I watched Another Woman last night. A lesser known Woody Allen film from 1988. The central character, played brilliantly by Gena Rowlands, is a cerebral, somewhat aloof writer, who comes to realise she has always been emotionally stultified. This is not like me (I didn’t dare go down and watch the marathon runners this morning, knowing I’d probably blub all over the place), but I empathised with the notion of being caught in one mindset before being painfully shown another. Right at the end, after she has reassessed her previous actions and memories and is pondering the new path she must take, she muses, ‘I wonder if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost.’
This was particularly pertinent to me, as my boys are inching closer to adulthood. Facebook often pops up a photo from earlier times (because they ‘care about your memories.’ Hollow laugh and insertion of comment about them not caring about protecting our data). Invariably this will be a picture of a sun dappled moment in the park or on the beach, where your cherubs grinned gappily at the camera. No matter that the moments before and after the shot would no doubt have been a grizzly meltdown, banged knee or spat, leading to your losing your rag and wishing you were far away on a sun lounger with a margarita. In THAT moment, all looked well. That was the best of times.
Except of course, it wasn’t. Or rather, no more, no less than the time right now is. Memory is indeed a fickle thing. Yes, my boys are not cute blonde cherubs any more. But they can pop to the corner shop for me, carry bags and watch telly with more emotional depth and range than CBeebies. They also sleep through the night, manage their own toileting and can be exceptional company, once attention has been winkled away from electronic devices. I have lost, and have many things. It is truly difficult to remain engaged in the here and now, being mindful in the true sense. Parents know all too well that the days are long, but the years are short. One day the longing for the glass-of-wine-post-kids’-bedtime will be easy because they are about to leave home forever and you wish, more than anything, that they weren’t.
Recently, son Number One (13½ ) had an INSET day. (Or Insect as he used to say when he was small and cute. Stop it!) We decided to pay a visit to Hove Museum, which had been a veritable Mecca when he was about four. He would spend ages looking at the mini train, toy soldiers and ghost mirror in the toy room, pointing them out to other visitors. Meanwhile his baby brother and I would doze nearby. It was an excellent way to while away a cold winter weekend, spent mostly on my own because my partner was nearly always away.
This time we were the only visitors. (It’s a mystery how that place continues. They’ve removed the café and it seems increasingly in the last stages of decrepitude). Son wandered about the rooms, slightly aimlessly. I knew what he was thinking. ‘It’s so small. There’s hardly anything here. Why did I like this so much?’ For old times sake, he squeezed through the tunnel that he had once scuttled up and down with such merriment. We walked round the perimeter of the building and I told him he used to scooter round and round outside while his little brother ran alongside. We left after quite a short time and walked up the road to have a quick lunch. A text from his mate had come in and he wanted to get back so they could do band practice.
Was the memory something he had or something he lost…?
When the midwife places your newborn in your arms, you will feel a mixture of exhaustion and ecstasy. ‘This is the beginning of the rest of my life. Everything’s going to be wonderful’, not, ‘Where’s the exit? This is all too much.’ You may get the baby blues for a few days or even weeks, but that’s just normal and will go away in time. This is the received wisdom, trotted out to first-time mothers. However, the reality for most women is somewhat different.
When I gave birth to Robin in 2004, I was staggered as to how extraordinarily isolated I felt. I remember the sensation of being marooned in a big tunnel straight after his birth, cocooned from reality by the effects of the epidural. I wanted to get cleaned up, to eat, to sleep. The midwife said, ‘Let’s get Mum up to the ward’ and I thought, ‘my Mum’s not here, is she?’ I couldn’t get my head round the fact that I was ‘Mum’.
In the fog of the first few weeks, I kept thinking how hard everything was – I was conscious of being at odds with myself, although I’d give the impression that everything was fine. Like many other women living in a big city, without a family network around them, I struggled to find my way. I did find activities and playgroups to go to, but the focus was always on the babies and all the conversation related to that.
I remember filling out that peculiar little form at my six-week check at the doctor that included questions such as, ‘Have you ever felt like harming yourself or your baby?’ I didn’t feel that, but who would want to tick ‘yes’ to this and have herself branded as an unfit mother? To admit that you are finding so difficult what many thousands, including your own mother, have done before you. That this longed-for bundle of joy should be so daunting. Add to this the stigma that still exists around mental health issues and it’s no wonder the feeling of panic sets in.
