Sunday, 5 February 2012

Do we need to try so hard to be good mothers?

I have wanted to do a post about this for a while, and here we are.

Before having babies my bookshelves started filling up with titles on education. My insatiable hunger to get to the bottom of the question "What does it mean to be educated?" meant that I was reading more and more titles, pushing the envelope, reading more and more radical ideas. Within a few years I couldn't get enough of the writings of the anti-pedagogues, the John Taylor Gatto's and A.S. Neills and so on.

Unschooling literature was such a fascinating and liberating discovery - throwing away the rulebook, a rebellion against the flawed, one-size-doesn't-fit-all way of learning, seemed like such a wonderful dream. And yet other books, opinions and ideas, as well as real life experiences pulled me in other directions too. The idea of sticking to one or even just a small handful of people's visions and following them prescriptively seemed like too much of a full-stop for me. The problem with people being on pedestals, however wise their sayings and observations might be, is that in order for one person to sit high on a plinth, they must necessarily look down on someone, while the followers must equally be looking up to their leader, but down on the rest of the world too. It's all too easily to insulate yourself from the rest of the world in a bubble of righteousness. Now don't get me wrong - I think both the above guys have made some astonishing observations about the way things are. I agree with a lot of what they have to say.

But I'm not a one-idea utopianist. I believe we all hold pieces to a puzzle with no end. In order for us to make sense of this crazy world, I think we must keep our minds open, our eyes open, our hearts open, and look for the answers by living in real time. And the answers don't always come from the obvious places, from the preachers and evangelisers.

This is where I start to have a problem with the preachers. They say - This is the truth. This is the way. Follow this way. Don't look anywhere else for the answers. Everyone else is doing it wrong. We are doing it right.

And I can't get down with that.

In the same way that I have been building up my collection of books on learning, I have also amassed a pretty large collection of parenting books, hoping that by osmosis perhaps, I would absorb the wisdom of others so much wiser than myself, to become a better mama. I have felt tugged this way and that in the quest to be the best mama to my children. Titles like "Mothering with soul", "Playful parenting", "Attachment parenting" seemed so much like they would hold all the answers to being a graceful and loving mama. And they do - to a point. But when a person starts to disagree with some ideas in a book with a title called Mothering with Soul - one starts to question - must I follow every last idea, opinion, suggestion, to be a soulful mother? Am I bad because I don't agree with this? Such titles can be loaded and dangerous, and can erode a mothers already fragile self-esteem. The AP movement also proclaims itself to be a movement based on 'mothering with soul'. Which camps can rightly claim this trophy? Is it necessarily either? It makes my head hurt! A.S. Neill would argue that his school corrects all the neuroses caused by a child's mother in the first place, therefore providing a release from all that harmful fussing, attention and love.

Being attached to our babies is utterly sensible, wise and loving, but there are so many more subtly prescriptive suggestions in books, or from different parenting movements, sub-movements, and sub-sub-movements, that trying to keep up with them all could strangle the very love out of you as a mother, and in fact cause you to become pretty anxious and full of self-doubt. There is so much underlying judgement, self-righteousness, bitchiness and expectation from so many different camps across the spectrum of the parenting community. Each insisting their way is the one true way. Motherhood is hard enough with the tiredness, the economic and so many other factors without the added pressure of the idealogical battleground.

At one end of the spectrum there are books that say we cannot really call ourselves any kind of mother at all unless we give 150% of ourselves. That we must surrender every bit of our soul, every ounce of our time, mental and soul energy to our offspring, until the two souls are so enmeshed there is no separatedness at all, no gap, only utter co-existance.

In her book 'Momma Zen, Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood', (on extended loan with many thanks to my dear Buddhish friend Viv) Karen Maezen Miller suggests another way of looking at our roles as mothers;

"You don't have to work so hard at this. You don't have to do so much. You don't have to endeavour to be natural, normal and good. It happens by itself when you least expect it. If you are confused about what you should be doing, try this. Stop what you are doing. Take care of what is in front of you, when it is front of you, and the confusion will pass. This is called the effort of no effort. No effort is what powers the universe.

With time your roots grow deep and your branches long. You lean less backward in fear and a little less forward in doubt, resting solidly right where you are. When the wind blows, you bend. When it stops, you straighten. Your boughs provide shelter and shade. Your strength supports the sky. Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

Your baby will be ok. "

And as I read those words, I feel a sense of peace. Loving with some sense of detachment no longer seems lazy or soul-less.

 I look out into the garden where a snowy Buddha sits looking out over the garden.

The birds come and feed from the feeding station I am lovingly tending for them. And I think of the birds, and how they would laugh to know that us humans get so caught up in this silly pursuit of trying to be a good mama. They make a lovely nest, feed their babies best they can, then give them a shove out of the nest!!!

Maybe nature is the best teacher of all?


  1. Replies
    1. Um, wow! Thanks so much for your comment Karen. I am so enjoying your book.

  2. All I have to say is, yes!

  3. Thank you dear women, I'm honoured to have you all here :-)

  4. A refreshing perspective. None of us should be knocking ourselves out to lay the path for our offspring. They will find their own way.

    So many times I have watched a mama bird go far out of her way to continue finding and feeding that one baby bird that leaves the nest prematurely with underdeveloped wings. This happened last spring/early summer three separate times, in our backyard. Instead of reflecting that nature sits back and responds with little effort, I identified with that mama bird that works so hard and is so devoted to caring for that baby until it is ready. I wondered giddly if she was motivated by guilt.

    I appreciated your reference to Buddha, to respond as things occur. In my 8 years of parenting this has seemed to gel with my understandings of attachment parenting. Making no effort takes a lot of effort, in my opinion, but it's what I try to do.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this post. It's always good to read about someone else's path, not to compare but to realize how many ways there can be.

  5. Hmm yes even nature is flawed. It's not an easy life and I don't suppose there is a single mother on this planet who doesn't in her heart feel guilt about anything at all....

    I'm delighted to reach a wider audience and to discuss these things with you all. I blog to reach out, to share, to understand. I write to have a dialogue - whilst I love writing articles, I rarely get feedback, rarely get to know if it made someone think, or change or whatever. It goes out there and then generally....silence! So thank you for being here and speaking up.

  6. Ah, this post is wonderful and spot on, Motherfunker xx I am glad to hear that you are enjoying Momma Zen :-)

  7. Ah, I need to read this every day.

  8. One of my papers in my first degree was an analysis of parenting manuals...they exist to replace a network of women around us with a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to children. They fail. Badly, and they leave mothers filled with anxiety and guilt in place of understanding and love. All women should be encouraged to read around, to pick and mix and then to find real people to spend their time with...
    But the underpinning of it all is love. If you have that, you're a large part of the way there already...

  9. Damn right! Friendship and love are everything :-)

  10. I HATE parenting books. The only one I like, which im not so sure is a parenting book, is The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson.

  11. D'you know, I've read hardly any books on parenting or home education and none since having my daughter. I rarely even read any blogs on those topics now and certainly don't read any 'expert' ones! Why would I? Fellow parents like you offer me all the alternative perspective I ever need if I need it.

    However, I love self help stuff generally and also read a lot of Buddhist text (but again, not the rigid lofty stuff) - I think working on myself as a whole person will inevitably make me a better parent so I leave it at that.

    Your post reminds me I'm on the right track. Thanks.