Updated: Mar 27
How did you envision yourself being a mother before becoming one? As one who knows what her child needs at all times, who manages the mental load, who doesn't miss her pre-mom life, who whips up homecooked meals every day, who does not yell and is endlessly patient, has colour coordinated toys and clothes, is selfless, and so on? How much of that panned out?
When we become mothers and we go through matrescence, we face relationship changes, physical changes, career changes, psychological changes, and so on. And, we also enter into the social construct of being a "mother". With that comes a series of rules and expectations that society unconsciously imposes on us - and we absorb.
Our mother is the first example of motherhood we encounter. Her mothering shaped how we view motherhood, for good or for bad. The conditioning continues with our friend's mothers when we go for playdates or sleepovers. Later on, television reinforces what a "good mother" looks, talks, cooks, feels, and acts like. Society structures and politics keep those expectations in place.
Dr. Sophie Brock, an Australian sociologist focused on motherhood, explains this phenomenon with her fish tank analogy and the resulting anger-guilt trap. She compares people with fish living in a fish tank. On the walls of the tank are all the expectations of being a perfect mother (all the conditioned aspects of motherhood). Living inside that fish tank, we internalize those expectations as if they were our own, without questioning how realistic they are, or if they match up with our values or not.
"The "rules" of motherhood are used by others to judge mothers, and we judge ourselves according to them too" - Dr Sophie Brock
Anger, for example, is not part of the acceptable experiences of motherhood and so, whenever we inevitably feel frustration, irritability, and anger in mothering our children, we feel guilty. We feel like maybe we're doing this whole thing wrong, maybe we are not cut out to be mothers, and maybe others are so much better at it than us. But anger is an emotion that needs to be heard and tended to, not buried deep inside until it explodes. The same thing can apply to pretty much anything that is part of that perfect mother myth, from clothes to patience to food...if we don't match up to those expectations, we feel guilty. I've heard so many moms struggle with this...too many to count. They say that their kids drive them crazy, or that they are completely exhausted at the end of the day, or that they are impatient, and they follow those statements with "I'm not the mom I wanted to be", "I'm not mean to be a mother" or they ask "what am I doing wrong?".
You see, the guilt that results from not meeting the perfect mother myth makes us want to do better. But often, it's not better in a healthy growth way, but better in an unconscious and conditioned way. So we try harder, we want to do better, do more, be different, and we step over our boundaries to meet yet another unattainable goal. We ignore our body's need for rest or our emotional turmoil because asking for help or resting is not part of the myth. And when we get impatient again and we scream, or we fail to meet the standard in any way, we get angry, disappointed with ourselves, and, you guessed it, guilty. The more guilt we experience, the more selfless we strive to become, the more we ignore the Self the more we build up anger, and resentment until eventually, we burn out.
And I want to add that although I am discussing the perfect mother myth, this conditioning can be said about anything. It can be about being a "good little girl", it can be about what a "good wife" is, a "good daughter", a "good employee", etc. When you understand how deep and wide conditioning goes, you can follow that rabbit down a very deep hole and it can get quite overwhelming honestly.
So, how can you get out of the anger-guilt trap? Here are just a few ideas.
Get clear on your values
The first thing is to be aware that this is going on inside of you: to realize that maybe all those "shoulds" are not coming from within. To do so, you can take a piece of paper and make a list of your core values. What is of the utmost importance for you? What does the good mother mean to me? Out of these, what is a non-negociable, and what is a "should" you've internalized from your family, friends, or society? If you had to focus your energy on only 5 things, which ones would those be?
Where's the guilt?
Out of all the items on your list, ask yourself in which area are you feeling guilt? Is this something that is necessary, or not? For example, if you feel guilty about the hours you spend at work, ask yourself if this is necessary, if it's important for you, or if there is another way? If there is, try to brainstorm (by yourself or with someone else - a spouse, friend, family member, coach, etc.) what you can do to remedy the situation in a way that best serves your values. If there is no other choice, write down the positives of this situation and what you might get out of it. Perhaps you are teaching your children about responsibility, dedication or financial independence.
Come back to the present moment
Guilt can be such a pervasive feeling, that it can really cloud our brains. If that happens, try to take a break and breathe. Bringing back your awareness to the present moment can help you shift your perspective and rationalize the situation. For example, if you feel guilty about bringing in McDonalds for dinner when you vowed you wouldn't do that anymore, take a moment to breathe and put things into perspective: you might see that "hey, at least they are eating", or "I really need to get some help with dinner because I don't have enough time to make it every day". Either way, do you see how different the experience can be? Instead of ruminating over the situation and the guilty feeling and talking down to yourself, you've got a clearer picture of how you feel about it and how to move forward.
Connect with others
Having honest conversations about your motherhood experience can help you shift the focus from your guilt and resentment to a shared experience which can be healing in and of itself. Talking about the "shoulds" of motherhood and the perfect mother myth is one way to take its power away (the name it to tame it technique). I believe the more we have this conversation, the more we can collectively shift the perception of what motherhood really is for our fellow mothers but also, in the long run, for future generations.
And what motherhood really is is a messy, imperfect, beautiful, and difficult experience, just like anything else. In one day - heck, in one hour - you can experience the whole range of human emotions. To me, being a mother is the most human thing I've ever done, and will ever do. And for that, I'm forever grateful.
As for the perfect mother myth? I'm still making my way through the conditioning, shaking one paradigm at a time. It's a process that takes time, self-awareness, and courage, but I know it leads to far more satisfaction than living life on the surface of society's dictates.
If you want to discuss this topic in a coaching container, I offer you a safe space to do so. Inside, you can alchemize those feelings to encounter your Self, foster growth, transformation, and an increased sense of satisfaction.
Please spread the word on the perfect mother myth by sharing this article with someone you care about!