When you are exhausted and tearful and all the mothers around you seem to be coping better, you don’t want to sit in a busy surgery and define your state of mind. The very phrase ‘post-natal depression’ is depressing! It is more correctly known as post-natal illness and The Association for Post Natal Illness estimates that it affects between 70,000 and 100,000 women and their babies in the UK every year. It is rightly called 'the silent epidemic'.
We live in an increasingly fast-paced society, where you can leave hospital as quickly as a few hours after giving birth and are expected to get on with it. A sense of neighbourhood is fast being eroded. Excepting perhaps small villages, gone are the days when the whole street would rally round to help the new family, while the mother rested and adjusted. Families these days are small, not extended, often you have moved away from where you grew up; women delay having children while they pursue careers and travel, so to be suddenly thrust into the role of housebound new mum without a support network can be terrifying.
Occasionally there is a high-profile case, such as that of Danielle Wails in 2006, where the general public can gasp at the horror of a woman who has killed her own child. There is far less coverage for a mother who has taken her own life. Few will know that, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), more than ten per cent of maternal deaths - that's deaths within one year of giving birth - are caused by suicide. This doesn't even include suicides which come later, in some cases much later. There was a mother from Cheshire who lay down in front of a train in 2000 because she had never recovered from the depression that started with the birth of her 24-year-old son. Relatively few women take their own lives, but at least twenty per cent of all new mothers are likely to suffer depression, and for between a third and a half of these, it will be severe.
The media is full of opinions about motherhood, little jibes about the categories of mother: ‘career bitches, ‘yummy mummies’, ‘hippies breast-feeding their children into adulthood.’ Then of course those celebrity mothers who lose their baby weight within a week or two. There is an assumption that a mother’s day is filled by checking out the latest gossip on Mumsnet Towers and a spot of lunch, with a few nappy changes here and there. Very little is written by mothers detailing their life in that first year. It is recorded retrospectively, if at all. This is mostly because it can get to 2.00pm before a new mother can find the time to brush her teeth.
Of the various articles written, nothing is more damning than pieces from women who have not been able to have children, castigating mothers as ‘moaning’. Yes, we’ve been having babies for centuries, so why all this fuss now? Nobody expected bringing up children to be a breeze, but there is something about a mother’s state of mind in the months following the birth, hit by the juggernaut of responsibility, that sets it apart from the challenges faced later on in parenthood. It’s not even as if mothers want very much.
My group Mothers Uncovered runs various events, performances and exhibitions. The mainstay is a five week facilitated discussion group with the same group of up to twelve women who meet for two hours once a week. They talk about their babies, of course they do – one wouldn’t expect them to be discussing Schrödinger’s Cat theory on two hours sleep – but it is in context of the whole person, because behind every mother is the woman she has always been. The participants, who are not all middle-class WASPs, are delighted and grateful to be mothers, but they need an outlet to process the mammoth event they’ve been through. They record their experiences in diaries, in interviews and through art and photography.
People might say there are church halls up and down the country packed with Mum & Baby groups, which is true. These are usually informal drop-ins however, not suitable for discussing issues that might be difficult and painful. The last thing a vulnerable new mother needs is to walk into a large room of chattering women who all seem to know each other. All is needed for groups like Mothers Uncovered is a room and someone to lead the session, the best person being a mother who has been through the same stage herself. And perhaps some tea and biscuits. It’s not exactly the moon on a stick, is it?
Peer support is a wonderful thing. It enables women to feel that they are not mad or bad mothers, just going through an enormous life change. But hang on, I hear you say, what about those post-natal depression groups? There are groups yes, but many women feel that this is a sign of failure, of ‘not coping’. Common wisdom reports that most women just have ‘baby blues’, only a few have something more serious. These women are kept apart, in ‘closed groups’ at health clinics. I know this, because I have had a devil of a job infiltrating these groups to see if any of the women would like to come to Mothers Uncovered. It’s as if there’s a fear that they might ‘infect’ the other mothers.
