she often sees her experiences and feelings as failures. The image of the ‘good mother’ does not allow for the fact that the new mother is human; that she will fail, she will suffer and she will be involved in conflict (Jaspers, 1951). Her baby is also human and so the relationship between mother and baby will not always be smooth and without conflict.
There is no room in the image of the perfect mother for negative feelings, such as frustrations that the baby isn’t sleeping, or feeling lost and not knowing what to do or feeling depleted by the constant all-consuming nature of motherhood. Those mothers who have negative feelings may find it hard to articulate them or share with others as they fear they will be judged and deemed not be to ‘good mothers’. Instead the feelings are bottled up and often result in the mothers feeling depression or anxiety. It is useful to remember that we all have positive and negative feelings about the things we experience in our lives and it is normal for mothers to feel this too. Also feeling frustrated or annoyed does not mean that the mother does not want to be the best mother she can be for her baby nor that she does not love her baby tremendously, the negative feelings are expressing the often difficult nature of new motherhood. New mothers have to grapple with a whole new life, both her own and her baby’s and this upheaval, understandably, is going to take some adjustment and getting used to.
New mothers, therefore do not need to be Saint’s but instead, as Winnicott (1973) stated, ‘good enough mothers’. To be the best mother they can be at the time, taking into account that there will be days when things don’t go right and it will be difficult and they will feel frustrated and upset. Above all to remember that they are human, and like the rest of us, are muddling their way through life.