I stumbled upon a blog I am not going to share the other day. I’m not going to share it because it disturbed me deeply. Luckily – from a position of privilege, knowing a bit of basic psychology, and a lot of mindfulness – it disturbed me on a sort of theoretical “Oh my days, do people actually still think that?” sort of way. But then I remembered who I was two years ago: a hot mess who shrunk down to six stone, almost lost her job and slept about three hours a night. I stopped being mildly puzzled. I read again to make sure this person wasn’t suffering too. Nope – the bragging, finger-wagging, tell-it-like-it-is, I’m-like-Marmite style fillers didn’t suggest that. I felt cold: I’m not linking the site because I honestly think it’s dangerous for some people to read it.
The post was about as angry and ranty as the introduction I just wrote, all the way through. It suggested – no, denoted outright – that mothers who want ‘me time’ are selfish and if someone craves ‘me time’ it meant there is a problem with their relationship. To want to be alone – for any time – must mean an unhappiness with the family around you. That it is more than selfish, it is mentally unhealthy to want time on your own.
And I’m now going to give a little disclaimer. I don’t consider myself proudly ‘marmite like’ or controversial. I’m really quite bland and frankly, tread a strange path paved with the most boring parts of traditional parenting and the most earnest parts of modern hippy parenting. I’m a baby-wearing, church-going school teacher. The Childe had boob-food till she was almost three. We do gentle parenting, which has me praying daily for the grace it takes to keep explaining and allowing mistakes (on my cream carpet, involving jam, usually). My husband are so bloody tragic we I have never gone on an evening date since the Childe was born, because I prefer one of us to put her to bed. Also because I like brunch, it’s breakfast food with cocktails, obvious win. I go out in the evening after bed time, so don’t expect to see me out before 7.45pm – which given that I’m knackered most of the time gives me a good two hours of moderate drinking and moaning about modern music/discussing catchment areas before I’m on the bus home with a bag of chips. I’m also a twin: I’m so used to sharing I cut individual Kipling slices in half (then eat both haha). I’ve had recurrent miscarriages and will only ever have one ‘miracle’, so don’t come at me with ‘but think of those poor women…’ because I was one of them. I’ve been there. My concerns about this vile, judgemental, shame-inducing nonsense are not based on some deflected guilt around my own choices being of the wild nights and endless days variety. The wildest thing I’ve seen at night recently was a monster poo the Childe released at 3am (Look Mummeh! He’s a big snail-boy. Poo is made of old smelly food mummeh. Wipe my bum now please!”). My concerns come as someone who lives with an anxiety disorder: someone who knows how ‘shoulds’ and ‘normal’ and ‘bad mother’ can rip, shred and rot the delicate threads of self-esteem.
Posts like that don’t spring up in a vacuum – OK, we all know that shock value gets hits, but this shock-value is all the more tempting because of lazy thinking and the sexist assumption that as soon as a woman wants something, she is enslaved by her emotions. That it’s best for women not to think, they might make the wrong choice. Like things haven’t moved on from Adam and Eve. Terrible parenting memes are everywhere – check out this selection torn apart, hilariously, by Whinge Whinge Wine. We’ve all scrolled our social media and seen those quote-on-a-photo memes: rarely do they proffer the reasonable sentiment that a good parent (either parent) might want to party every night but understands that it would be irresponsible … rather, the meme always states that a good mother (and it’s only ever that flavour of parent) happily looks down on the parenting scum as she is blissfully unaware of anything but being #blessed and too busy cherishing every moment. Leaving a whole lot of women who are parenting with love and responsibility labelled wanton and shallow because – deep down – they used to quite like going to the pub/club/cinema/gym every evening instead of watching Iggle Bloody Piggle, although they now choose not to because – gasp – they are adults who are able to enjoy something and make a fairly common-sense moral decision in terms of moderating their behaviour. But they like the pub. Tsk.
