I don’t believe any woman wakes up and thinks “I’m going to be a terrible mum today”. But sometimes it can feel like motherhood is a constant battle against people thinking that’s what you’ve done. Whether it’s the food you feed them or the stroller you put them in, there always seems to be someone around to raise an eyebrow at your apparently dubious choice.
When I took my then-six-month-old baby on a flight alone, one of my big worries was how to package my – cue smugness – home-made baby food for the aeroplane. For some reason, opting for practical ready-made meal packs was unthinkable – all those people in such close proximity, what would they think about my lazy feeding habits? But actually nobody seemed to notice what I was feeding him – instead, I overheard a man ask his wife, “Should babies that young really be allowed on flights?”
Then my home-made food burst in the bag and coated everything around us with minced beef. You can bet it was ready packaged meals all the way on our return leg. But the incident made me wonder – who exactly was I trying to impress, and why? Is there a secret mum of the year competition of which random strangers are the judges? Or is it just fear of being deemed a bad mum?
According to a MumPoll.com study of 3,000 mothers, a woman’s competitive streak emerges as soon as she gives birth, with almost half of the participants admitting to being “obsessed” by having the first baby in their peer group to crawl, walk and talk. Meanwhile, a survey by Colief Infant Drops last year found that 64 per cent of mothers report having experienced public disdain if their baby is crying, and 41 per cent say they feel stared at by strangers when their little one is having a paddy.
Stats like these make poor mums sound like cat-fighting, paranoid messes but, comfortingly, it isn’t just mothers who are concerned with what other people think. According to analysis of Facebook data, one in eight people lies on his or her social media feeds about what they’ve been doing at the weekend to impress their friends. Pretty sad, eh? And what about CVs? Spinning the truth of your life and turning it into a bit of self-promotion – using the sort of overblown language that would make us sound like megalomaniacal narcissists if we were to use it in normal conversation – is totally acceptable nowadays. Life’s always a competition, it just becomes particularly personal in the parenthood chapter.
So is there an antidote to all this posturing and worrying? I was looking through a friend’s Instagram feed of lovely home-cooked meals the other day and wondering why everyone posting foodie pics always seems to be serving up organic quinoa with angel’s eyelashes, or purple-sprouting broccoli seasoned with celestial tears. What if we put the photo filter on images of beans on toast instead? How about, instead of cherry-picking things to say that will impress, we only said things we really mean, without worrying who we’re saying it to? For example: “My baby vomited in his car seat and I’m not sure if I’ve cleaned it to the standards of the stroller spa, but the idea of a ‘stroller’ having a ‘spa’ makes me want to self-combust.”
Sounds OK in theory but, as I found out in a recent conversation, there’s a risk of it becoming a competition even in that context: “Tommy’s been in the same nappy for nearly eight hours”; “Well I haven’t had a shower all week,”; “Well I only dress my children in rags and the hair on my legs could cut a diamond.”
There’s only one clear antidote to all this competitiveness. A sign with the words ‘You’ve won’ written on it. Whenever other mums start to get boastful, or strangers seem as if they’re about to don their judge’s wig, you could point at it, as if to say, “It’s OK, you’ve won, you’re better than me. Now can we just get on with our lives?”