I’m not disputing the fact that post-natal depression does exist and sufferers of it may well need medication and counselling. However, every single mother I have spoken to in the last few years has felt they couldn’t find an adequate outlet for their feelings at the beginning. Were they all suffering from depression? Additionally, on some days they wanted to celebrate how much they loved being a mother and share that with others. They didn’t want to describe themselves as depressed then. It seems that both the terminology and the attitude to this period of motherhood is wrong. It is summed up perfectly in Naomi Stadlen’s book ‘What Mothers Do’: “Mothers may be given a “running-in’” period of a couple of weeks. After that, they are usually expected to be calm and capable. Would it not be much more realistic to expect new mothers to be unprepared, anxious, confused and very emotional for at least the first six months? If we could accept that this beginning is the norm for most new mothers, we would be in a better position to be supportive and respectful.”
What I would like to see is equal weight being given to the post-natal period as to the pre-natal, with regular appointments allocated at baby clinics for new mothers, in addition to more support groups. They wouldn’t be obligatory of course, but it needs to be realised that the mental health of a mother following a birth is as important as her physical health beforehand. There is a cost implication, but a mother who feels supported will surely relate better to her baby, which would benefit society in the long-term.
I felt so strongly about the issue I wrote to then Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt in 2006. I received a letter back from her office saying the Department of Health was proposing to extend the current duration of postnatal care. ‘The Department has recommended that midwifery-led services should be provided for the mother and baby for at least a month after birth or discharge from hospital and up to three months longer depending on individual need.’ With the NHS resources being ever stretched, this seems an elusive goal.
In my case, like for so many women, I gradually realised that rather than being a strange freak, I was just a normal mother trying to cope with the enormity of the responsibility with inadequate preparation. That in turn put the feelings in proportion. I had a relatively mild case of depression (I suppose – I was never diagnosed), which lifted in time, as my child and I grew together. For most women, they do just ‘get on with it’ and the memories of that turbulent time fade. By the time they re-enter the fray, they may find it hard to even remember that time clearly and may well not wish to, feeling thankful that they seem to have survived relatively intact.
This is why the problem still continues. Just because women do ‘get on with it’ and seem to be managing later on, doesn’t mean they should have to. Doesn’t it behove us as a society to offer more than that, especially when the support is easily achievable? And for the women whose lives are permanently blighted by their experiences of becoming a mother the situation must change.
© Maggie Gordon-Walker
There was an article recently in the Family section of the Guardian entitled 'I'm not a mother but I'm still a person...' I'd had the paper about a week before I read it, but hey, that's because I'm a mum and ALL mums rush round in a frazzled state, right, because all mums are the same. Er...? No actually. Some are frazzled, others frighteningly efficient. They are all varied. Just like women who aren't mothers.
This article, which was poignant and sensitively written, was not slating mothers. The writer was regretful she'd been unable to conceive. However it still makes the 'Us and Them' mistake of assuming all mothers are the same. Yes, we've all given birth (except those who've adopted and are, just as much, mothers). We all have a baby (or more) and that is common ground. But we are vastly different from each other. The writer relates a party she was at, where the mothers couldn't concentrate on what she was saying, 'I saw panic in their eyes, as if they didn't know how to have a conversation that wasn't about their offspring.'
Perhaps some new friends are in order. A significant number of the mums I know are delighted to go out, get rat-arsed and gabble on any number of topics.
The other misconception is that it's the mothers who have withdrawn from the 'freakish' barren woman. 'They bear me no ill will – I have simply dropped out of their world.'
Becoming a mother can be incredibly isolating and many feel it is they who have been sidelined. In a workshop I ran, a participant recalled looking at pictures on Facebook of events she'd not been invited to. She felt 'conveniently cropped.'
I have a 'childfree' friend I've known since childhood who has consistently ignored suggestions to meet in the last few years. Perhaps she feels I will only talk about the kids, perhaps it is too painful for her, but it ain't all beer and skittles being a mum either.
I run Mothers Uncovered, a creative support network for (mostly new) mothers. I set it up because I felt that at all the Mum and Baby groups, the emphasis was completely on the baby. Yes the participants talk about their babies, of course they do, this is their world when their baby is a few months old, but it is in context of the whole person, because behind every mother is the woman she has always been. The participants are from all walks of life, backgrounds, cultures. A lot of them would never choose to be in each others' company, yet they listen respectively to each other recognising their similarities and differences, as mothers and as women.
