Recently, comic artist Emma took the internet by storm with her comic strip illustrations of the mental load carried by women. I looked at her work knowingly, nodding, feeling empathy for so many women in similar positions to me, who have to know and remember everything.
This is the part of being a mother that I hadn’t anticipated and nobody had told me anything about. It seems that there are secret rules around how to be a mother that are written into the very fabric of modern society: mothers must do things in a certain way, mothers must know things, but mothers must never ever play the mothering card in a way that suggests that they have some sort of advanced skill set. Just ask any woman who has ever tried to do so.
The emotional load of being a mother is huge, and I hadn’t really prepared for it all, even though it began before pregnancy. In order to get those precious thick blue lines when I peed on a stick, I had to know stuff first. I had to know about cycles of my body, I had to be healthy, I had to be sure I was doing everything right; it seemed that not preventing pregnancy simply wasn’t enough as my body waved two fingers at me with miscarriages that seem to say “nah, you’re not good enough for this.”
I had to know about every single stage of pregnancy, the development of the baby growing inside me, its crown to rump length, the type of exotic fruit it could be compared to, what its milestones were and when it should meet them. I had to know about my own changing body, what I should and should not eat, how I could negotiate my way through a very posh wedding in Paris faced with flowing wine and rivers of beautiful soft cheese, two of the things I love most in the world.
I had to be just as good as everyone else I worked with. In fact I had to be better, because pregnancy is not a sickness, and at the time I was in a senior role and needed to step up and carry a struggling colleague, which meant trying to be in two places at once and sprinting up and down a corridor every five minutes.
Maybe I am a person who likes to know stuff. I want to know how things work and have all the evidence and information before me; maybe I am not good at handing control to others. I had to know about birth. My family only had negative stories to share with me, so I had to do the work of finding out myself: I read all the books and went to all the classes, met all the other people who were trying to find out about what it would be like too.
On the other side of birth, the emotional load grew as my baby did. I needed to know about developmental stages, feeding, what was normal, what was wrong, how he should be sleeping, what I should be doing when he was asleep. The internet suggested things I might be interested in as a mother, and the endless newsletters that flew into my inbox suggested things for me to be concerned with. My first child was born on the cusp of the popularity of the smartphone. As a relative luddite, a person who prefers physical books and writing longhand in a Moleskine notebook, I think my lack of technology probably saved me from a great deal of anxiety in my first days as a mother, as I simply wasn’t party to the information overload I could have been swamped under.
In some ways, maybe it kept me isolated too, as I had perceptions about La Leche League that were incorrect, even though I had been friends with a Leader for a number of years. Seeing her deftly leafing through one of the massive technical text books that now graces my shelves, and talking about assisting mothers, I thought meetings were only for those with problems. I didn’t have any, so I didn’t go along until my first born was six months old. I had been hanging out with the group of mothers I had met in my antenatal class, and they were all approaching weaning in different ways and talking of using follow-on milks instead of breastmilk. Confused and guilty that I hadn’t thought of this, I turned up to LLL to find the people who might really know what I was supposed to be doing, as making it up as I went along had worked, but now I wasn’t so sure.
I knew about baby-led weaning, I knew about the best foods to offer, I knew about signs and milestones, I knew what I wanted to avoid. I knew the ways of mothering that felt best for me, and I knew that those were in conflict with some other methods that needed a lot of products and commercial items. I knew my son and I were happy, but I still didn’t really know if I was doing things right.
Mothering is work. It is hard work that often goes unrecognised, as La Leche League Leader Vanessa Olorenshaw writes so eloquently about in her work on the Purple Stockings Movement. In work outside the home, we are rewarded for carrying knowledge with financial recompense. Many mothers today, myself included, try to continue paid roles because economics force us into such positions, and carry the emotional load of parenting too, because it seems to be a woman’s work.
As our children get older the load changes: we must know about parenting philosophies, discipline, activities, personal safety, educational choices and how to talk to our children effectively whilst shielding them from the brutal realities of the world we live in. Nothing could have prepared me for the mental capacity needed to be a mother: I am all at once CEO, project manager, counsellor, secretary, chef, first aider, champion supporter. The list goes on and on. It helps me enormously to connect with other mothers just to express my concerns about these things and share coping strategies; sometimes a listening ear and a cup of tea are all that are needed.
Written by Alison Jones, LLL Oxfordshire, and first published in Breastfeeding Matters issue 221