Working with women who are mothers I feel privileged to have a front row seat into their inner world. The added pressures that mothers have been under since Covid 19 with many taking on the majority of the unpaid domestic work and the emotional, mental and physical load of parenting as well as holding down their paid jobs has been at best a juggle. There’s no doubt of the detrimental impact it's had on our wellbeing, relationships and finances. But gender inequality is not new. It’s just that the past 18 months has shone a very bright light on it. I believe that if we care about the health and wellbeing of women and children then the social context in which we are mothering needs to be reformed. I recently did a poll in my Instagram Stories which revealed:
88% believe their productivity is linked to their self-worth.
78% said when they felt exhausted they feel guilty about resting*
So I would deduce that most mothers feel that they need to keep “doing” in order to feel good about themselves and by not choosing to rest when they are exhausted, it means they can avoid the feeling of guilt. But where is this guilt coming from? Would we tell our children to keep going if they were exhausted? Right now, women are told we can and should have it all - the successful career AND the 2.4 children. Not only that but we should also:
be married, white and heterosexual
have a natural birth
have a healthy child
be back to our old selves physically and mentally within a year of giving birth
be a natural and nurturing mother who creates a secure attachment bond, makes food from scratch and enjoys playing
be juggling paid work and unpaid work - parenting, our childrens’ school and social lives, caring for elderly parents and domestic duties
find time for self-care, exercise, hobbies and socialising
be a great friend, mother, wife, daughter, partner, sister, employee and colleagues
and…importantly put all their needs before our own. Mothers should be selfless caregivers. Unconsciously we have internalised these expectations and are using them as a benchmark by which to judge ourselves and other women. No wonder we are all knackered! Sociologist and Motherhood researcher, Dr Sophie Brock says: “Research emphasises the detrimental effects on Mothers when they are placed under the pressures of perfect Motherhood, and when they internalise these ‘shoulds’. The more an individual Mother internalises these pressures, the more likely it is they will experience stress, anxiety, guilt, shame and depression.” I believe our patriarchal society sets women up to fail. And social media only exacerbates our feelings of “not good enough” and “Mum guilt” as we watch women prove to themselves and others they are ticking all the boxes and therefore winning at parenting. But this is a competition I for one, never put my name down for, and – I don’t see any women or families winning, do you? When I reflect on the conversations with my clients I often think of the book by palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware called “The Top 5 regrets of the dying”. The most common regret was: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” I think this is pretty powerful. And sad. If you think about the decisions you’ve made in your life, how many of these are based on your beliefs? And how many are based on others’ expectations of you? In 1973 Dr Dana Raphael coined the term “Matresence” - this is the process of becoming a mother. Since then psychologist and Matesence expert Dr Aurelie Athan has continued this research. She says: “Matresence is a developmental passage where a woman transitions through pre-conception, pregnancy and birth, surrogacy or adoption, to the postnatal period and beyond. The exact length of matrescence is individual, recurs with each child, and may arguably last a lifetime! The scope of the changes encompass multiple domains: biological, sociolological, political and spiritual and can be likened to the developmental push of adolescence. “ So, the research proves what we already knew – everything changes when we become a mother. Yet 72% of my followers feel society doesn’t value mothering.* We can feel angry about this (and believe me I do) but we can also choose to empower ourselves. Here’s some ideas… 5 ways to empower yourself
Recognise this feeling of exhaustion is not your fault. You are mothering in a society which sets you up to fail. Give yourself a big dose of self compassion and notice to what extent your self worth is linked to productivity.
Accept that we live in a patriarchal, capitalist society which is not going to change overnight – our unpaid and paid labour is contributing to the economy – so this inequality is not going to change overnight. The majority of the care focuses on the child. Start learning and talking about matresence to help wider society understand the changes we experience and how to help us.
You are not going to get a certificate when your child leaves home. So, set your own measures for success. Find out who YOU are. What are your core values? How do you want to live your life? What are your hopes and dreams? What do you want for your children? Separate society’s expectations with your own and prioritise what’s important to YOU.*
Recognise that children do what they see not what they hear. So, role model self-care and self-worth. If you don’t have it, they won’t either.
Try these journal prompts to reframe your relationship with self care:
What would happen if I regularly took time out and “did” nothing?
How would I feel about myself?
What’s the relationship between productivity and my value?
Am I worthy of rest?
At what cost am I prioritising selflessness over self-care?
What values do I want to instill in my children? How can I role model these?
What boundaries do I need to put in place so I can focus on what’s most important to me?
What else is making me unhappy that’s within my control? What are my options?
So my message is, we need to recognise the context in which we are mothering, give ourselves a break and empower ourselves in whatever way we can. The recent news that the government is proposing all employees have a right to request flexible working patterns from day one is progress – but we now need to work together on this to fight for the support that parents need to thrive. *Sample 100+ women aged 26-55 *You can download my free Discover Your Core Values workbook by clicking on the link in my bio on Instagram
About the author
Lucy Higgins is a Mum to two boys and an ICF accredited coach who helps Mums to thrive at home and at work. She is passionate about gender equality and ending the mental health stigma having managed anxiety since she was a child and suffered with perinatal depression. Her Instagram page Big Talk For Mums (for Mums who hate small talk) is her way of encouraging authentic and vulnerable conversation to help women feel more connected and less alone. Lucy has a 20 year background in corporate communications and retrained to become a coach when she became a Mum. You can find more about her experience here www.linkedin.com/lucyhigginscoach and you can book a free 60 min coaching session with her and download free resources here.