The very real challenges of mothering in the 21st Century

Recently I have had some conversations with mums who have had children up to 15 years apart. They have explained to me how incredibly different it is to be mothering now compared to when they first began their mothering journey.

I believe it is much tougher to be a mamma today than it was when I was busy chasing, loving, feeding and being a busy mum to my four sons who are now all over 30.

It is an interesting irony that what children need from their parents to thrive developmentally, socially, emotionally and physically has not changed at all and yet the world around our children and families has significantly changed. Part of this change has been the creation of too much information at our finger-tips and a distortion of expectations for kids and their busy mammas.

We need to keep in mind that parenting cannot be perfect — nor can children. Being human means we are prone to experiencing this strange thing called ‘life’ as it happens and no matter how much we plan, dream and hope, things can go wrong.

The modern world has become faster, busier and full of massive change and enormous choice and that’s a bit difficult for both children and their parents.

It takes a whole childhood for children to learn, to grow and to work out how to be whoever they are. When we try to hurry up childhood, our children’s chances of thriving diminish — they will survive, just maybe not as well.

There is no ‘one right way’ to parent and often what works this week with your child may not work next week. That doesn’t mean parents are doing a good job – it is quite normal for these things to happen.

Sleep deprivation is real and it makes everything harder. Also, there has been a massive disintegration of the ‘village’ that used to surround children and their families and with it a strong sense of belonging and safety.

A supportive network of parents who are on the same journey helps enormously — because in a way it still “takes a whole village to raise a child” and the stronger and healthier our communities, the better our children thrive.

I think this is challenging for all of us but in particular for those mammas doing it really tough as a consequence of living in an abusive, disrespectful relationship, with a serious illness, living in grief, extreme poverty or sole parenting — you may be necessarily focusing your energies on survival. My heart goes out to you all.

The untidiness of parenthood

Many mums tell me how confused and overwhelmed they are with the pressure, mainly from other mums and social media, to be a perfect woman and mother.

Some say they feel in playgroups, for example, that very few mothers are brave enough to admit how exhausted they are, how some days they really struggle with their children, and that they sometimes yell and smack in complete frustration and overwhelm.

Others tell me they lay awake reviewing every decision they’ve made around the children, striving to want to do it better — to be a better mum. This constant striving for self-improvement has always been there just not to the extent it is today thanks in large part to the capacity we have now to compare ourselves to others.

I have had lots of weary mums admit to me that they are their own worst enemy. They struggle to accept the 20% days when things don’t quite go as well they were hoping.

Often they just want to sit down and relax into the chaos of having children (particularly when children are young). They admit they get really crabby and angry at the constant messiness of childhood — toys, clothes (especially dress-ups), craft stuff, and lost cups or dummies/pacifiers or the special teddy!

The mental load of multi-tasking mammas is real. A tidy house seems to allow mums a better chance to relax. This is a part of the pressure on mums to be perfect — and it is a real pressure that seems to be there every day.

Also, we are hearing more and more now that clutter does impact our mental health — which explains why the KonMari method has become such a success but might it also be just another pressure on our busy mum and dads and their time, energy and commitment?

Certainly, Lyn Jenz writing for mom.me has a very different (and hilarious) take on the pressure to have a tidy home.

Marie Kondo may not approve, but I learnt to close the door on untidy bedrooms often.

Also, there was one room in our house that the boys were not allowed into — the main lounge room. I know not everybody has enough space to have one room that is always tidy — so maybe try the main bedroom. I would occasionally retreat to the only tidy room in the house with a cup of tea — and it really did help me relax, and accept that at this point in my life, this was okay. Try not to let the endless hunger for tidiness contaminate your home — it will never define you as a woman or a mother. You are so much more on so many other levels.

Everyone’s got an opinion

The online world has given an easy platform for people to judge and criticise others. In days gone by we could disagree with people and have nuanced conversations exploring our different opinions.

Sadly, in today’s world, people are attacked viciously for having a different opinion. Personally, I think there are some topics that need to be avoided at all costs in mummy land — breasts, vaccinations, birth choices, working full-time and sleep. Online, these topics often become battlegrounds rather than conversations explored in a mature respectful way where parents help each other find solutions that may work for whatever challenge they are having in their world.

Every woman needs to work out how to navigate her own journey as a mother within her own family — and what works and what doesn’t work, quite frankly, is no one else’s business.

The changing social norms about what is okay for dads is making it easier for either parent to be the parent they want to be and that team, to be one in which both parents negotiate and explore the options that work for their family, share family duties, pursue career pathways — whatever option works. This is a positive that exists now, but it seldom existed many years ago.

The other parent in the room: the Internet

The social media world, the celebrity and entertainment world (especially those that sexualise our children) and the consumer-driven, power-hungry elements of modern life are putting enormous pressures on all parents. We all want to be seen as ‘good enough’ parents and the goalposts seem to continually keep moving.

Social capital or ‘collective parenting’ has also diminished with these pressures thus stealing from many communities their former healthy sense of belonging, a shared sense of responsibility and unconditional acceptance of people regardless of culture, age and gender.

Our precious children are constantly being bombarded with messages of how they should be rather than how they could be.

Indeed the Internet seems to have taken on some of our parenting — and children are being exposed to things that are potentially harmful, often without their parents’ awareness or knowledge. Trying to fix the damage of a loss of innocence after witnessing violent images or pornography happens so much more often today and it is really a heartbreaking task.

