This summer was my first time home alone when the children went to Spain with their father to see family.
My mother-friends rubbed their hands in vicarious glee - "Ooooh, what will you do with yourself? Dinners with friends, spa treatments, lie-ins... total and utter mischief?" The reality was much more mundane. Tinned soup suppers, early nights with my book, endless exercise classes and overtime at the office.
When I caught up with one friend half way through this surreal pause from my normal life, she asked me how I was enjoying my freedom. I said, "To be honest, I am not re-living my hedonistic student days, or relishing my ‘freedom'. But it has been nice to be free of guilt for a while."
I'm not implying my children make me feel guilty. In fact the opposite - it's usually when I am not with them that guilt strikes. Meeting a friend after work, a 6pm body balance class, getting my nails done on a Friday morning - add an unhealthy dose of mothers' guilt (that you should really be with your children) and all of these treats turn sour. Me-time tastes best when the kids are at school or in bed.
It may sound extreme, but as any (honest) mother will tell you, we are experts in the art of self-flagellation. We whip ourselves with branches laden with McDonalds dinners, lost library books, and Disney DVDs that will result, not just in square eyes, but apparently now in total muteness, too. This guilt magnifies in the summer when your children are bored out of their little skulls and TV-time soars.
Yes, when it comes to self-inflicted guilt, mothers truly are the masters, which sparks the question: where does it come from?
I asked a few of my mother-friends for their thoughts. Their responses were immediate and prolific: it starts from conception; we compare ourselves to rose-tinted childhood memories of our own mothers; hectic lifestyles mean we can't do everything we would like. But one guilt-source kept resurfacing: other mothers.
One friend said, "I have a group of friends who are pretty honest about the ups and the downs of parenting. But I've met women who make everything into a contest - how they've taken to motherhood so naturally, how breastfeeding was so easy... I've deliberately avoided them as they just make me feel insecure." Another friend said, "Other mothers lie. A lot."
What happened to sisterhood? Why would mothers purposely want to make other mothers feel bad about themselves? A report from the Social Issues Research Centre in the UK titled The Changing Face of Motherhood holds some insight into our intertribal warfare. Apparently, 90 per cent of mothers in this decade feel guilt about the amount of time they spend with their children (despite the fact that even working mothers now spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1980s), and 30 per cent of mothers feel pressure to be ‘perfect mothers'.
The study suggests this could be because, despite everything, we still see raising the children as our ‘job' (or one of our jobs), and because celeb mothers seem to do it so easily - while wearing Jimmy Choos. The researchers say, "Celebrity mothers, with their greater material wealth and support systems that are often not acknowledged in celebrity interviews, do not portray a realistic experience of motherhood, and place additional pressures on mothers to look good as well as concern themselves with their children's emotional, educational and physical needs."
I quite agree. All these seemingly ‘perfect' you-can-have-it-all-too women waxing lyrical about their easy, glamorous, natural, blissful motherhood does kind of set the rest of us mortal beings up for feelings of failure.
In light of this, could it be that the perfect mother performance is less about making other mums feel inferior, and more about chasing ‘perfect mother' success? Are we so blinded by our parenting career ambitions to be fashion-savvy, world-saving, money-earning (or not), quinoa-eating, child-rearing Angelinas, that we neglect to notice our fellow mothers being trampled underfoot? It's a little like mothers' races at school sports days - the competitiveness is verging on cringy.
If you're in Angelina mode, retract your guilt-inducing self-proclamations. We know you are great. All mothers are. And if you are a mother who feels bound in a corset of guilt, release those strings and set yourself free. You don't need to wear it any more. A
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