I am in the classroom, twelve years old, cheeks burning. ‘Haven’t you started yours yet? I’ve had mine for ages.’ She laughs scornfully at my unwomanly state. My tormenter is resentful of the fact that I’ve made friends with ‘her’ best friend. Any opportunity to make me feel insignificant or immature she seizes on, with a daily barrage of snide remarks. With hindsight, I see she was the immature one, but it didn’t help at the time. Girls are apparently made of sugar and spice and all things nice, so why is it that they often form into bitchy cliques, behaving incredibly cruelly to their peers?
Is there something in the make-up of girls that makes them more prone to this behaviour? Developmental psychology reasons that at an early age girls absorb from their parents, peers, and media images that they are supposed to be "nice" and "sweet." They are not encouraged to resolve their differences through fights—as boys often are, they must hide them and not rock the boat. Girls are more likely to taunt, stare at, or exclude the offending girl from the group, tell lies about her, or threaten to withdraw friendship. This is not attention-grabbing behaviour, so it often goes unnoticed.
Ironically, because girls tend to put more store in close friendships than boys (who have more of a pack mentality), their aggression towards other girls (but not boys) often involves threatening to and actually destroying relationships. The high value they place on friendship and having another girl as their bosom buddy leads them to shut out the best friend who displeases them, even though they will fiercely protect her from being taken by intruders.
Another trait is to temporarily include a third person into their pair so both can score points off each other only to reject the third later. This happened to me twice, which Oscar Wilde might have observed looks more like carelessness than misfortune, but one of the times was at university, when you hope everyone’s gone past that stage. Sadly these patterns of behaviour last into adulthood for many girls. Perhaps they are mirroring events that they have encountered at home. Their controlling trait masks their own insecurity, because bullies are ultimately cowards.
Nowhere are the mores of society more blatant than when reflected on a programme like Big Brother. Often the rival camps in the group will be centred around one strong female who will gather a small circle of acolytes. They will victimise one of the other girls for being tarty or sluttish, while at the same time batting their eyelashes at the boys themselves. The others join in, mostly for fear of being the target. The ‘racism row’ surrounding Shilpa Shetty on this year’s ‘Celebrity’ version overshadowed the fact that this was ordinary mean girl behaviour with an added veneer. Shetty herself didn’t pick out the specific racist slant, it was their rude unpleasantness in general she objected to. On the main programme in the summer the producers seemed to make an inspired choice to go for an all-girl house, although within a week they were factoring the boys in, relentlessly pursuing any whiff of sexual activity. If it had stayed an all-girl house it would have been a unique social experiment.The previous year Jodie Marsh, self-promoter extraordinaire, had appeared on the ‘Celebrity’ version. She was voted out first and cried during her post-eviction interview describing the experience as "horrific" and her housemates as "vile jealous bullies". A few months later, Liberal Democrat Education Spokesman Phil Willis questioned Schools Minister Jacqui Smith as to whether Marsh should be permitted access to schools in promoting her BeatBullying work, branding her blog as "the language of an
appalling bully". Smith responded that it was a decision in the hands of individual headteachers, but the BeatBullying website no longer lists Jodie Marsh as a supporter. Clearly not learning from her mistakes, in May 2007, Marsh was interviewed by journalist Jody Thompson. Disagreeing with Thompson, Marsh said of her on camera, "I actually wanted to punch her in the face. Lesbian, blatantly! That short hair! And butch, looks like a man . . . She was a bitch from hell, she was a complete cow", much to the fury of gay right groups. The clip was broadcast on MTV.
Is it getting worse due to the media increasingly putting airbrushed visions of ‘loveliness’ everywhere, thus setting girls against each other? Or has it always been this bad? Pretty girls are rarely as unpopular as ugly ones. Girls seem to have a greater need to fit in - knowing that their looks are what attract men, at least that’s the view perpetuated from everyone from the media to retailers - they can focus mainly on external, more shallow qualities. In any group of girls, there seems to be a jostling to determine who is the most desirable. Even if there are no men around, they need to establish themselves as the top dog, the most attractive prize should a male become available.
