From an early age, society imprints a set of rules that girls and women should follow. It has expectations of who a woman should be and how they should behave. How often do we hear “that’s not very lady-like”, or “men don’t like women who… [any number of things that people are perfectly allowed to do]”? Throughout our lives, women are faced with judgements; from how they choose to dress, to how they spend their free time. Once a woman reaches child-bearing age, the appraising intensifies. What is deemed a “child-bearing age” differs from person to person, and every woman has a different criterion for when they are “ready” to have children. And motherhood is the biggest arena of scrutiny. Every woman who walks in, is unequipped for the battle they are about to face. There’s a multimillion-pound market that every expectant parent will pour their hard-earned money into, buying every book and gadget they can to arm themselves. But the biggest opponent isn’t the screaming infant, it’s the army of critics that you didn’t even know you had 

 It’s an uncomfortable truth that those child-bearing years coincide with our working lives. Our prime for childbearing is also the prime in which we have the most freedom to relocate for better opportunities, to change careers, to start businesses. It was once commonplace for a child to spend the working week with their grandparents, allowing mum to return to work safe in the knowledge that their precious offspring is with people that love them. But now, many people move away from their hometowns and family for work and no longer have the traditional support systems available to provide childcare. This means that every mother is faced with the classic dilemma of whether to return to work, or to stay home. Such a decision is fraught with a myriad of different pushes and pulls, most of which seem like a trap. Many women don’t have a choice, and must return to work to earn money. Gone are the days a family could survive on one salary. 

Just this morning, I saw a Facebook post from another mum in a parenting group, lamenting how to make this decision. She loved her job, but after childcare costs, she’d be working for £1 a day. All that stress and anxiety, the guilt of putting her two children in nursery, she wouldn’t even make enough to buy a coffee at the end of the day. The comments were divided. Some applauded her for wanting to maintain a career, pointing out that you have to stay in the game to have any chance of competing for pay rises or better opportunities. All of which are true. The other half, however, derided the poor woman for daring to suggest that being a stay at home mum wasn’t a worthwhile job, it was outrageous for this woman to leave her children with strangers and she’d regret not spending more time with her children once they were grown. And there’s our problem; those are equally valid arguments. There isn’t anything wrong with staying home with the children. Just as you think you’ve figured it out, there’s a new twist you weren’t expecting and have no idea how to deal with. Spending day after day trying to rise to this challenge is exhausting, having little or no adult interaction, fighting the losing battle that is keeping the house clean and everyone happy. Staying at home is not the easy option. 

Either choice has its detractors. “You only work part time”. The “only” negates all the hours we put in, often expected to do as much in three days as others do in five. And other mums will say “you’re not a full-time mum”, as if a working mother’s opinion and experiences mean less. Three out of five “working mothers” work part time, and five out of five working mothers will face the daily struggle to keep the kids happy, the house running and do their job to the best of their abilities. Working mothers have to prove to the world and to themselves that they are capable of it all – they have to show themselves to excel at work to justify leaving their children, but also be incredible parents to demonstrate that their children aren’t lacking anything by being in childcare. And similarly, stay at home mums have the burden of validating what they do all day, and that they still have value outside of an office. 

The guilt isn’t just around work. It’s around every choice a mother makes. Do you use reusable nappies? What is more important to you, the environment or spending time playing and teaching your children rather than doing extra laundry. Everything from what you name your child to how they dress them is under scrutiny. How much screen time do they get? Are you giving them enough outdoor time? They need lots of time and attention, but they also need to learn to play independently but when does independent play become neglect and not caring enough?  Do you buy the latest gadget, did you spend enough money, are you being gullible and falling for any trick to help you cope? Mealtimes are guilt central. Do you breastfeed or use formula? Then once they’re weaned you want them to have a healthy, balanced meal but they only want to eat fish fingers. You feel bad when they turn down your lovingly cooked dinner but also feel bad when you don’t waste your time and just hand over a bowl of spaghetti hoops. There’s an army of parents who only want to feed their family organic food and another army who believe that everyone deserves a treat, especially grandma who deems you a spoilsport for suggesting their beloved grandbaby doesn’t have a third custard cream before lunch.

Every milestone should come with an advisory warning, “risk of peril”. Every child is on their own schedule, but it’s hard to know if they are just running a little late or if there’s a serious problem that needs addressing. You don’t want to be the overprotective mum at the doctors yet again when it’s obviously “just a cold”, and sometimes it’s scary to ask other mums for their experience for fear of being ridiculed. Crawling, walking, talking, or the mother lode – sleeping through the night. Sleeping is the Rumble in the Jungle of childrearing. Woe betide any parent who boasts their baby is sleeping through the night to a parent who hasn’t had a decent sleep since pre-pregnancy. Judgement befalls any parent who co-sleeps, but also anyone who has a baby in their room, any parent who sleep trains and any who does not. A child who doesn’t sleep shows their parents weren’t strict enough with a bedtime routine, but a child who does has parents who put their own needs before their child’s need for attention and love. Potty training needs to come naturally and on time, but you need to encourage and support them without being pushy and risking traumatising them forever, but also don’t be so relaxed that they end up in nappies when they go to school, but also don’t rush them some kids just take more time, but also, but also, but also. 

Women are trained from birth to take on the emotional care of everyone around them. Empathy is encouraged and responsibility enforced. We are taught to wear conservative clothing so as not to provoke men who might assault us, but we are encouraged to dress sexy for fear of being deemed dowdy and unattractive. We are taught that we need to look after ourselves and look good, but not too good because that makes us vain and high maintenance. Society has created thin margins for women to stay in, and any deviation is met with scorn and exclusion. Is it any wonder that women feel guilty all the damn time? Of course not, we have to question every move and decision we make for fear of backlash. It’s not our fault- it’s self-preservation. 21 percent of mothers say they feel guilty all the time, and 68 percent say they feel guilty at least once a day. A 2019 study by Sport England found that 64 percent of mums felt that “exercising made them worry they were neglecting their responsibilities”. That’s more than half of all mums believe that prioritising their health, their mental wellbeing, and sometimes just their own happiness, will be judged negatively by others. 

The answer? Ignoring the critics is easier said than done, especially when they come at you from all angles. The first step needs to be retraining ourselves to be kinder to other women. The fight to be a good mother often appears to need us to tear others down to lift ourselves above them. That needs to stop. We need women to support each other. Check in on your co-worker when she comes back to the office. Offer to babysit for an hour so your friend can get her hair done. Pop in for a cup of coffee and a chat so she can have a conversation that isn’t about Paw Patrol. Don’t look down on another mother when her toddler is having a tantrum in the supermarket or her teenager is doing worse in school than yours. Be kinder to yourself. Learn to be okay with taking time for yourself, for slipping up, and for not being perfect. Go for that run, get your nails done, serve spaghetti hoops once in a while. 

This article originally appeared in Refresh Magazine

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