Who is a perfect mother? This is a question that was posed to me recently as part of a much larger conversation around a project dubbed Unmothering The Woman. Details on this project will come later.
Back to the question; I had no response because who is a perfect mother? What makes her perfect? Is she perfect because of how much she loves her children? Is she perfect because she puts their needs first? Or maybe because she single-handedly prepares all their meals and makes sure her children eat their vegetables? Perhaps because she doesn’t feed them breakfast for dinner and has taught them the Lord’s prayer? Could her perfection be because she chose to quit her career and dedicate her entire existence to raising them? Maybe the one time she yelled at her toddler in public made her less than perfect. Is she perfect because her kids eat gluten-free, dairy-free and she composts? How would I know what makes a perfect mother?
What is this unspoken expectation that mothers have to be perfect? It is usually not voiced but most times the faces say more than words ever could.This takes me back to when I was pregnant with my first offspring. Of course as the baby grows so does your wardrobe. I live for comfort where dressing is concerned and so tights and leggings and t-shirts were wardrobe staples. During one clinic visit, a nurse told me my leggings were too tight and would interfere with the baby’s development. Huh? How now? A pair of comfortable pants worn around my lower waist would interfere with the baby’s development? Any medics out there who could help demystify this please? The sad realization of this statement was that it had got nothing at all to do with the baby, but her preconceived notions of what type of clothing a mother-to-be should be wearing. Would it be safe to assume that a pregnant woman dressed in tights did not meet her expectations of perfect mother material?
With my second child is when I fully experienced how society expects mothers to behave. This was before the era when bump shoots become the norm for the pregnancy journey. I remember speaking to at least three photographers about having a maternity shoot and getting turned down because none of them felt comfortable taking the pictures. Mind you the concept was nothing risque. It was just unheard of, almost taboo. ‘Why would you want to take photos of your stomach?’ was the elephant in the room. The feeling I got from this entire experience was that pregnancy and my impending role as a mother dictated that I was no longer entitled to frivolous things like photo shoots, especially those that were a bare display of my pregnancy. That I had to now carry myself in a certain way. Did that one desire to have my pregnancy photos taken already jeopardise my success as a potential, would-be-perfect mother?
If there is one major regret I have over my pregnancies, it is not documenting them. With my first, the experience was all a blur. With subsequent ones, I felt like I now had to behave in certain ways, ways that did not entirely portray who I was as a person, simply because I did not want to be perceived as a less than perfect mother even before my journey had begun. And for a while I conformed to ways I thought would be acceptable to those around me, ways I thought a mother should carry herself. Bunch of horse-poop I tell ya! The judgement still came anyway.
Fast-forward to now raising the offspring. I could share many incidents where there was so much judgement simply because I failed to meet the expectations of what a perfect mother should look like. These judgements were not just towards me but also to the wider community of mothers around me, yet we were all not raising our children in the same manner. Our family values were different. We had different schedules for our children, some of us had none. Some raised their children plant-based diets while some of us fed our kids everything under the sun. Some of us breastfed whilst others bottle-fed. As long as the baby was fed, right? Even within those eclectic styles of mothering we were all under scrutiny. There was nothing we did that would not be a potential target for judgement.
On the daily we hear the comments, we receive the unsolicited advice, we feel the judgemental stares, judgments sometimes served as backhanded compliments.
“I wish I could be as free-spirited with my children as you. You really do let them do whatever they want. They must have such a happy childhood.” Yet your face looks like you just licked a pile of shit! Who are we kidding? Yet the same person wants you to romanticise the struggles of motherhood, disguised as perfectionism.
Mothers get applauded for breastfeeding even when their nipples are sore and cracking. Perfectionist standards render your pain and discomfort secondary to the expectation to breastfeed. You labored with no epidural and gave birth vaginally. Kudos to you! We still have an unsavoury opinion of mothers who have chosen to have a cesarean section. Why? There’s nothing romantic about screaming in pain as you try to expel a whole human out of your vagina! The sleepless nights are exhausting so please stop shaming mothers when they hire a night nurse to relieve them for a couple of nights. It doesn’t make her less worthy of the title mother. There is nothing romantic about sleep deprivation.
When you make the choice to not vaccinate your child, everyone has an opinion that matters more than yours. Who are we to tell you how to mother your child then shun you for making choices over their lives. The worst kind is romanticising abuse in a relationship. When you applaud mothers who stay in unhealthy relationships for the sake of her children. No romance there, just bruises and body aches and medical bills and lifetime trauma. Sis!
Who is a perfect mother? I still have no response to this question.
All I can say to any mother showing up for themselves and for their children: Be gentle with yourself. You are doing the best you can.