The science of being a good mother

There’s an awful lot of things that no one told me about becoming a mother (the mind numbing boredom, the overwhelming guilt, the love that is so great it borders on obsession, just to start), but of them all, there has been a simple truth that has been the hardest to grasp, and it is this: you just never feel that good at it.
I’ve built my whole life around being good at things. I’m that kind of competitive, perfectionist, ambitious person; I get my identity and sense of self from other people thinking I’m great. (Yes, I get that this isn’t entirely healthy but there you go, I’ll work on it in another patch of my life when I have the odd second to spare) And, well, when you’re a mother, this grinds to a halt. There’s no one to give you a pat on the back when you pull off a presentation; no lovely student to say, ‘thanks miss, I get that now’ or buy you chocolates at the end of the year; no promotions or pay rises. Instead, there’s a near permanent sense of self doubt.
When they were younger, it wasn’t so bad. Child 1 was that sort of angelic baby who never put a foot wrong. He slept, he smiled, he ate, he charmed. There was no reason to doubt my abilities as a mother – not with the perfect child. Indeed, I spent much time patting myself on the back and thinking smugly how it was just all in the routine and other (more unfortunate as it turned out) parents were just making a fuss. This smugness was dispelled at the speed of light by karma in the form of child 2, who neither slept nor charmed. Given that there is exactly twelve months and four days between the two, however, there was little time to feel either self doubt or failure, and in fact it was in this period of parenthood that I felt the most successful, acclaimed as I was by all who met me. ‘Twelve months?’ People would exclaim, clearly itching to say, ‘what were you THINKING?’ and ‘surely it wasn’t planned?’ but instead settling for, ‘wow, that must be hard work.’ And it was, but at least it was hard work that people recognise. Everyone secretly wants others to think that their lives are the hardest – just think of all the times you’ve left your partner with the kids. No one really wants to hear ‘of course we’re all fine, darling, nothing to it’ when you phone for a progress update. The only thing that would really please you is ‘I’m exhausted. How do you do this every day?’ And in that time when I had a newborn and a one year old, or a one and a two year old, I had that recognition in spades. ‘I just don’t know how you do it,’ people in Waitrose/ at baby singing classes/ at playgroup would say, and at least through the fog of exhaustion and wondering myself how the hell I was doing it, I could feel like I was good at it.
This continued through the toddler years; I restricted television, read hundreds of hours of stories, talked, questioned, researched, played, used the naughty step consistently, took them to museums, was patient, listened, never let my children run around in restaurants, and never shouted or lost my temper. (This was a particular point of pride at the time; I wish I hadn’t bothered as I’ve more than made up for it since) I was neurotic about their health and extremely uncreative but I didn’t beat myself up over it; they had Daddy for that. All of this, I felt, added up to a mother who, if not actually good, was good enough.
Then they went to school. And any sense I’d had through the early years of feeling like the sort of mother who’d done her level best to give her children a decent start in life came screeching to an absolute halt. In the eighteen months since child 1’s reception year began, the times of feeling like a good, effective parent are few and far between.
The problem with school is not with school, or with the teachers, or with the child, it’s with the parent. I watched child 1 trot off into his first day of reception, and I imagined a whole new world of friends, books, play, and excelling. Why would I have thought any differently? He was my first child – to me he was everything. I thought everything he did was magnificent. I knew from nursery, of course, that he wouldn’t write, and that he’d do anything to avoid it, including behaving badly. I knew he couldn’t read or do phonics, or dress himself especially well. But somehow I thought he’d be fine, and to be fair to him, he was. It was me that spent most of the first year a total wreck.
The list of things to make me feel an absolute failure quickly mounted up. He was destructive in his play, and smashed up other people’s Lego. He found phonics practically indecipherable. He hated writing. He was naughty on the carpet. He wanted to play only games that involved spaceships, Star Wars, and things exploding. I was phoned by the teacher, who said we needed to discuss his behaviour. I was helpfully told by another parent that her child referred to him as ‘the naughty one.’ I was scared to arrange play dates in case the parents wouldn’t want their children near him. And in all of this, I wondered what on earth I had done wrong. Did all those stories, all that listening, all that play – did they all count for nothing? Where had I, with all those carefully crafted hours of being what I considered to be a good mother, gone wrong?
And you see – in the end, I could probably live with being a rubbish teacher, or manager, or friend. I wouldn’t like it, but I could live with it. But being a good mother – that’s the very cornerstone of my existence. My children are my best work, and they will never be equalled. The thought that I may have let them down – unintentionally, but let down nonetheless – is more than a little crippling.
Over the course of the year, things improved. Of course they did. I had not gone wrong. Somewhere underneath that misbehaving, silly, playing-to-the-gallery four year old was the well mannered, sweet, lovely child I had always known at home, and over time this established itself at school. We listened to some excellent advice from his teachers, played in a different way with him, took great comfort from some of my friends (‘he’s FOUR Rebecca! What four year old boy wants to sit on the carpet learning phonics when he could be playing with Lego?’), told myself I was being bloody ridiculous (‘there are people starving in the world!’) made him be more independent, and he gradually grew up a bit, until by the summer term he had lots of friends, behaved on the carpet, would actually write, and was liked by his teachers. Which is all I came to want out of reception, despite my lofty dreams of the previous year; only the recognition and reassurance that the boy I know at home is also the one his teachers see at school.
And so, it is this last year that has taught me more about being a good mother than all the ones before. Being a good mother isn’t just about the stories you read, or the towers you build, or the playground you trek to week after week. Being a good mother is about remembering that children are all different – that the progress one makes in phonics, or behaviour, or writing, is never important when compared to the progress of another. Its about realising that life isn’t a race, and every child will get to a different point at a different time. It’s about working with the other parent and with teachers to change behaviour that makes school, or life, difficult. And it’s about remembering that all children have talents which may not be the ones you dreamed of when they were in the womb, but are everything to be proud of.



One thought on “The science of being a good mother

  1. Hey kindred soul! This statement rang home to me so much, ‘But being a good mother – that’s the very cornerstone of my existence. My children are my best work, and they will never be equaled. The thought that I may have let them down – unintentionally, but let down nonetheless – is more than a little crippling.’
    I have felt this so many times over the years – still do! I have a friend with the children the smae age as mine and she feels no guilt, happily states it’s all up to them now and manages to get on with her own life! I think I will have motherhood guilt for ever!
    And this statement,
    ‘remembering that all children have talents which may not be the ones you dreamed of when they were in the womb, but are everything to be proud of.’ should be sent home weekly to all primary school parents. xx


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