“I feel like such a failure.”
I hear this every single day from mothers. The saddest thing is that every time I hear these words, the mother is doing a wonderful job: she is intelligent and responsive with a beautiful connection to her baby. Her baby is proof that she can’t be a failure – alert, animated and engaging. So why is her confidence so shot to pieces?
There is a range of reasons for new mums sliding down the slippery slope of self- doubt, from struggling against popular advice that doesn’t feel right, to being blamed for having a baby who doesn’t fit the cookie cutter template of ‘normal’, whatever that is according to what book she has read, who is advising her or what everyone else’s babies are doing. Or, at least what they say their babies are doing, especially around feeding and sleeping. There is a conspiracy of silence that isolates mothers and because they don’t want to face criticism, they perpetuate this very conspiracy that divides and holds them hostage.
Over a two week period, I did home visits to three mothers who lived within a block of each other. Each of these mothers was feeling as though they must be doing ‘everything wrong’ because their babies weren’t in routines, sleeping ‘all night’ or feeding well. Their babies were similar ages and they attended the same baby health centre so there was a very good chance the women were in the same mothers’ group. Because of client confidentiality, I couldn’t ask these women if they knew each other but when I asked, have you talked about this in your mum’s group?, each woman told me, “Oh no, I can’t –they are all so together.”
Another time, when I asked a group of mums how their babies slept, then asked for their individual definitions of ‘sleeping all night’, those who said their babies slept all night and those who said their babies didn’t, weren’t all that different: The mums who said their babies slept from 7 til 7 (incidentally, in infant sleep studies, all night is defined as five hours), actually did things like giving a dream feed, popped the dummy in a few times or patted their babies to resettle. One mum co-slept and breastfed during the night but because this baby didn’t actually wake fully and the mum’s feet didn’t hit the floor, she was happy enough that she and her baby slept ‘all night’. On the other hand, mums who did these same things considered that because they had to attend to their babies overnight, they hadn’t slept ‘all night’. In fact out of eight mums, only
one baby actually slept ‘all night’ without needing ‘help’. He was breastfed, bonny and slept in his parents’ room where they would have heard any whimper he made but this was definitely an exception, rather than the rule. Interestingly, this mother contacted me when she had her second baby because he was a classic ‘high needs’ baby who had shattered her self- image as ‘competent mummy’.
Whatever your baby does, this has nothing to do with you being a ‘failure’, nor have you caused difficult behaviour or bad habits through ‘accidental parenting’ (whatever that may be). You are just responding to the baby you have –some babies are extra sensitive and find too much stimulation overwhelming, especially in the early weeks; others are sensitive to foods (if you are breastfeeding, you may find some changes to your diet alleviates your baby’s discomfort); some babies are what I like to call ‘high interest’ babies: these babies are alert and find it more difficult to ‘switch off’ so they need more help to get to sleep; others simply don’t need as much sleep as the charts say (remember any chart shows ‘averages’ so there will be babies either side of average and more active parents often seem to have more active babies); Some babies have challenges with feeding and little people come in all shapes and sizes. Babies all develop at different rates and things can go ‘pear shaped’ as they reach milestones no matter how consistent you are or how placid your baby is, because to the baby the way he experiences his world is changing.
Some babies are ‘easier’ than others, some mothers have better support networks and some mums have more honest friends – who admit that being a mum is tough gig, that babies don’t fit conveniently into their organised lives and that they too feel ‘out of control’ at least, some days.
Next time you are feeling like a ‘failure’ sit for a moment and gaze at your unique child, nuzzle his soft downy head and breathe in his sweet baby smell. Accept that if things are tough right now, it’s not your fault and it is ok to reach out for help. Let go of your image of perfect mummy (whoever she is). Know that you can’t have a baby this beautiful, this bright and this perfect unless you are doing a damn good job – you ARE a great mother!