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It seems that many children have digital footprints that exist forever before they’re even able to speak. Given that there are sexual predators that have software that tracks innocent images I was glad to grow up in a time where the home phone was the only way to connect with the outside world — even if there aren’t many photos of me as a beautiful little toddler!

The endless sharing of images online — even if quite innocently from a proud parent — can cause major angst for a parent who is struggling or one who has lost a child. Dr Kristy Goodwin says it has many other pitfalls, and we also need to ask what message this “sharenting” sends our kids.

The digital world is a massive presence in parent land — and while it certainly has its advantages that can help keep us connected, learn great new things, stay in touch with our schools and early childhood settings and find possible solutions to common parenting problems — it has a very dark side as well.

Raising children to be respectful and responsible users in the digital world is a time-consuming new reality for today’s parents.

Fear, love and letting go

The 24/7 news cycle that brings every suspicious death, car accident, world disaster, terrorist attack, earthquake or flood into our homes within seconds of it occurring has also contributed to an increased level of anxiety for both parents and children.

The world does seem scarier because we see and hear it — often on really big TV screens — and it can create an unhealthy sense of fear about living today.

Statistically our world is safer today, however most of us feel it is much more unsafe and unpredictable. These hidden pressures often contribute to parents, especially mums, wanting to protect their children from this scary world.

And then there is this thing called over-parenting — when we lose ourselves in our children’s lives. Many family therapists share stories of family angst as the, ‘intensive parent’ (often mum) struggles with letting go as adolescence appears.

Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, warns against what he calls our ‘discomfort with discomfort’ in his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.

Kindlon writes that if kids can’t experience painful feelings, they won’t develop “psychological immunity”. He believes that many of us today don’t really want our kids to leave, because we rely on them in various ways to fill emotional holes in our own lives (ouch!). Kindlon is concerned that we devote inordinate amounts of time, energy and resources to our children, but for whose benefit? Despite this, we must remember our tendency to overprotect comes from a place of love for our children.

Despite the spate of articles in recent years exploring why so many people in their 20s seem reluctant to grow up, leave home and live independently, the problem may be less about kids refusing to separate and individuate than that their mothers resist doing so.

Most mothers are biologically wired to be the carers and nurturers and so wanting to keep them close to keep them safe is instinctually quite normal. Parenting is about preparing our children to become independent, capable, resilient adults and yes, letting go is hard.

However, for the health and wellbeing of our precious children, letting go is what is best. As someone who’s made that step I know when we do let our kids go we can look forward to other roles such as grandparents or grand aunties — both unbelievably exquisite journeys to take. It’s quite funny really that when we travelled overseas for five weeks last year, I desperately missed the grandchildren and not so much my sons!

I send strong messages out everywhere I go that we need to heal the sisterhood, to remove the judgement, the nastiness, the “tut, tut, tut” in the school car park and the hurtful gossiping that goes on behind each other’s backs. Women were never in competition with each other as mothers — traditionally they were a circle of rock-solid, unconditional support. Having a circle of support is incredibly important for mums.

Some suggestions for today’s mammas:

  1. Embrace the imperfection of raising children knowing that they are noisy, messy, unpredictable and that every single stage of their development will have a positive and negative. Embrace the positives.
  2. Find your sisterhood — share, support, laugh, cry and fall in love with each other’s children. You will need each other when your little ones become teenagers!
  3. Be mindful of having too high an expectation of what you are capable of achieving on any given day. You are only one person and having a list of too many things to do, in too short a time, will create enormous stress and set you up to fail. Some days are simply much better than others. Mamma mantra: “This too will pass!”
  4. Remember that children are children with a child’s brain — and that poor behaviour and even angry outbursts are seldom intentional. Please don’t take it personally.
  5. Practise self-care even just for a few minutes — mindfulness and relaxation are not signs of weakness. They are signs of great strength. Have that cup of tea on the couch while watching your children play and know it matters. I love Dr Vanessa Lapointe’s take on this.
  6. Consciously seek and slay the guilt monster every day.
  7. Laughter and lightness makes our children feel safer as well as making our homes happier. Be ridiculous a bit more often — everyone will win.
  8. Prioritise time with your partner (or dear friends if you’re single) and enjoy cheeky Netflix binges on the couch with chocolate, or have a date night at least once a month.
  9. Choose to be a kind, respectful mamma — avoid judging, criticising or shaming other mammas because what we put out tends to come back.
  10. Never be afraid to ask for help — there are simply times in life when we seriously need someone’s help.

This too shall pass…

I often swim in a beautiful rock pool near my home around 5-6pm – enjoying the sunlight fading on the cliffs while watching waves and absorbing the fading of the day.

When my boys lived with me, this time used to be crazy hour in our home — and now it is a time of profound peace. One day you will have a quiet, peaceful tidy home. The season of full-on mothering is incredibly busy and never ending it seems — however it really does pass.

Life is full of changing seasons and embracing the gifts — including early morning snuggles, giggles over funny things, milestones, birthdays and family rituals and many random farts from your son — make this season one you will miss one day. Mamma, you’ve got this!

For parents facing some of these challenges in the early years, it may interest you to know that Maggie is being joined by Canadian author and psychologist Dr Vanessa Lapointe for two very special events in Brisbane on Thursday 31st May 2019 and Sydney on Wednesday 5th June 2019— Meltdowns to Precious Moments: A Calm, Common-sense Approach to Parenting Under 5s