What concerns me is that this kind of virtue-signalling rightious anger is like gaslighting, like a false narrative – almost like an abusive relationship. We have safeguarding guidelines at work which we share with the kids about warning signals of an abusive relationship – being isolated from usual friendship groups? Being embarrassed or made to feel there is something wrong with you if you disagree? HUGE concerns. Check out this list from relate – criticism, undermining, being made to feel guilty, telling you what you can and cannot do. If one person does it, it’s a crime. If society does it, its ‘just an opinion’ and harmless? I think not.
Yeah, people might say, but these memes make us feel good about having no social life and no one actually takes them seriously. Just take them with a pinch of salt.
Really? You think it’s just teenagers who are getting depressed and peer pressured over social media stuff? You can imagine what seeing those memes would be like for a woman who is being criticised and isolated by a manipulative partner, going online and finding the insidious illusion of ‘most people’ seem to agree with him. They think she should change her thoughts, her desires, reject her outside friends: otherwise she’s a bad mother. Her emotional salt cellar is empty, she can’t apply a pinch of salt. You can imagine how the anxious or depressed mother feels, or the mother whose child screamed at nursery drop off and feels awful because she’s got a work ‘party’ later where she’ll be networking like mad with a glass of cheap wine and a forced smile. The woman who suffered loss after loss before a rainbow baby and tortures herself as an ungrateful cow because now, just sometimes, she doesn’t want to change another miracle-baby nappy or get up at miracle-baby-o’clock and she doesn’t dare say it because it would mean she doesn’t deserve her child. When I mentioned privilege earlier on, this is the kind of scenario I meant: these women don’t wear sandwich boards, they’re hiding behind normal faces at every play group and school gate. In a world averaging 200+ Facebook friends by the time you’re 25, mum memes are seen by many. Not all able to let it wash over them like water off a duck’s back.
If you want to feel good about the sacrifices you’ve made as a parent, why not celebrate how much stronger these are because you’ve thought about the pros and cons, the rights and wrongs. Surely this is better than portraying good motherhood as an unthinking stereotype?
And then on to the second part: wanting to be alone being unhealthy or indicating you dislike your child or partner. Well, as John-Paul Satre once said “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” Regardless of belief system, whether you call it prayer, meditation, mindfulness or whatever: your own thoughts matter. They are what you are. It’s a part of you, and part of health. Too often the life of a parent is a life of emotional labour – it’s all too easy to forget to take time to rest the mind, to be at one with the self. Being comfortable when alone doesn’t mean a lack of love for others: it might mean a space to think things out, or a blissful rest. But if being alone is uncomfortable – well, I’ve been there. It doesn’t mean you love people more – it suggests a fear of self. Not good.
The most selfless and giving are often said to ‘love their neighbour as they love themselves’. Without loving and knowing themselves fully, how can they love others? In my experience, it’s the same with any relationship. Being focused on those you love actually means taking a step back from the ‘look how hard I worked!’ mentality and into the ‘are they happy and safe?’ mentality. Step back. OK, sometimes it will be too busy – but seriously, if your kid is in bed and your other half watching TV quite happily, there is no problem with hiding away with a glass of wine and a good book, engaging alone with a hobby or just relaxing. ‘As you love yourself’ is a key, often forgotten part of the idiom. Partners are two people who got together because of love, friendship and interest: united, but still two people. Each one must have space to reflect in order to thrive. By reflect, I also include eating Doritos in front of Youtube (me) or reading comics – I mean graphic novels (him).
I might get my tinfoil hat out about just how much society – especially online society – has us thinking mothering (you don’t see this kind of thing for men) is to do with effort not outcome. When think about it, if you really do want to be a massive old hippy, you should be wholly concerned with the wellbeing, happiness and security of the child. And it’s highly unlikely that you cannot manage this without sacrificing all personal space and time. For me, it means a parent putting Childe to bed for now – but going out afterwards. Even Dr Sears says us crunchies need rest (on a side note, a tinfoil hat lady on a well known parenting forum accused me of faking that last link, because Dr Sears was suggesting parents relax sometimes. You see? You see how some people believe the memes and blog posts?).
Instead I will leave you with some wise words from Mumologist, a psychologist campaigning for better parental mental health. This comment beneath a recent Instagram post was one of the best things I’ve read in a long time: if you want to follow some good quality, intelligent and compassionate social media accounts, hers is a great place to start.