Pandemic-Era Honesty About Motherhood Was So Liberating — Let’s Not Go Back, Please
I let my children watch too much television, and I let them eat cake and ice cream for breakfast. I let my house become a big mess, and I allowed myself to breathe.
I wake up with them sitting on top of me, nudging me to wake up, asking me to do painting or baking with me. I look at them bleary-eyed, my head thumping with pain, and my body creaking and aching with the effort as I roll out of bed, their wails and cries becoming more insistent.
I sidestep millions of tiny Lego pieces on the floor, and scuttle over to the coffee machine to arm myself with a strong shot of caffeine ready to face another day, yet another day where we are all in the house. I look around the whole site of destruction while getting breakfast ready. After breaking up an argument between my 4-year-old twins, I research some new activities to keep them busy that day and check the many messages from their school with links to storytime and Zoom class, and quickly scroll through work emails in my inbox. It is not even 8 a.m. and I feel like I have lived many lives already.
Scrolling through Twitter, I see someone’s comments about how so much of the discussion around motherhood has become very negative, with not much positive and how off-putting that can be as a child-free person trying to decide about having a child. I look at the chaos around me, and think of how difficult it has been all my life to say when I was finding it difficult, how easy it is to believe that, if we are finding it difficult, we are not good mothers.
I became a single parent very young, and as I made the decision to bring my young child to the U.K. alone, in sole custody, I felt this weight of expectation. To be a good mother. To be a perfect mother. To be a mother who can do it all. Alone. The one time I asked my ex-partner for some support, he turned around and told me to bring her back to him if I couldn’t handle being a mother. That was the only time, the last time, that I asked for help.
And so I managed a high-pressured academic position while doing all the school runs, attending every single concert and performance, doing all the arts and crafts and reading, taking her to every single music lesson, and being present for every single school parent-teacher meeting. If there was a music course across the country, I would tell my daughter that yes, of course, we can make it happen. If there was an exhibition that she would enjoy, I would find a way to make it work, to take her to it. Of course, I loved doing all this. I loved the joy that came from the time that we spent together, but it all also came at the cost of my own mental and physical health, of trying to prove that I was a good mother, a good academic; a superwoman.
The only model of motherhood, of mothering, that I knew was this all-consuming one — of intense love that burnt and shone bright, that took over myself and my whole identity until I couldn’t separate myself from my role.
I was the only single mother there in this community with Indian families, each with a stay-at-home mother, or a full-time nanny. And I was trying to live up to these unrealistic expectations that I saw all around me, without any support.
The only model of motherhood, of mothering, that I knew was this all-consuming one — of intense love that burnt and shone bright, that took over myself and my whole identity until I couldn’t separate myself from my role as a mother. I felt crippled by anxiety, by fear of not living up to this expectation that I had created for myself. I would feel guilty and personally responsible if my house wasn’t clean and tidy, if I forgot any appointments, if my work suffered or if my child did not do as well in her academic or musical commitments as she ought to.
I was trying to shatter the most pervasive stereotypes of the single mother: a benefits scrounger, morally reprehensible, with children who get lower grades and earn less.
Especially as a woman of colour, where single mothers are still rare in Asian families (with only about 8.8% of South Asian households in the U.K. with single parents in 2011, 91% of which were women), I had failed as a woman by not being able to keep a marriage together, not being able to fit into a family setup and keep them happy. And so I felt compelled to prove myself in this one role that I was left to play: a mother. Not just any mother, but a “good mother.”
Fast forward a few years, and many rounds of unsuccessful fertility treatments, after years of feeling like a failure, of my body not cooperating, of not working even as it was being cajoled and nudged into doing what it was supposed to be doing naturally all along, I had twins.
The twins arrived prematurely by almost eight weeks, so tiny, so fragile; once again, the life I had held up so tightly into neatly arranged pieces, was toppling over and I felt helpless and hopeless. And even as I had promised myself that I would not be that mother again — one who loses herself in this role, her own identity consumed entirely in motherhood — the flood of love and hormones swept all those determinations away, all tied up in this huge feeling of gratitude of holding these children who we had fought for, alone and together, prayed for, wished for, desired so fervently.
Each time I would feel a little piece of myself splinter and crack, but I found it impossible to say to anyone that I was struggling. These were the babies I had wanted, desired, wished for. How could I say that I was not coping?
After spending many days and nights, weeks and months rocking them back and forth, walking across the length and breadth of the house as they screamed for up to 10 hours a day with colic and reflux, I found my love for myself and my will to live crumbling in my tight fist. Our health visitor would ask me every week whether I was being attentive enough, whether I was holding them upright for long enough, whether I was rocking them the right way, whether I was working too hard on my own projects, whether I was not sleeping when they ought to be sleeping, whether I was not synching their feeding and sleeping cycles as I ought to have done by now. Whether, whether, whether.
Each time I would feel a little piece of myself splinter and crack, but I found it impossible to say to anyone that I was struggling. These were the babies I had wanted, desired, wished for. How could I say that I was not coping? Surely my love for my children should be able to carry me through. Surely women are strong enough to cope with anything that is thrown their way. Surely this is what all mothers ought to do, have done for always. How could I say that I was not a good mother after years of trying to be one?
And so I let my shoulders drop. I let my children watch too much television, and I let them eat cake and ice cream for breakfast. I let my house become a big mess, and I allowed myself to breathe.
Then the lockdown happened. And suddenly we could not all keep up this façade of perfect mothering anymore. Suddenly our private and social lives were intermingling more than ever, these lines between our digital selves and real lives increasingly blurry, as we allowed strangers into our homes through Zoom calls, and Instagram images idealizing motherhood, with happy faces, set in creamy walls, and glowing sunshine, were no longer relevant. We were too exhausted to create a filtered image. It seemed, then, like everyone was exhausted, everyone was home-schooling, everyone was working, juggling — everyone just about managing.
And so I let my shoulders drop. I let my children watch too much television, and I let them eat cake and ice cream for breakfast. I let my house become a big mess, and I allowed myself to breathe even as my anxieties about being a bad mother tried to push their head back up again and again. And I am not the only one. While we were all trying to survive, and keep our children happy and healthy during these terrifying times, suddenly it has become ok to say that we don’t have to aspire to be perfect because it is just ok to get through another day alive.
What if the new normal could be a place where mothering is not fetishized or stigmatised, judged and maligned, but a place where we can all breathe a little bit easy away from the prying eyes of others around us, and of our own expectations of ourselves?
As a woman and a mother, it felt liberating, even as I became even more aware of my privileges. I keep thinking that perhaps this lockdown has given us, if nothing else, a way to shatter the perfect image of motherhood, the internalized message that a mother is “too doting,” “too protective,” “too involved,” and just “too much,” or she might not be loving, doting, self-sacrificing enough. Either way, it is a tightrope to walk, even if it's self-imposed. It has felt freeing to challenge the narrative that “women can really have it all” and “do it all” perfectly.
Sometimes all I want to shout out into the world, “I can’t do this anymore,” even though in the very next instant, my heart is ready to burst open with illimitable love for my children. What if the new normal could be a place where mothering is not fetishized or stigmatised, judged and maligned, but a place where we can all breathe a little bit easy away from the prying eyes of others around us, and of our own expectations of ourselves?
Maybe we can be honest about motherhood and mothering now, even as we head back to being “normal.” I hope we can.