Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paddling Furiously Beneath the Surface

People don't frown in photos. In photos, everything is hunky dory. Mothers are the same with our out-of-the-house faces. We are experts at putting on a brave public face even when chaos and frustration reign at home.

Do you ever look at another mother gliding along, calmly pushing a pram, and wonder how she manages to be so competent, so together? I read an explanation for this (was it in What Mothers Do? I'm not sure) and it went roughly as follows. We all feel such a sense of relief when we manage to get organised enough to leave the house that we are bound to look a bit calm and happy as we walk along. Let's face it, the afternoon stroll is the highight of the day when you're caring for a newborn and you're pretty pleased with yourself for getting your shit together long enough to step outside the door (plus the fact that this may be the first time in the day that the baby has stopped crying). At the same time as you're looking at some other mother and wondering how she manages to be so organised, she is probably looking at you thinking how confident you are.

Our own mothers can be just as unhelpful when it comes to understanding how bloody hard motherhood can be. I have already forgotten just how bewildering the first few months were (I don't think I got enough sleep to actually form memories). If I've forgotten after a year, imagine what it's like after 30 years. They remember the good bits (the human brain does have a tendency to forget bad things anyway) and it is the good bits that they tend to talk about. Hence, insecure new mums like me wonder why we are so much less competent than our mothers were.

I think blogs also tend to give a false impression of how great other people's lives are. You read about what a wonderful day some blogger and her family had, you see pictures of attractive children kicking up autumn leaves in dappled sunlight, and you think, "How come my life isn't as perfect as that?". But what the blogger doesn't write about is the tantrum the child had at breakfast time; the fact she had to be bribed to put on her wellies; the way she cried when she was put in her car seat. I'm not criticising anyone for writing nice things about their families; I am just saying that we naturally tend to edit out the worst bits and write about the things that went well, that we enjoyed.

The point of this post is to say that intelligent, self-aware people tend to be self-critical and, when comparing themselves with others, to find themselves wanting (at least, I do). Mothers are no exception. We always think everyone else is coping so much better then we are (I do anyway). But I have met enough mums in real life to know that when you scratch the surface and get past that public face, we all have the same worries and problems. Even a confident, capable, charity-working, volunteering, supermum-of-three, long the subject of my admiration, admitted to me yesterday that she feels she can't cope when her toddler plays up. I know that shouldn't make me feel better, but it does.

So what I am trying to say is that it is easy to look at other people and imagine that their lives are more enjoyable than your own, or that they are much better parents than you, or they are happier than you, or whatever other metric you use to measure your own self-worth. But I don't think it's true. I think other people look at you and think exactly the same thing. I think mothers in particular are brilliant at putting on a brave face. In reality, we all appear to be gliding serenely while beneath the surface we are paddling furiously. This is the nature of things and it will never change. So (and I am saying this more to myself than to anyone else) chill out, make the best of things and stop thinking that everyone is so much better at motherhood than you.


carol b said...

You've said it all.
How many times have I looked at other women and thought how calm, at ease, capable, confident, brilliant they look? Oh - just a few times almost every day, especially during the first year of motherhood.
That's one of the things I've loved about meeting other Mums, making new friends - there's such equality once you start to talk to each other. We are all feeling the same.

The ease/ability/confidence just ebbs and flows throughout the group as the weeks go by, touching all of us sometimes, none of us all the time.

Liz said...

I aspire to be a serenely gliding swan of a mother, even if I was paddling furiously beneath. Alas, I think I more probably resemble the ball in a pinball machine as I ricochet from one crisis, request, tantrum, job etc, to the next...

JK said...

So much of this got me thinking 'yes, how true'. Especially the bit about blogs. No-one wants to read a load of whinging and whining but you don't want to give the impression of being unrealistically perfect!

Melodie said...

So true. Lately I look at my group of mom friends and wonder how they manage to keep it all together when I am barely sleeping enough as it is. But then I remember how much I have on my plate right now and try to give myself a break. But it's hard. It's so hard not to compare.

Mummy Zen said...

You're absolutely right and have highlighted a very good point. I think mums who are struggling to get a decent night's sleep are particularly sensitive and easily (but unnecessarily) feel inferior to other mums they see out and about. At the end of the day we're all muddling along as best we can.
Great post!

cartside said...

Well said. My own confidence level sinks whenever I'm near a highly confident person, mum or not. I try to avoid confident people, they're not good for me. Fortunately I found a group of very honest mums and we helped each other through the bumpy ride of becoming mothers. I still try and show empathy to new mums around me but often they will deny that they're struggling, as if it's something to be ashamed of. I never was, although I did worry about lots of things because I compared with others (like sleeping through milestones, until I gave that one up and decided to just get on with life).
Now, after a rough early ride, I do actually feel reasonably confident and very proud of it, BECAUSE the start was such an intense struggle.

I've also always blogged about the bad bits, because if there's one thing that I want out of blogging apart from the personal record it's for people to get the "thankfully I'm not the only one" feeling, to help their confidence when it is rather low.

global mamas said...

Great post! Your honesty in your writing allows for great images to come to mind...made me laugh (becauase I can relate soooo much) Thanks

allgrownup said...

the cake i made, you commented on my blog: making it meant going without a shower, i had to choose. and daddy had to hold the new baby. and i iced it the day after, it was too much to do all a once! it wasn't easy anyway. but i wanted to do something for me, and i love baking.

Cave Mother said...

Melodie and Mummy Zen - I think youve made a good point about feeling less confident when you're lacking sleep. I think that's when I feel crappest about myself, unfortunately.

Why, if everyone sometimes feels inferior to others, don't we all drop the "i'm coping so well" act?

cypress sun said...

The day I told someone that I was pregnant was the day that judgment, or perceived judgment began.

Being that "other" mother that appears to have it all together once in a while helps. People tell me my child is "good" for various reasons, but they just happened to catch a "good" moment.

It's the same with blogging in my opinion. I'm not typing out how frustrated I with my child, my life, because I'm too busy surviving it! And then..there's that short-term memory piece that probably keeps us all from going crazy.

Lisa - edenwild said...

I generally try to be honest and I think I usually leave my emotions bare, unless I don't feel safe to do so. But like you said, if I manage to get out of the house then I will probably be in pretty good spirits. And it's easier to tame our behavior when others are around us--not just because we want to save face, but because there is support around us, and that helps us remain calm.

It's very hard for people to expose their weaknesses to others. Even while I do write about certain difficulties of life and motherhood on my blog, I still edit. Like I wouldn't normally mention that I snapped at my poor child this morning for his incessant whining that apparently had no cause for it except to annoy me. It's just too embarrassing to admit that to everyone I know!

I know I'm far from perfect, and I strive to do better all the time, but I do feel pretty confident despite the struggles. I wish I had the same patience as some other mothers...I wish I got my child outdoors more often...I wish this, I wish that. But I know the stuff I AM doing for him is good, and I feel good about that.

Lisa - edenwild said...

Oh, and I want to mention that even though it's so hard to get out of the house most days, I constantly strive for it because it's like this automatic relief button: Michael stops whining and I feel like I can breathe again!

Hobo Mama said...

Thank you for this wonderful reminder. I mentioned your post here in my blog post on balance (or lack thereof): "Balance and how you can't do it all, at least not all at once." Thanks for something so helpful to link to! :)

Jessica said...

I love this post and it's come at such a timely moment for me, too, because I've really been struggling lately and when I look around everyone seems so relaxed and happy but me.

I know it's not reality; I agree completely with what you've written here.

So, thanks for reminding me that we all struggle, we all question, and we all need to relax a little.