The Monstrous Shame of Motherhood and the Quest for a Cure

I feel exhausted. Even-more-than-usual exhausted. Whoever knew that staying at home could be so incredibly tiring. We have our daily outings – mainly to the golf course, which is the nearest green we have. The other evening, when we had finally made it out the house, and the children were running ahead of me across the fitted-carpet grass, I had a thought: “Maybe it will be okay,” and instantly I wanted to cry. It wasn’t a thought only about the pandemic. It was about the lot: the pandemic, plus how to get an autism diagnosis for my son that supports him, plus my 78 year old mother staying well, plus my husband’s work and the theatre community surviving in a post-Covid world, plus managing to finish my book, plus both my children’s long term futures, plus the world’s long term future and climate change, plus racial inequality, plus economic inequality, plus gender inequality, plus, plus…..

In that moment I realised that a kind of deep worry is such a constant for me now that I have grown accustomed to it, so that it is like the planes that used to fly over our house in London – a noise so familiar that after a while I no longer hear it, and yet it is there, every few minutes, unnoticed, another monstrous metal groan. And when it stops – when the planes stay down, when the worries lift up – the sudden silence is startling, enough to make me cry. But – here’s the thing- thanks to the lockdown I have realised that it isn’t just worry to which I have grown accustomed in this way. There is something else, even more monstrous, which it has taken me a long time to name – and its name is shame.

I believe the shame comes from a thousand ‘shoulds,’ from the many things I feel I should be doing as a mother and am not.  Motherhood, along with the paraphernalia of nappies, wipes and purees, comes with a huge bundle of shoulds. The very first thing I did, nine years ago now, on discovering that I was pregnant, was to rush out to Waterstones and buy a book on what I should and shouldn’t eat during the next nine months– and that was only the beginning. The shoulds come from everywhere, a mountain of well-meant advice, not only from books, but from doctors, midwives, family members, partners, friends, other mothers, even complete strangers. I remember standing in a shop queue with my three-week-old son in a sling, when the woman behind me leant forward and touched one of his toes. “Where’s his socks?” she said, “He’ll catch his death of cold.” On the one hand I felt reasonably confident that carrying my son around sock-less was not going to endanger his life, on the other, as a brand new mother, I was nonetheless shaken by the idea that my son’s survival was up to me, and that many different people had many different ideas about how best I should fulfil my role of raising and protecting him. At times, even my instinct, that famous maternal inner guide, seemed like a mysterious thing that someone else had told me I should follow. 

Mothers Who Make began, in part, as a response to all these shoulds. When I went along to the new mother and baby groups, that I also believed to be obligatory, I noticed a distressing pattern. All too often we were simply swapping ‘shoulds’ with each other and coming away feeling worse than when we arrived. No place or position was safe: I met mothers who felt they should be breastfeeding, mothers who felt the need to put a label saying ‘breastmilk’ on the bottle they fed their baby in public, as well as mothers who felt they should be weaning their baby and moving rapidly onto solids. I met mothers who felt bad about co-sleeping and mothers who felt bad about not doing so. In those early days of mothering – when you should be feeling overjoyed – there are even charts that tell you what should be happening when, how much your child should weigh, by when they should be making eye contact etc. It is not that these charts are entirely unhelpful or inaccurate, but they certainly encouraged my constant questioning: is my child okay? Am I okay? Am I doing this right? And if I thought I wasn’t, if I was not doing what I should, I felt ashamed.

I have felt many parallels between lockdown and early motherhood – the sudden cessation of all usual activity, the focus on ‘intensive care’ and care-taking, the washing, the sense of vulnerability, the way leaving the house seems like an epic adventure, the isolation and longing for connection. And, as in early motherhood, our diverse lives are again apparently aligned. We are all in the same situation: all the mothers in those baby groups had a new born / all the mothers I know now are in lockdown due to a pandemic. This makes comparison seem possible, even appropriate. There is a set of scales around again – I weigh our lives on it and find myself at fault.

Let me give you a small sample of some of the shoulds that fly low over my home, through my mind, like aeroplanes, a few of the many that I have collected over my nine years of mothering. I should get my children to bed earlier. I should give them less screen time, or it shouldn’t happen first thing in the morning, or I should manage the whole issue of screens in a better, different way. I should give them less choice about what they eat. I should make sure they eat more fresh foods and less sugar. I should make them help around the house more. I should hold the structure of the day better. I should make sure everyone stays at the table when we’re eating. I should take steps towards weaning my daughter. I should never resort to threats – to the ‘if you don’t stop x, you won’t get y’ pattern. And so on and so forth – you get the gist. And because I do not do these things – and I imagine a thousand other mothers who are doing them wonderfully – I feel ashamed. I realise as I write this that my ‘shoulds,’ as listed here, are nice, white, middle class ones- signs of privilege. Shame is a heavy word and it is associated with far darker things than letting your kids watch too much telly. I want to acknowledge that my issues are trifling compared to those many have to navigate, but shame, whatever the context, is still shame and it is powerful. As someone who was once anorexic, I know that shame can sit alongside privilege and that, where present, it undermines the ease of even the most comfortable life.

