The scourge of the ‘Mummy Wars’

It is the greatest privilege in the world to be a mummy, though there are days when I ponder why God (the higher power I believe in) would allow such a fickle, clueless woman such as myself to have children. I’ve said before that prior to having my daughter Alison, I did not have the slightest clue what raising children involved. My hesitancy to have children was directly related to my complete lack of knowledge of what was involved. I was certain that it was hard work; I had many a friend bemoan to me about how they had become social pariahs since having children.

I knew also that there would be sacrifices when having children. I was told that I would always be broke because the cost of nappies and formula is ridiculous. Children also tend to outgrow their clothes and shoes quickly. Then there’s the cost of childcare, school and, eventually, college. I mean, why bother? All the little brats seem to do is sap all of your financial resources!

If I was totally unprepared for the role of care-giver, then nothing could have prepared me for the phenomenon of the judgemental mother and the power that other mothers had to make me feel shit. Some say that there is no right way to parent, there are no rules. This is a lie: there are too many rules and the goalposts are constantly shifting. You can’t do right for doing wrong when you are a mummy.

The question mummies seem to get wound up about the most is whether or not they should be out working. Because women are choosing to delay having children until their careers are established, many are reluctant to leave the workplace when junior arrives. It wasn’t too long ago in Ireland that women had to leave their jobs once they get married. Now, despite having the option of staying at work, many mothers struggle with the guilt of missing out on precious moments with their children. This tug-of-war is compounded by the ridiculous cost of childcare, which leads many to question whether they are doing the right thing.

Alas, are mothers ever doing the right thing? Why do we, as mothers, judge each other so harshly? Is it mainly to validate our own choices? And unless these choices are adversely harming our children, why do we feel the need to justify them?

It seems that you can’t win in the mum world. If you are a working mum, you are judged as being selfish, farming your children out to be minded by other people while you pursue your career. If you’re a stay-at-home mum, you should have time to keep your house spick-and-span, your children spotless and a nutritious meal cooked from scratch every evening. If you wear comfortable clothes, such as trackies, you obviously don’t give a shit about your appearance. But if you decide to dress up, or ‘do’ your hair and makeup, you have too much time on your hands, time that could be otherwise invested in raising your children.

A campaign was launched in the US in late 2013 called ‘End the Mommy Wars’, which encourages mothers to be proud of their own parenting choices and not to judge the choices of other mothers. As part of the campaign, mothers were photographed holding placards such as ‘I breastfeed’, ‘I formula-feed’, ‘I work outside the home’, ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom’. These women are trying to remind us that each mother has their own value system, and try to do what is best for their children based on this belief system. None of these choices are ‘wrong’ but they are intensely personal. The campaign aims to deconstruct the ridiculously high standards mothers set for themselves and others and instead to support each other and to understand that our way of parenting isn’t the only way.

Pressure on mothers is both external and internal. Every day, we are bombarded by images of the glamorous mother in the media; the mother who has time to get her hair and nails done; the mother who juggles five bags of shopping and two smallies with her mobile phone; the mother who runs her own business in between baking organic cookies with her kids. Let me tell you that the stay-at-home mum in her trackies who is constantly wiping puke out her hair and spends the day cleaning after a mini hurricane and hoping to God that the brown smudge on her jeans is chocolate and not poo (again) is equally as deserving of our respect.  Other mothers are increasingly yardsticks for us to measure ourselves against, and invariably we either don’t meet the invisible, ambiguous standards, or we feel superior to others, as if others’ shoddy parenting somehow justifies the choices we make for our own children.

I often wonder how strong this tug-of-war was between mothers in the ‘eighties. My mother isn’t around to regale me with such tales, but I’ve read accounts on the Internet and from this I’ve devised an unrealistic utopian lifestyle: mummies from the same neighbourhood befriending each other and inviting each other for coffee; in the absence of work, mothers needed to meet each other to stay sane. I remember my mum exercising her intellect with our neighbour Patricia, over Scrabble and cups of coffee. I remember Alice and Maureen popping in for coffee or wine, depending on what time of the day it was (although sometimes the time of day didn’t really matter !). Mum’s not here to answer my questions but I wonder did she feel the pressure I and other of my generation feel now. (Anyone who would care to admit that they’re of mum’s generation are welcome to discuss this in the comments section).