Channel 4 screened a pair of documentaries four years ago, ‘Boys Alone’ and ‘Girls Alone’ about two groups of eleven year olds left in a house without parental supervision. The boys ran wild, inviting comparisons to Lord of the Flies, yet they trashed the house rather than each other. The girls were less messy, ate better meals and even created some activities such as fashion shows, but they still formed rival camps, ostracising certain girls for ‘unacceptable’ behaviour. One locked herself in the bathroom, having been voted the most unpopular by the others, two left the house early. Educational psychologist Dr Jack Boyle, writing about the programmes in The Scotsman observed that the difference between boys and girls on their own is emphasised by their treatment of the cat and the use of the trampoline. The stray cat was petted, fed and left alone by the girls. The trampoline was only used occasionally, often by a child looking for some solitary relief. With boys, both the trampoline and the cat would have been the centre of action. He noted that while the girls were prone to attacking others through ‘gossip and grudges, they also offer comfort and intimate reassurance, interpret and anticipate others’ feelings, seek the group good and play constructively. Girls alone in adult life cope pretty well because they benefit from the reassurances of intimacy. Men on their own do badly because watching football is a distraction, not consolation. The absorption with fashion may be a small price to pay.’ Perhaps it’s naïve to say it, but he might have a more romanticised view of girls than they do themselves. Any female who has been on the receiving end of ‘gossip and grudges’ knows that they can cause irrevocable damage to self-esteem.
Most people don’t have the Big Brother style experience of being put in an unreal, intense situation for a limited period of time. Going to college or university but can create the same feelings but is a watered down version. I did have something akin to it, working with a group who hadn’t known each other previously at the Edinburgh Festival. One of the other two girls in the cast ‘bagsied’ the other girl as her friend, ensuring they were always together and I was an unwelcome addition to be sniggered at. It was an awful situation, especially as we had to share a room; I developed a skin allergy because of the stress and was more miserable than I’ve been almost at any other part of my life. While I’ve remembered it vividly ten years on, I’m sure she was barely aware of her behaviour. The inability of bullies to see the effect their behaviour causes is one of its most distressing aspects.
Most incidents of physical violence between groups of young people happen with males although there was an incident in a suburb of Washington D.C. about five years ago where three teenage girls pulled another girl out of her car at a red light punching and stamping her to death, ending a fight that had started earlier at school. This is quite clearly distressing, headline-making behaviour, but what about the long-term effects of the cruel words and taunts that generally tend to be the preserve of women and carry on into adult life? Girls who have been taunted and bullied throughout their school years can experience serious depression and social anxiety for many years subsequently.
When boys’ physical aggression becomes violent, parents, teachers, and even the law can intervene. At least boys learn when they are going too far. But girls’ aggression—what psychologists refer to as relational aggression—is insidious. Rarely do outsiders step in. And sadly, the female victims who do confide in their families or teachers beg them not to intervene, worrying that it will be even worse for them if an adult approaches the bully. Dawn-Marie Wesley, 14, took her own life in British Columbia, Canada in 2000 leaving behind a note to her family that referred to the bullying to which she had been subjected: "If I try to get help, it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted, they would get suspended and there would be no stopping them."
Rachel Simmons wrote Odd Girl Out in 2002 after visiting thirty schools in the States and interviewing three hundred girls aged nine to fifteen in focus groups and individually to find out more about relational aggression. It revealed that girls as young as four were bullying, threatening, and shutting out other girls from play groups. Simmons addresses the issue from both sides—the "queen bee" taunters and the dejected outcasts. She urged that girls be taught to recognise their anger and not to hide it under the pretence of nothing being wrong or being superficially nice. Next, girls should be taught how to communicate their feelings to the perceived offender in non-threatening, assertive language, much as most boys seem to do naturally. "I don’t like that" or "That really hurt my feelings" can open the door so that the other girl can apologise and make amends. Also, girls need to know the long-term harm their behaviour can cause.
In principle, this sounds fantastic, but it’s a very long term strategy. Many women in the workplace, for example, bully younger women because they were bullied in their turn. And so the cycle goes on. The problem needs to be addressed in the media and in all the reality shows that clog our screens. Although just this past week, the youngest competitor on the X Factor talent show and former favourite to win Emily Nakanda, 15, has been removed from the show. She’d been portrayed as a serious, sweet girl miraculously recovered from major surgery until mobile phone footage came to light showing her attacking and taunting another girl in a ‘happy slapping’ incident. Perhaps it is inherent in girls’ natures to bitch and snipe, but if it is shown to be as unacceptable as using a racist word, it might diminish.