Are you a good mother?
What about your mother? Was she a good mother? Or the mother of your children? How do you rate her?
It’s still a bit of a taboo subject, isn’t it? I mean, most people would rather have a long chat about their voting habits or bowel movements than engage in a frank discussion about their track record of mothering.
From Marge Simpson to the Virgin Mary, mothers have a lot to live up to. Mothers must be ridiculously patient like Barbara Royle, endlessly brave like Mother Courage. Incredibly resourceful like Homily Clock, dutiful as Peggy Archer, positively saint-like as Marmee March from Little Women. Like Norma Bates, nothing less than a boy’s best friend; so unforgettable that he’d walk a million miles for one of our smiles.
I entered motherhood with not only the example of all these mothers looming large, but also my own, very real mother forming a startlingly stark contrast.
It was only when I had my own children and attempted to parent them in what can only be described as a plucky way, that I properly appreciated what an amazing mother I have. To take just one tiny example of her vastly superior skills – when we were growing up she produced a cooked breakfast for all five of us, and my father, every single morning – WHICH WAS DIFFERENT EVERY DAY. She was incredibly frugal, an amazing cook, kept a beautifully clean and tidy house and yet a very welcoming and hospitable one too, always full of guests and laughter. And she kept us all in line, with no need for the kind of shouting I resort to on a shamingly frequent basis – a glance and a Significant Look and we were all incredibly well behaved. At least in public.
But – amazingly, given her self-evident superiority in every respect – my mother has never once made me feel like my own parenting was a little lacking. (Which it is, it really is. No cooked breakfast for my daughters on a weekday – unless toast counts – and if I produce a bacon sandwich on a Sunday I expect fawning gratitude and a standing ovation.)
In fact my mother was so marvellously supportive and helpful when I first had children that for a while I seriously considered setting her up as a helpline for new mothers.
For example, when I was pregnant with my first child, she gave me what was to be the most useful piece of advice ever.
‘When the baby comes, Number6,’ she said, ‘the baby will cry A LOT.’
‘Yeah yeah I know,’ I replied, a veteran of NCT classes. I had seen a powerpoint on this. I had watched a video. I was an EXPERT.
‘No, no,’ she said patiently. ‘Listen to what I am saying. The baby will cry A LOT and you won’t be able to work out why and you will think you are doing something wrong. You aren’t. You are doing everything right. It isn’t your job to stop the baby crying. Just keep cuddling the baby.’
Armed with this piece of wisdom dressed up as the bleeding obvious, I was later able – just about – to resist the books and routines and advice of people who tried to tell me what I should do. And even retain a certain degree of sanity and humour during those first colicky months when I frequently considered pinning a sign on the front door saying, ‘I promise I am not sticking pins in this baby! I know it sounds like it, but I am honestly not.’
And that was only the start of it. Here are some other pieces of wonderful advice from my mother:
1. You are looking really well! You are doing really well! You had the baby six days/ six months/ six years ago? Look at you! Out and about already! Why don’t you go and have a sit down and I will bring you a cup of tea.
2. You want to throw the baby out of the window? / run away to the circus? / sell the baby on eBay? That’s perfectly normal! I felt just the same! No no not with you! Obviously. With your, er, sister. Anyway. Why don’t you go and have a sit down and I will bring you a cup of tea.
3. The child will only eat Frosties in Coca Cola / screams for ten hours straight / wants to dress up as a Thunderbird all day / has had a tattoo of George Osborne on his forehead? That’s perfectly normal and just a phase! Remember when your sister’s boy had that tattoo of William Hague on his cheek and would only eat Pot Noodles? No? Well I may have made it up. Go and have another sit down. Actually I might open this wine and possibly a box of Maltesers.
So basically we just need to know these things – everything you feel is normal, and will pass. Everything your children do is normal, and if it isn’t, it will pass. Cuddles and tea fix most things, and – most importantly – you are doing really really well.
There may not be enough there to fill out one of those books that sell you the vision of a perfect parenting experience, that sucker you into parting with £8.99 with the promise of an answer to all your questions and a solution to all your problems. But it’s worth more than that. My mother was not, is not, a perfect mother. Neither am I, and neither are you. No one is, especially not those people who try and charge you for their ‘secrets’. There are no secrets. The perfect mother is the one you have, the one who loves and does their best. And never takes the serious business of being a mother too seriously.
Like my mother. Who, when I once made the mistake of buying her a Mothering Sunday Card to ‘The Best Mother in the World’, laughed and said – how can you possibly know that? You’d need to try out a few more mothers before you can start making that kind of claim.
A restful half term to all the imperfect, slapdash, perfectly wonderful mothers. Remember – long lie-ins make you a better parent.
I’m pretty sure my mum told me that.