As a child, I remember us three girls wandering the streets of our estate on our bikes, sometimes till 10pm on a summer’s night, with no mobile phones to let the folks know that we were okay. And yet, despite our mum not being a helicopter parent, we kids turned out okay. I’m not sure I’d have the confidence to let Alison have the same kind of freedom. Every day it seems a child is abducted or goes missing. God forbid, if a child were to be abducted, who is at fault? Do we sympathise with parents, or judge them for their carelessness? I know I would probably judge, so what does that say about me?

I have spent three years of my life trying to be perceived as a capable and worthy mother for my little girl. I went on television to talk about how acutely aware I was of how people judged me for being a disabled mother, because I was worried that people would think that my daughter would be deprived in some way. But deep down, I don’t think I was trying to prove anything to anybody other than Alison. She’s the only person who will ever be able to say whether or not I am a good enough mummy for her. At the end of the day, every mother wants to do the best by their child and hell, it’s difficult enough pandering to the every need of your children without constantly wondering what the woman across the street thinks.

Enough.

I may not be the perfect mummy, but I will always strive to be the best I can be. I know this applies to every single mummy I know.

(Psst, you, yes you, well done. You’re doing a great job. Let’s hold each other up instead of tearing each other down).

[S1]

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Safety in an unsafe world

Today, the sad news broke that 24 year old Karen Buckley was found dead after a three day search. At the time of writing this blog, a man has been arrested for her murder. Karen’s disappearance and subsequent death has saddened everybody: people who are in their twenties who know only too well that they are not immune from her fate; parents who worry about their children who have left the nest and are living in all corners of the world; parents of younger children such as myself despair at how we have brought our children into a world that is so dangerous that we become suspicious of our neighbours and sometimes even those we love.

I was talking to my aunt about this degeneration of modern society, how the world has somehow descended into utter chaos, a world where nobody bats an eyelid at reading about murders, rape, kidnapping, muggings. ‘I find it very sad and disheartening that Ali is growing up in such a horrible world where people don’t give a crap about who they hurt. Drugs and violence everywhere. Things are so much different nowadays.’ My aunt, having one or two more years’ life experience behind her than I do, smiled and said, ‘We have seen the atrocities of Northern Ireland, the muggings and the drug wars have raged on for decades. The only difference is that you now have a child. And when you have a child, the world seems to be a much scarier place, because you suddenly have to protect your child from it.’ These words came to mind as I read the news this morning.

Twenty-four is so young. I try and cast my mind back to what I was like in my twenties. I remember with more than a pang of guilt how I arrogantly screened my mum’s calls because we had fallen out over something trivial, and I didn’t care if she was worried. As a mum now, I’ve no doubt that she was sick with worry. What if something had happened to you? she’d said angrily, her face white from sleepless nights. ‘But nothing did, I’m fine, would you calm the fuck down’ was how I responded to her ‘ridiculous outbursts’. Yeah, I’m really not nice when someone tells me what to do.

As a college student, I went out on the town at every opportunity. I remember being in Blackpool and singing the Irish national anthem at the top of my lungs outside the most British pub I could find (I strongly believe my speech impairment saved my life that night. Incidentally – true story- a man was seriously injured in a fight a couple of yards from the pub, a few hours later. We were so lucky. And so stupid). I remember going to Mojos in Mullingar with a friend and walking/getting a lift on her knee through Mullingar while blind drunk, wading through the throngs leaving the nightclubs. Both of us were probably wearing short skirts at the time. And yet, if we had been attacked, would we have been blamed because we were in short skirts? Or because we had disabilities? Would it have been our fault?

My dad follows this blog (often he’s the only one to leave comments here – hi dad *waves*) and he is probably furious at me for being so reckless and irresponsible. It’s a wonder how he gets any sleep. I’ve tucked my baby up in bed and although I will get up a few times during the night to check her (as you do), I’m reasonably confident she will be okay and not wander off anywhere. When she was younger, we baby-proofed the house, and we put everything sharp/dangerous out of reach and hid washing and dishwasher tablets. Now she is more independent, making friends and slowly moving away from the protective bubble wrap I envelop her in. I have to trust when I leave her with others, such as friends and family, that she will be safe. And I’ve always found that so difficult, but that’s more my problem than anyone else’s. It’s hard sometimes to believe that I’m the same person as that twenty-four year old I described above. How I’ve become so cynical, so untrusting, so guarded in everything I say and do (except for this blog of course).

