Flashback to NCT, and I’m asking our course leader Alison about going to the loo: “So you say that we are not supposed to leave them unattended, ever … so how exactly do I, without putting too fine a point on it … go to the toilet?”
I’m six months in now and have eventually learned that, sometimes, you need to let the baby cry so you can go to the toilet/make a cup of tea/shove a cold samosa in your mouth while you mourn your past life of nicely prepared little lunches. I used to feel guilty doing this. My husband going back to work at four months coincided with the baby suddenly needing constant entertainment, and I started to feel guilty about that too, because sometimes I would put him in the bouncer and read a book (my tight 10-minute set of politically correct nursery rhymes having fallen flat).
Whence had I caught this guilt? Not from my own mother or any of the older women I know. Not social media influencers, whom I avoid completely. And not parenting books, either – I opened The Wonder Weeks, observed its literal checklist of developmental milestones, and decided it was a recipe for madness. I had already missed the boat on tummy time.
Research led me to resolve that I had somehow absorbed what Judith Warner calls “total-reality motherhood”. In other words, it’s the cultural notion that motherhood is supposed to constitute your entire life’s work, with all other aspects of your identity sacrificed on the altar of 360-degree parenting. It seems this pernicious ideology began in the 1990s but reached fever pitch at the turn of the millennium. These days it afflicts my generation through bastardised, social media filtered versions of attachment theory and gentle parenting philosophies. To quote one article: “Now mothers were always to be ‘on’, engaged in relationships with their children that were at once kinesthetic, tirelessly management oriented, and unrelenting in their emotional solicitations.”
Eliane Glaser frames it as the cult of the perfect mother, elsewhere it’s “intensive mothering” or “conscientious cultivation”. However it is described, it boils down to the belief that every moment must have conspicuous educational or emotional value. As far as I’ve read, it is a largely western construct and is not only bad for women, but also bad for children, who should be allowed to discover the world for themselves or through play with other children. It manifests in the competitive obsession with baby classes, where everything is a learning opportunity (see also the baby sensory movement). Hence, perhaps, my (in hindsight) insane decision to take a three-month-old premature infant to baby swimming, an activity to which he objected to in the strongest terms. What was I thinking? And why did I feel so guilty when we quit?
Perhaps it’s all a symptom of highly educated women being stripped of their identities overnight and needing some sort of outlet. Was this why all the other mothers in the introducing-solids workshop seemed to have a professorial knowledge? I started to feel bad until I remembered that I have been consuming solid food myself for many years now with no problems. If I’m still cutting up his food when he’s 35, I’ll devote some time to feeling bad about doing purees.
I haven’t liberated myself from all maternal guilt – that would be impossible – but in the last two months I have been mindfully giving less of a toss and am far happier. The baby is happier too, because his mother is less anxious. None of these proponents of total-reality motherhood ever seem to take maternal mental health into account. Whether it’s pushing breastfeeding at all costs or telling you that any kind of sleep training will result in the same sad neglectful hush observed in Romanian orphanages, there never, ever seems to be an acknowledgment that a mother on the verge of a breakdown might do more damage to her kid than a bottle of formula or a short time spent learning to self-settle.
If you’re wondering how I managed to successfully purge myself of perfectionism, the answer is that I read two things. First, a research paper called Accounting for variability in mother-child play on how mother-child play is culturally and class specific, and actually undesirable. Second, the book French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman, which is a decade old, but totally liberating. Reading it, all of my memories of nannying in France began to resurface, and something clicked into place.
French women are practically unique in the west in that they don’t buy this intense perfectionism. They don’t ditch their jobs to do childcare, they don’t pounce the minute their child needs something, they don’t obsess about milestones, and they don’t constantly narrate their play (their babies also, apparently, tend to sleep). Most importantly they often – and it feels shocking to even write this – put themselves first.
As Élisabeth Badinter writes in The Conflict: “French women have avoided the dilemma of all-or-nothing motherhood”, because “unlike most Europeans, they have the benefit of historic recognition of their identities beyond motherhood”. Badinter also notes that the childcare system there supports the expectation that the state should provide this service in order to facilitate part-time mothering.
Unfortunately, our own childcare system is sorely lacking – but there is still much to take from the French mindset. I genuinely think Druckerman has saved my sanity. Now, time to feed the baby. But first, I’ll feed myself.
The baby visited his ancestral homeland and was read to in Welsh by his Nain and Taid. I also discovered Seren Swynol, a soft toy that sings Welsh nursery rhymes. One for the Christmas list.
The baby continues to despise car journeys, despite the admirable efforts of two taxi drivers to soothe him by playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star at full blast. Time to start taking the bus more.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist