By Lucie Robson
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an article about “MILS”: “Mums I’d Like to Slap”. These are mothers who judge other mothers on their parenting skills, and are vocal about it.
“Women are defined by their parenting skills in a way that men are not,” writes Kasey Edwards. “A mother’s self-worth is based on how beautiful, how clever or how well behaved her child is compared with other children.” It seems how smoothly her pregnancy starts out and progresses can have an impact as well.
While we don’t advocate slapping anyone, here at The M Word we are featuring stories about mums trying to be the perfect mother. Of course mums want to be as perfect as they can be for their babies – but we all have differing ideas about who the “perfect mother” would be. Maybe the perfect mother is one who entrusts her maternity care to a midwife. One who gives birth in the comfort of her own home, without the need for drugs or medical intervention. Maybe she doesn’t let a drop of alcohol pass her lips during pregnancy and raises her baby on organic food. Maybe she chooses co-sleeping, or controlled crying. Maybe she opts for neither ‘free-range’ nor ‘helicopter’ parenting. Maybe she does everything right.
There’s an aspiration for perfection in parenting. But unfortunately, perfectionism can lead to depression or anxiety in pregnancy.
Cathie Knox from the Gidget Foundation told me that much of the research surrounding antenatal depression in Australia has been done in the Sydney South-West health service area. She is involved with the screening program at North Shore Private Hospital, a different area to be sure, and quite a different demographic. But, says Cathie, the rates of maternal depression are pretty much the same anywhere. In some socio-economic areas there is more disadvantage, and in others there are perhaps more “perfectionist” personalities.
While we don’t advocate slapping anyone, here at The M Word we are featuring stories about mums trying to be the perfect mother.
Both circumstances can be bad for our mental health. A series of unfortunate events that culminate in financial stress, or life just not going as planned – both situations create anguish arise out of the feeling of a lack of control. But what can this tell us? That money doesn’t buy happiness? Or that the desire for perfection can do more harm than good?
A perfect pregnancy might be impossible to achieve, just like the perfect time to be pregnant. I’m not a mum or a mum-to-be, but I know from my own short life experience that the timing is never perfect: for job opportunities to come along, for people to move overseas, or for love interests to come into one’s life. There’s not even a perfect time for a good new series to debut on TV! Babies might be like that, too.
There is another aspect to consider, in which case our own agency and control over our lives might seem compromised by the lingering ache of the past. Professor Marie-Paule Austin said that women who have experienced bad parenting at the hands of their own mother or father often agonise over their own parenting abilities, or perceived lack thereof. A woman in this situation might feel doubly anxious about making mistakes on her journey to motherhood.
The professor said emphatically that suicide has emerged as a top cause of maternal mortality. Not necessarily because of an increase in mental health issues, but because of a decrease in risky situations surrounding childbirth that used to shorten women’s lifespans in the old days. Perinatal mental health is something that we in our fortunate country can now shift our attention to.
But is this situation just one of those things that we can’t fix? I don’t think so. If we could all focus just a bit more on the emotional effects of being pregnant, some women might feel less alienated. A bit of consciousness-raising can go a long way. The inclusion of some instruction on perinatal mental health in high-school-level sex education could be a great place to start.
Recently Australia marked the latest “R U OK Day”. In light of the 1-in-10 statistics of women who experience depression or anxiety in pregnancy, it seems like too many people are not asking pregnant women if they are OK with all the pressure of becoming a parent.
Different cultures, and even different families in the same culture, hold different views about perfection. All things considered, women still might never be perfect mothers – whatever that means. And holding perfection as the ultimate goal might take away the joy and adventure that can be had along the way.