Back in Jan 2019 I wrote a blog about guilt. I now think I was muddling up some of my guilt and my shame. In general, I feel guilty about specific instances that have an immediate, present moment, ground-level reality: I shouted at my son when he blasted water over the bathroom with the shower head and that triggered one of his big, aggressive rages. If I feel guilty about something, I can say sorry about it, to the person or people I have wronged, and then it’s over. Shame, for me, is more like the ongoing aeroplanes, it is long term – a long haul flight. On the bad days, motherhood seems like a very lengthy exam, the end of it still twenty years away. My children are not the examiners – certainly not for now – they are the results. Depending on how the children turn out, I will pass or fail. There are external examiners, keeping track, making notes, of all the things I am doing or not doing. And who are they, these examiners? I think, somewhere in my psyche, there is an impressive panel of them, made up of everyone who has ever shared ‘a should’ with me, from the author of the book on what to eat during pregnancy, to the woman in the queue who wanted my son to be in socks, to the many other authors, friends and strangers who have offered me advice – they are all sitting there, scribbling on their notepads, shaking their heads. They are not bad people. Many of them are people for whom I have enormous respect, which makes it worse. I believe in their advice – seriously, I should be following it.

In my blog on guilt, I found my guilt a figure – made it into an image that helped me connect to the things that mattered to me, lying underneath the guilt. It turned out to be a Mary Poppins-like character, flying a kite. I think my shame has a very different form. There is the panel of judges, frowning from a distance, and then there is the shame herself, much closer in, and, like the sound of the low-flying planes, she’s monstrous. 

My son’s latest obsession is the Beast Quest books(he has moved on from My Little Pony – woe betide you if you mention his former interest to him). There are over a hundred Beast Quest books, all with the same basic formula – boy meets monster. Giant birds, snakes, insects, spiders, bears, apes, hounds, trolls, ogres, dragons – you name your flavour of nightmarish monster, it will be there. I am glad to say there is a reasonable spread of gender representations across the monsters – sadly none of them are trans but there are some mothers. My ‘shame monster’ is definitely a mother. She is immense, stinking, gruesome and green. Her roar is the soundtrack of my days, to which I have grown accustomed. In some of the Beast Quest books the beasts are evil and must be destroyed, but in some they are good, set under an evil curse, from which they must be freed. I think my monstrous shame mother is one of these – good at heart but under pressure, after years of judgement, she has turned malevolent. And here is the irony: I believe her malevolent aspect has a more toxic impact on my children and our household, than any of the things such as screen time, sugar, late nights, unstructured days, which have driven her into this terrible state. Her constant growling makes me tense, fractious and very, very tired. I don’t think I can go on like this. So, what to do? How to release her from the curse? And who would she be without it? 

Often the opposite of shame is presented as pride. But I think pride too is problematic – the panel of judges, external examiners, is still present in the dynamic, it’s just that they are giving out good marks instead of bad. So, if the shame-beast, when transformed, does not turn into the proud mother, who does she become? 

As ever, when I am wrangling with a question in my mothering, I look to my making for answers. Throughout the lockdown I have been writing whenever I can. Always, when the children are having their screen time. Often, when I should be getting them dressed, or focussing on making us breakfast, or preparing them for bed. I don’t write because I should. I write because I want to do it, because it helps me give things meaning, because it brings me joy. I think back to that teary moment on the golf course, watching the children run ahead of me over the grass. What made the worry lift, the planes stop, the monster turn out good? Yes, I think it was a moment of joy. I think, when the gory green monster is not sweating with shame, she is lit up with joy. 

So much, so often, is laid at the mother’s door. On the one hand we are ‘just’ being mums, with minimal status, doing an insignificant job, and on the other, we are accorded huge significance – everything can be traced back to us, to our care or the lack of it, our early influence. I do not wish to deny our responsibility as mothers, but I do not believe our shame helps us to shoulder it, or that we should shoulder it alone. When I started Mothers Who Make I wanted it to be a held peer-support space where women could share their challenges without shame, and celebrate, even cultivate, their joy. I wanted to create a group in which we did not find further fault, did not inadvertently end up undermining or judging one another, adding to the great big bundles of shoulds already carried. It is why it is still vital to me that we welcome every kind of mother – breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, those who keep their mothering and their making strictly separate, those who take their children to work – every kind. It is also the same impulse that lies behind our Matronage scheme. Rather than a panel of judges telling us whether or not we are worthy, I want to see whether we can hold each other up. We have been asking people to become our ‘Matron Saints’ by giving us the price of a coffee a month – £3. We need 300 of you to become self-sustaining. So far we have a fantastic 99! Once we reach 100, I am going to announce a new project in celebration– a way, I hope, to keep the same ethos of grassroots peer-support alive and kicking – kicking off the shoulds, turning them into wishes and dreams.

And in the meantime, whilst you are all rushing to bring us over the 100 Matron Saint mark, (go here to do so: these are your questions for the month: as a mother and/ or as a maker what are the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ you carry around with you? Do your ‘shoulds’ turn into shame? And then- as an antidote to this -what brings you joy? In your mothering? In your making? As we slowly emerge out of this pandemic, can you do more of this? Can you create a more shameless world? Can you help make the monsters joyful?


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