Complaining about motherhood

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Recently, Tracy Moore wrote an amusing article for Jezebel called "How to Bitch About Having a Kid (Without Seeming Like a Total Dick)" and in it she argued that complaining about your child was both a normal part of being human and yet something that required the observation of fairly precise limits. She offered advice on exactly how much you may complain and to whom you can do so. As funny and self-deprecating as her article was, Moore still managed to alarm and offend people, which goes to show that this is a tricky topic.

Why is complaining about your children such a taboo? And why are most of us doing it anyway? Moore focused on the risk of wearing out your welcome with your complaints but the greater risk, one she only mentioned in passing, is that you will be seen as a terrible mother for complaining at all.

When mothers do complain about their children, particularly in public, they often pull punches in a 'cereal all over the floor, those loveable rascals' kind of way. Motherhood is so tightly scripted that even when someone appears to ad-lib they are very often reading rehearsed lines. Complaining about my children feels a lot like complaining about my job. The tantrums, the squabbling, the whining and the interruptions - these are the monotonous meetings, the jammed printers and the difficult bosses I may complain about to colleagues over drinks. But that's not necessarily how the complaints will be received. The line between your story, as a mother, and your children's is thin. Who owns this tale of woe and its right to be told? Unloading is liberating but troubling for a parent, all at once. Mothering is a role that will dominate my life for at least twenty years and there is plenty to say about that preoccupation but it is almost impossible to write about without treading on the privacy and powerlessness of my children.

There is much at stake for me, also, in complaining. The myth of motherhood is that the loving, the giving, and the nurturing is innate and unconflicted. Mothering is supposedly the core of my gender. The caring tasks I perform are expected of me, unlike those done by my partner, which are often seen as evidence of particularly exemplary traits in him. The reason you are not to complain too loudly about mothering is because it calls into question your very femininity. To fail at this role is not to highlight the complexity of mothering work or the precariousness of my status, but rather, it is to hint at a moral failure on my part.

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Even so, I know the reality of motherhood is that it is full of ambivalence. The process of having a baby is the cleaving of yourself in two. There is you, the person you know and have always been, and then there is you, somebody's mother. In the early months this felt like I had unravelled and that my heart was collapsing, liquefying and slipping through my grip. Nothing could prepare me for the overwhelming tenderness of mothering, nor its ferocity. To love someone so deeply when they are as fragile as a baby feels as though you are being utterly careless with your heart. And to love someone that demanding is a journey through the darkest parts of your soul. How patient are you? What is your endurance for exhaustion, loneliness, deprivation, and uncertainty? Whatever your capacity, even more will be required of you.

I was at my most vulnerable when it was just my daughter and I together, through the long, slow hours of the day or the maddening hours in the middle of the night. Through the years since I have reconstructed myself, but my daughter will know me in a way nobody else does. She saw me bare. By the time I had her brother, four years later, I was the mother I had always wanted to be - relaxed and competent. If that ambivalence as a first-time mother, and that intensity in your relationship with them, does not bring out a kind of confused anger in you at times then you are either a much saner person than I or much less. The complaining starts from the very beginning as a parent - why won't this baby sleep? - and you may either speak it aloud and hope to find release or keep it buried inside and nurture a frightening resentment.

I am pretty certain that mothering is not supposed to be this difficult - that you are not supposed to feel quite as 'on the edge' as you so often do. But mothers are isolated by suburbia and nuclear families. They are silenced, too, by the Hallmark card-like mythology of it all. Children are designed to love and be loved, it is how they survive; but much of that survival manifests as continuous crying and incessant demands. From moment to moment, as a parent, I experience a competition of needs - mine for rest; my children's for tending; mine for solitude; my children's for attention. But tucked up in our suburban homes with partners at work we reach the end of our tether in a state of claustrophobia. I can end days like that weak from suppressed fury. I feel the explosion bubbling millimetres beneath my surface while simultaneously being fiercely protective of my children.