I would like to end this blog entry with this thought. Karen Buckley (who I don’t know and have never met) did not ask for her fate, and neither did anybody else who may have experienced a similar fate. People, young and old, make mistakes, act foolishly, do things that they regret, but nobody deserves to be murdered or hurt for making these mistakes. There will probably never be a world where there will be no need to tell our children ‘Don’t trust strangers. Don’t walk alone or you will get hurt. Always tell somebody about your whereabouts.’ Whatever happened to Karen was not her fault, and we must remember that. Only by exonerating the victim of any responsibility can we ensure that we create a safer world for others, and especially our children.

Owning my limitations

I have a confession, and anyone who knows me will appreciate how difficult it is for me to say these words. I think I may have some limitations. When they read this blog, my husband and my dad will probably read the italicised sentence a few times, just to make sure they read it correctly. I hate admitting I can’t do things. Quite frankly, failure makes me feel weak and pathetic, and instead of learning from these experiences and moving on, I persevere until I’m certain it can’t be done.

Alison has recently started nagging me to teach her how to use a skipping rope and hula hoop. As I have serious coordination issues, I can’t do either, and it makes me feel stupid. I fob her off with ‘someone else will teach you’, but sooner or later she will want a straight answer to these questions and just like that, I will be forced to once again accept my shortcomings while hating myself just a little inside.

There was, of course, a time when I was completely oblivious to what my limitations were. Here are some of these times. Rest assured that I am sitting here blushing behind the glow of my laptop screen.

  • I love writing, as in writing things down by hand. To feel the pen glide (or dart when you have involuntary movements) across the page is one of my guilty pleasures. Alas, my handwriting makes the doctor’s worst scribbles easily legible. As a child, I loved writing in notebooks and diaries (as all little girls do) and fought tirelessly with my parents because I couldn’t see why I couldn’t write like the other kids. I wrote all of my Leaving Cert notes by hand because that’s how I remember things best. My parents cruelly forced me to use a computer and laptop instead. Sure, doing so enabled me to go to university after doing my Leaving Cert, but that’s not the point. I will never admit they were right (pig-headed, moi)?
  • I spent about a month when I was eight trying to cycle a normal two-wheeled bike with stabilisers that Santa had brought me. It was only after about seven falls, countless bruises and a deep scrape that went from my thigh to my ankle that it dawned on me that this wasn’t going to work.
  • I tried both skipping and French skipping in the playground. These trials didn’t last long as I didn’t know how to jump. After a while, I gave up, but I wasn’t very happy about it.
  • I was never good at knitting or sewing, but I kick ass at weaving, as I discovered in second class. The teacher gave me a weaving loom, and with that I wove a scarf, a headband and a purse. However, when I took Home Economics in first year in school, I was given the task of making a collage while the other girls did their cross stitching and used the sewing machines. The experience scarred me to the extent that I can’t bring myself to make a collage with Ali.
  • I remember getting brochures in school about really cool summer camps that included activities such as skating, bungee jumping, Qazar, water fights, football, basketball and hurling. My parents would look at each other and my mother would say, in a suspiciously bright voice, ‘How would you like to go to a better summer camp, where you can even sleep over?’ This place was Clochan House, a respite centre for people with disabilities just like me. They couldn’t go skateboarding either, but once I overlooked the fact that I hadn’t gotten my own way, I enjoyed myself and even nabbed meself a husband! Best camp ever! (bet you’re sorry now, eh dad?)
  • I took guitar lessons in TY much to the amusement of my classmates. At the end of a three month course, I could play E minor. I’m ashamed to say that in my family, at least four of us can play the guitar. I am not one of them.
  • Much to my disappointment and relief, I will never be a slave to fashion. High heels and me = disaster. In an effort to look elegant I wore high –heeled shoes to my school grad. They came off within ten minutes as I fell over for the fiftieth time. I looked pissed, and I desperately wished I had been, but no.
  • I think my mum wet herself the day that I announced that I was going to try and get a weekend job in the Bridge House or something, as a waitress, to supplement my college income. ‘Er, your studies are far more important’, she insisted through her tittering. Hmmph.

There are times when having so many limitations can be a real pain in the ass, and it does get me down sometimes, especially when Alison asks me to skip, climb and run after her. But then I think, no, I’m not exactly like every other mum in the playground, why should I be? Time to focus on the positive:

        • I have a handsome husband and beautiful daughter
        • I can work, write and spend time with my family (although I’m still working on the balance)
        • I have a degree from Trinity College, where I learned to live independently
        • I love, and am grateful for, my life at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, the way I am wired means that I’ll probably always be pushing the boundaries, trying to achieve the most unrealistic goals. If I achieve them, I will be delighted, and if I don’t, I’ll come to terms with that too.

But I won’t know until I try.