This article was first published for the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader page in July 2015.
By Hameeda Bassa-Suleman
I have learnt a lot about mothers and mothering in the past seven years of studying, training and then practicing as a psychologist. For the most part, I knew what would theoretically make a “good enough mother”, according to Donald Winnicott, and what would make a “not-so-good” mother. When I began seeing patients and clients I realised that mothers around me had not been as idealistic in their duties and responsibilities as I imagined they could have been.
I met children, adolescents and adults who complained about their poor relationships with their mothers, about how their mothers should have done more, and how their mothers in general were slacking in their roles of caregiver, teacher, companion, disciplinarian and friend. Aside from thinking, “Well, where are your fathers?” I was probably ignorant at that time and I really believed them, having heard many “mother stories” which supported their claims.
In the era of Freud, it was mainly our issues with our mothers (only very rarely our fathers) which resulted in our neuroses. Mothers were always expected to do more, they were blamed when children didn’t surpass Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”, because they didn’t “put in enough effort for their children”. And then, at times, they can put in too much effort, which can result in another set of mother stories. It’s not unknown for “soccer moms” to compete with each other vicariously through their children.
When I found out I was going to be a mother, I was determined to not make those same mistakes as all the mothers around me. I knew of the negative psychological repercussions of not being a good enough mother and, being a determined person, I aimed at persevering into the unknown with my psychological training, foolishly thinking that this would be enough to prevent any kind of future pathology in my child (and therefore myself): I was going to be there all the time for my infant; I would respond to every demand kindly, patiently and tolerantly; I would set defined limits and stick to them; I would be loving and warm. No screaming, no judgements, no prejudice. I would be the good mother, a real life example of the Brady Bunch mother. My ideas were good in theory, because everything is good in theory, even pie in the sky.
My theory took a turn when I was forced by nature and God to switch over to the side of mothers. I became a mother about a year ago, and when I did my whole life changed. Nobody can explain succinctly or realistically the post-natal process of being a mother for the first time. It is something that has to be experienced for yourself. I have read thousands of pages on pregnancy and early development, and I was still unequipped to deal with the event. The responsibility of taking care of a tiny, vulnerable, demanding person is unequivocal to anything else I had ever experienced. I was very scared and unprepared, which multiplied my fear, especially since, once you become a mother, it seems like you are never anything else. Your previous identity becomes cemented under this new title and you have no clue as to where you begin and where you end. Motherhood consumes every particle of your being. Suddenly you exist, but you forget how you got there.
I suddenly belonged to a club where I realised that all the mothers around me were trying their very best and still failing because they could not meet the unrealistic ideal set in the 70’s by patriarchal men and their Stepford wives. Speaking to mothers as a mother, I realised we were all well aware of our shortcomings but did not know how to fill the gap. It was a “mother’s club” racked with guilt, hope, pride and longing to be better, but just not having the strength or the time to do it or enough sleep to deal with it. A lot of the time I am afraid of being myself, because I am a mother and I am not “allowed” to have time or joys for myself. Any minute spent alone looking for the mythical “Me-Time” (Gasp! Didn’t you just have a baby?!) results in a pervasive phenomenon universally referred to as “mother’s guilt”.
I remember thinking a lot about my own mother. I suddenly had a lot of respect and admiration for her. Every mother is forced to care for her child. Sometimes it’s done willingly and sometimes not so much, but the point is that it is done. Just waking up eight times a night or feeding a little person 18 times a day (yes, that many times!) should be enough, because there are a million other things that are yet to be done. This is what no one had told me. In my young life I had only seen what more could have been done — how much better I could have been or how much better my mother could have been.
Psychologists, social media and celebrities work together to give you the ideal image of a mother who is best at everything. A whole spectrum of all the things you should be doing and the degree to which you should be doing it. The good end of the spectrum and the expected bad end. They don’t really explain the fog, weariness and trepidation it takes to get onto the spectrum in the first place. Mothers work hard to do their best for their children, yet they always feel they are failing to meet their own high standards of being better or being the best. Nobody knows this better than mothers themselves. Even the most neglectful of mothers have experienced some sort of sacrifice or pain for their children, like the incremental physical discomfort in pregnancy and the painful process of giving birth. At the very least, we should be grateful that was done as it brought us to life.
I have come to terms with the fact that, as a mother, despite my good intentions, my knowledge and will power, I may never be the best mother in the world, and sometimes I will definitely get it wrong but I, like the other mothers out there, am trying and that should be good enough.