The mythology of motherhood, which grossly over-simplifies the experience, ignores the internal conflicts but also somehow fails to capture the exhilarating joyousness of the experience. The love you feel for your children can leave you equally defenceless, such is it size and capacity to swallow you whole. The languid moments cuddling, the sense of ease and adventure together when we are holidaying, and the pure physical beauty of their small limbs and soft skin.

By sharing private and difficult moments as mothers we create a more complete picture of the reality of motherhood - it ultimately frees us all. The ugly complaints, if told wisely, can in a way be witness to the stamina of this extraordinary relationship. But the fear in us in disclosing is palpable - that we might be frauds and that our secret moments exclude us from being good mothers. For an instant, you are unsettlingly close to the truly dysfunctional mother and you see the dangerously fragile state that she must teeter in and how damaging she is to her children. I try to write about my ugly truths because the scariest part is thinking that these complications are mine, alone. And I write about them to reconcile the tensions I experience in opposing directions - away from my children and towards them, the latter ultimately that much stronger. And I write predominantly to other women, because I know I will find wholeness and authenticity when I hear their own truths spoken back to me.

25 comments

  • Thank you. Your words reminded me of a prayer by Leunig: "God be with the mother. As she carried her child may she carry her soul. As her child was born, may she give birth and life and form to her own, higher truth. As she nourished and protected her child, may she nourish and protect her inner life and her independence. For her soul shall be her most painful birth, her most difficult child and the dearest sister to her other children. Amen."

    Commenter
    Megan
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 19, 2012, 8:44AM
    • Thank you Andie for articulating what so many of us feel on a too regular basis - that our efforts are unappreciated and invisible but that our failures are public property worthy of headline scrutiny. I don't want to complain about motherhood so much as complain about how motherhood is portrayed and judged by others.

      Commenter
      ChrisB
      Location
      Fitzroy North
      Date and time
      October 19, 2012, 8:47AM
      • Thank you. Your words reminded me of a prayer by Leunig: "God be with the mother. As she carried her child may she carry her soul. As her child was born, may she give birth and life and form to her own, higher truth. As she nourished and protected her child, may she nourish and protect her inner life and her independence. For her soul shall be her most painful birth, her most difficult child and the dearest sister to her other children. Amen."

        Commenter
        Megan
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 19, 2012, 8:47AM
        • Thank you! You have perfectly encapsulated my own daily struggle. And it's only getting harder. With a newborn and a toddler and my first taste of post natal depression it's been much harder to see the "rascally scamp" side of my toddler. The cries of the newborn have led to anxiety which has slipped into panic attacks until I went to the GP. When I hear myself starting to complain to even those who I know I could, I always stop myself for fear of sounding selfish, needy, trivial or, heaven forbid, like a bad mother. I've even said to myself "there are people suffering more than this" or "you're not the first one to have felt this way and you won't be the last" as if those two things are enough to make me suck it up and magically recover instantly.
          In the last week I have discovered that one minute of complaining out loud, even to myself, is enough to help me let it go and move forward to the next endless day, rather than swallowing my anger and resentment which only leads to more of the same.
          Complaining about the kids doesn't mean I love them or take care of them less than I should, it means I'm putting my own oxygen mask on first so I can help them

          Commenter
          MG1
          Date and time
          October 19, 2012, 8:57AM
          • MG1 - reading your comment it could have been me a year ago. It was the most difficult time of my life: with a difficult newborn who refused to sleep and fed poorly whilst wrangling the toddler. It wasn't until my baby was nearly 9 months old that I collapsed in a heap, ended up at sleep school for her and finally admitted I had PND. Fortunately I was allocated a terrific social worker who has helped enormously. The best advice I was given was to not compare myself to others, as I had done just like you. Your situation, whether "worse" or "better" than others is still just that: YOUR situation. It is real and difficult for you and it is OK it is that way. It doesn't meant you don't love your children. It just means it is hard.

            If it helps, my daughter is now 15 months old and just yesterday I said goodbye to my social worker. Life is by no means easy but it is fun again, my girl still doesn't sleep well but my son is out of the toddler stage and has grown into an adorable pre-schooler. And now they can play together my life is much easier rather than stressing about if he's hitting the baby. Best of luck.

            Commenter
            Miss D
            Date and time
            October 19, 2012, 1:30PM
        • Parenting is a long and challenging journey - we are allowed to complain about everything else in our lives, why not this? We also find different stages easier or harder. I loved every bit of it and didn't even blench at the toddler tantrums (although I complained about them). But the teenage years have caused much anguish and self-doubt, and even caused me to question having children in the first place. If I couldn't complain I would go insane! In any case, I am always highly suspicious of people who make out their children or marriage is perfect. It is usually a great big fat lie.

          Commenter
          Jo
          Date and time
          October 19, 2012, 9:07AM
          • Jo - I too have teenagers and relate to your anguish and self-doubt. When my children were little I adored every single moment I had with them. Now one of my children has turned, at the age of 16, (after being an adorable, perfect child) into a truely unlikeable and selfish person. Her two siblings (who are wonderful people) now loathe her, my husband wants to her leave and we fight about it constantly, and every time my phone rings, or I am driving home at night and catch sight of my home I start to feel ill. You have no idea how she makes me feel and I feel as if I can't talk about her to anyone as I will be vilified as a "bad mother". I have even hidden her behaviour from other members of the family (grandparents, aunts etc) as I am so ashamed of who she has become. So I wish I could really say what I think without fear of being stoned or something.

            Commenter
            Mother of Teenagers
            Date and time
            October 19, 2012, 11:28AM
          • Mother of Teenagers - I really feel for you. It must be awful. I remember my mother saying to me 'you were such a happy child, until you were a teenager' as apparently I was a little angel and then turned into an angry hormonal teenage girl. But I came out the other side a happy adult. Hormones can virtually turn a male into a female and vice versa, so just imagine what they are doing to a developing teenager's brain. You're probably an awesome mum yet your daughter is a massive pain in the butt. But maybe she can't help how she is behaving. Have you tried seeing a teen counsellor? I'm only suggesting this to try and help make your life easier, knowing how teenagers can make people's lives miserable : (

            Commenter
            JB
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            October 19, 2012, 4:21PM
          • MoT - I'm sorry you feel you can't talk to anyone about this. I suggest you find someone you can trust to talk, as you need support going through this. I have found my mother to be very supportive - she is understanding and caring, and even though she had no problems with her own children, she knows plenty of people who do - and it is reassuring to know that this is normal. Having someone to talk to relieves a lot of worry and stress, and as a result of my mother's concern for my own welfare, I am now taking her advice and spending more time looking after me. There are some quite useful books around too - anything that discusses this as a normal part of growing up and not just bad parenting, that offers some humour and perspective, and also gives a sympathetic insight into what is going on with your child, can really help when you are searching for answers and understanding. All 3 of my children have been difficult - the 2 oldest are now turning out to be lovely people and my youngest is showing signs of being over the worst (fingers crossed). Having endured some of the worst of adolescent torture, I can say that the benefit is really appreciating my children when they become lovely human beings, and valuing our relationship the more for it.

            Commenter
            Jo
            Date and time
            October 19, 2012, 4:24PM
        • I didn't think I'd bother with going to mother's group but 10 months down the track am so glad I did. The best way to avoid feeling isolated in suburbia is to spend some time with women in the same boat. I've cultivated friendships where we support each other and share stories and advice. We all do things differently but have bonded as first time mums.

          I can't comment on feeling like a dysfunctional mother from experience, but I can understand that it happens. Like anything in life, some people find things harder than others and with our family members and friends scattered about the globe it's possible to grow into adulthood without having any exposure to babies and children until you have your own - so you're thrown into the deep end.

          Try and remember that if you're doing the best job you can - then you need to try and relax about it. Children are very resilient and manage to blossom against the odds. No mother is exactly the same as another - yet most children seem fine to me!

          Commenter
          cb
          Location
          sydney
          Date and time
          October 19, 2012, 9:26AM

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