At work, recently, I was reading a study about post-natal depression. The researchers did a (very clever) intervention, and found that they were able to reduce the severity and length of PND episodes in post-partum women. They got lots of funding to take it further... to benefit child health. Because after all, post-natal depression is bad for babies.
And that's true, of course, but I couldn't help thinking: isn't post-natal depression also pretty bad for the mothers? Does that not matter?
Not as much as it should. When I was struggling badly a few months ago, I heard some stories from other people that made me incredibly sad. The worst I heard was of a doctor whose patient asked for help because she was struggling with depression and anxiety. When he asked her if she was thinking of harming the children (and she said no) he said "No therapy or meds for you at this stage. Come back if you're thinking about hurting the kids".
That man deserves a giant wedgie, obviously, but sometimes we talk like this ourselves, too. When mothers look at our lives, it's easy to talk as if the only excuse to help ourselves or improve anything is because it ultimately helps our children. I don't think men talk like this. I think that when a man wants to, say, go running, he just says that he wants to go running and shuts the door behind him. When a woman wants to go running, she usually has to find some reason why making the time to go running is going to make her a better mother (I'll be a better mother if I get some endorphins; I'll be a better mother if I have some time to myself) before she will let herself lace up her shoes.
I read this article recently (as did every other mother with an internet connection, I think, and if you didn't, FIX THAT NOW) and it made me think about some of this stuff, about how we value ourselves and each other as mothers, as women.
I'm in the thick of young-mothering at the moment. It's hard. There are lots of good bits, but it's hard. It does move fast, and parts of it are incredibly wonderful, and I can see that there is something special about this time, something that will never come again. I will not always have a child who greets their naked reflection with 'Hello, nipples!' and I will miss that when it is gone. And of course, I already miss this:
but when children are tiny, they are cute for a reason. If they weren't adorable, we would not put up with their insane demands. We would not let them ruin our lives and then pretend that we don't resent it. (Joking!) (Mostly).
And people telling us oh enjoy it - enjoy it - enjoy it, it goes so fast - that tells me that these are the only years of my life worth having. That all that will be left for me in ten years time, or fifteen, is a fading nostalgia for this time, now, when life was worth living.
I hope that I will look back and see, through memory's soft-focussed, gilded lens, how incredibly privileged I was to mother these two beautiful human beings through their infancy. But I also hope that, as I am looking back, I will still be mothering these two beautiful human beings. They might not need me to choose their clothes and cut up their toast any more (and please, oh please let them take care of their own bathroom needs eventually) but this, here, isn't the only way to be a mother. And being a mother isn't the only thing worth doing, either. My life didn't start when I became a mother. It won't end when they leave home. If we had never had children at all, I would still be a person. I love my children, but they aren't what makes me worthy of my space on the
(Fellow Christian mothers, I think we have our own specialist version of this kind of thinking. Churches are usually pretty good about valuing motherhood, but I think that sometimes the intense focus on that aspect of what Christian womanhood means can lead to us devaluing a lot of other amazing things that women can (and do) do for God. if we let ourselves believe that THIS IS IT! the time that means something in my life! then we are going to struggle to lead worthwhile, Jesus-focussed lives as our children grow and leave us. Right now, this is my most important Kingdom work. Right now, self-sacrifice and loving like Christ means, most often, changing another nappy with a smile on my face and disciplining my children with consistent love and trying not to scream when they ask me to sing The Teddy Bear Twist! yet. again. But it won't always be this way. There will come a time when this job is done and that is okay. That will be a time to find new work, new ways to love other people, new ways to build the Kingdom. It has to be that way. If we let ourselves believe that intense mothering is the only thing that matters, we are going to waste the next forty years after we have had our turn, keeping our children's bedrooms like shrines to the time that they were ours rather than saying 'Okay, Lord, what do you need me to do next?')
They aren't what makes me worthy of my space on the planet. Which is just as well. And maybe, whether we enjoy this time or not isn't really the point. And who are the enjoyment police, anyway? No matter how much we enjoy it, or no matter how much time we spend climbing the walls, it's going to end anyway. I think that living, now, knowing that, helps me to keep these sweet and painful days in perspective. There is no amount of enjoying that will stop these days from ending. I cannot wring a day more from this time than I am given, no matter how upbeat my attitude. That's not how time works.
There has to be something else afterwards. I refuse to believe that the next forty years of my life are going to be a wasteland because I won't have toddlers. They are not my only reason for existing.
So I am trying to learn to refuse to talk as if the only reason to do something I want to do is because it will somehow benefit the toddlers. I think the two are tied together.
Why do we talk like this, think like this? I don't know about you, but I blame post-feminism*. I think that feminism gave us the idea that our lives should be fulfilling (rather than just the self-sacrifice of motherhood) and then post-feminism told us that we could still get that fulfilment, but that we could get it through motherhood after all. Which, let's be frank, it some pretty serious mis-selling of the whole experience, right? Talking as if motherhood is the only worthwhile (or even the most worthwhile) thing we do reduces mothers to the sum of their mothering, and it reduces childless women to nothing at all. That can't be right.
This book is very thought-provoking on the subject. I would like to unpack this a bit more, but I don't want to make this post longer than it already is; I need to go and sit on the sofa for a while and drink some red wine.... (after all, I'm a much better mother if I get a break in the evenings. Ha).
I think what I'm trying to say is: it's easy to forget that this isn't all there is, that the kids aren't the only people who matter. It's especially easy when we feel guilty about not appreciating this time enough (and we do, obviously, which is why that post resonated with practically the entire western world).
Kids are nice to have, but we are people too. And that is reason enough to look after ourselves. You, on your own, are enough of a reason to take care of yourself, to go on a date night, to read a book, to occasionally leave your child in bed for a nap for an inappropriately long time while you take a bubble bath. If that self-care somehow helps your kids, that's great. But it's enough to do it for you.
Even saying that, I want to write after all, one of the best things we can teach our children is that the world does not revolve around them! They need to see us having the self-respect to care for ourselves! and maybe that's and true, but it's not the point. And the need I feel to write that is exactly what I'm talking about.
You are reason enough, tired mother with a teething baby.
You are reason enough, mother whose children have left and gone
You are reason enough, just you, whether you have twelve children or none.
It doesn't have to all be about the kids.
You are reason enough too.
*I'm joking! Sort of. I do not have a degree in women's studies. If you do, please don't yell at me in the comments.