Celebrate Bad Mother’s Day

By | March 3, 2008

IT was the car seat that did it. When the revolution comes, car-seat designers will be first up against the wall. One son was in his, but the second was refusing to co-operate. Tired, cranky and out of patience, I grab him, shove him in the seat, and shout as I struggle with the wretched straps.
We all cry. I get into the driver’s seat, compose myself, and announce: “I love you both but you drive me crazy.” The crazy bit is delivered in a comically exaggerated voice and, for added effect, I tear at my hair. We collapse into giggles, tears are dried, and we proceed down the road singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
By the time we hit the creche, six choruses of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah have transformed us. As they march off without a backward glance I exhale and enjoy a surge of relief. Someone else is minding my children.
“If it wasn’t for the creche, I’d go mad,” I once declared to my mother and aunt. “We had no creche and didn’t go mad,” replied the aunt. “Maybe we did,” my mother reflected ruefully. There is a moment in which nothing is said but everything is acknowledged. The world has changed, but motherhood hasn’t. It can bring you to your knees, physically and emotionally. The reward for this torture is that once a year you get a stupid Mother’s Day card, overpriced flowers and a carvery lunch in the local hotel. Take your Mother’s Day rubbish and give me therapy instead. “My children,” wrote the poet Adrienne Rich, “cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience.”
Psychologists call it maternal ambivalence. Rich describes it as the “murderous alternation between bitter resentment, raw-edged nerves and blissful gratification”. Anyone who has cared for small children will understand that. Sometimes I relish in my unique capacity to care for them; at others I pray to be delivered from the pressure of their dependency. These conflicting feelings would drive anyone to distraction.
The shame some women feel when swamped with these negative emotions causes post-natal depression. Here’s the good news: not only is it common to resent your children for making you feel completely useless, but it’s fine. If you bury that negativity, the kids are doomed. They need to see that at some point they can hurt you and that you can make up later. So when you lose it, you’re not a bad mother, you’re human.
The mystery is why an image of the idealised mother persists. Over 40 years after the second wave of feminism, the Good Mother still haunts us. She is always loving and willingly self-sacrificing. She hands her children to creches full of remorse and only when forced to by the evils of a capitalist society. Without this financial necessity she would be at home reciting nursery rhymes and nurturing what Freud called “His Majesty, The Baby”, just like our mammies did. But our mothers had no choice; we do. Our choice is to pay other women to help us clean our houses and mind our children. Nowhere do I see mothers admitting that they are happy to drive off to the office where they can go to the toilet in peace. She’d be a Bad Mother wouldn’t she? The Good Mother hates to leave her children and gets plenty of media coverage. The “lucky” ones get to stay at home. Why isn’t it acceptable that mothers choose to work outside the home because they enjoy it? Right beside the newspaper pictures of the Guilt-ridden Good Mother are stories about the Creche From Hell. Many Irish creches are supposedly prisons in which your children suffer neglect and oppression, and run the risk of serious injury. A child injured in a creche makes the news. But hospitals are full of children who come to grief at home. Domestic accidents are treated as commonplace, but slips and trips in creches are scandals.
HSE creche inspections make great headlines, and Pavlovian politicians demand that something be done about the appalling conditions that our poor mites endure. The Guilt-ridden Good Mothers sound increasingly shrill each time they explain that it’s the high mortgage that compels them to work outside the home.
Think about it: when is the last time you read something positive about a creche? It’s all complaints about the cost, the quality of care, the failure to regulate them. Scare stories of evil nannies and neglectful au pairs add to this negative portrayal of childcare. Children left to the care of professionals are to be pitied. No wonder working mothers feel guilty. But here’s something else you won’t read too often: psychologists know that a child is far better off in a good creche than at home with a depressed mother. I’m delighted with our creche. Far from being a second-class replacement for our care, it’s a great support. It is clear from the confident manner in which the staff guide and manage their charges that they have been well trained. We’re not policing the staff; we often learn from them. I don’t have a webcam so I can spy on them during the day. Instead I ask the carers for advice and tips. One friend regularly hires the creche girls for extra babysitting. Creche and home are seamless.
I’ve dropped in at odd times to find the children all sitting at the table, politely eating and cheerfully obeying instructions. They love their little friends and do all kinds of art projects that I could never organise. The owner often remarks that shy and unruly children excel in her care. She despairs of the HSE inspection system and the conflicting rules from different authorities in different counties. Even the best creches can be portrayed as dens of disaster by a bureaucrat with a clipboard.
So why did I bother having children then? Well, while having children is deeply fulfilling, my mothering skills aren’t up to the job seven days a week. Once my boys hit the age of two, I had to outsource some of their care. We’ve organised our lives so that everything is done on a part-time basis, and that works for everyone concerned. A good life is one with choices. Given that so many other parents do the same thing, why does the assumption persist that we do so under compulsion? It takes a village, as the saying goes, and creches are the new village.
So don’t celebrate Mother’s Day – celebrate the fact that some days you don’t have to be a mother. They’re good days too.