Mothers don’t tell the truth about mothering. We don’t tell the truth about childbirth, either. While there are plenty of tales about the quirks, challenges and joys of pregnancy, such as the famous cravings for pickles at midnight, childbirth itself is glossed over in polite company. And if you ask a new mother how things are going, she will almost invariably reply that everything is fine, thank you, in spite of a little sleep deprivation and tedium. Every mother I’ve met participates in the conspiracy of silence to some degree, and is aware that she’s doing so.

I propose that we end the conspiracy. It is damaging mothers, potential parents, children, and society.

A conspiracy is basically a lie. A group decides that certain information needs to be kept secret. It is almost impossible to completely ignore information that exists. To keep it secret, lies must be told, if only by omission. We know that lies lead to trouble. Just think of the messes politicians keep getting themselves into!

In another post, I may say more about how the conspiracy of silence around mothering harms everyone. Today, I’m more interested in why it exists.

The trouble with the conspiracy of silence around mothering

Because of the conspiracy, potential mothers do not have adequate information for deciding whether to become mothers. As a result, many, many children are born to women who didn’t know what they were getting into and who might not have done it if they had known. It’s not the best start in life for those children.

Because of the conspiracy, non-mothers judge mothers on the information they have about mothering, which is far from the whole picture. Employment practices and welfare policies are based on incomplete information about what mothers are doing and can reasonably be expected to do.

Because of the conspiracy, and the resulting lack of accurate information about the mothering experience, society develops unrealistic expectations of mothers. We all recognise the image of the heroine-mother who manages through all circumstances and sacrifices everything. Yet we also blame mothers for the downfall of society, for badly behaved children who are unprepared to take their places as productive members of society. In fact, name any social or psychological malaise and somewhere, someone will blame mothers. The reality, the truth, is that mothers are normal humans, doing truly heroic and unrecognised work under difficult circumstances, and we make plenty of small and large mistakes. Less is under our control than people realise.

When a mother, or anyone else, faces unrealistic expectations, stress results. Assertiveness-training books contain plenty of advice on how to discuss unrealistic expectations with bosses, partners, neighbours etc. There is advice on how to change the situation, adapt to the situation, or leave the situation. With mothering, mothers have so often internalized the unrealistic expectations that these options, for all intents and purposes, don’t exist. And so the stress simply grows, affecting the health and well-being of millions of women, children and families the world over. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to create more realistic expectations of mothers?

So why do mothers maintain a conspiracy that doesn’t serve them?

I have often asked this question. I have not yet received a satisfactory answer. The common understanding of why we maintain the conspiracy includes one or more of the following ideas: ‘I’m not telling her what it’s like. She’ll find out!! She wouldn’t believe me. You can’t explain it in a way that someone can understand. Would you have believed it? It’s just one of those things you have to go through. No-one would do it if they knew what was involved (the implicit assumption being that this would be a bad thing). I don’t want to scare her. It’s too gory.’

My internal truth detector is not convinced. My respondents were telling the truth as they know it, but I don’t buy the standard explanations.

I wonder if one reason we don’t tell the truth about childbirth and mothering is because we are ashamed. There are other reasons, but this post focuses on shame as one explanation for the conspiracy.

We may be ashamed that we are not able to perform as well as we expected to. I, for one, wrote an elaborate multi-page birth plan that went out the window with the first contraction. I am far from alone. And life with babies and small children, whether one works outside the home or stays home, can bring out not just one or two behaviours we are not proud of, but an entire lifestyle that would have made us gag BC (before child). ‘I won’t let my child watch television’ becomes, ‘how early can I turn on the tube?’ Personal hygiene and good housekeeping become a luxury, even for the house proud and beauty conscious. ‘I will never shout’ becomes ‘will you for the love of God just go to sleep!’ uttered at full volume.

We may be ashamed because we are not enjoying much of mothering. To not enjoy motherhood is almost a blasphemy. Mothers are supposed to be naturally engrossed in the minutiae of their offspring’s development. Mothers are supposed to delight in nurturing sweet, innocent young souls. Mothers are supposed to be genetically programmed to handle behaviour from their children that would be considered abusive from anyone else. Mothers are supposed to manage the household, the kids, and often a job without sleep, support or complaint. Mothers are supposed to be fulfilled by all this. To be bored is sacrilege, to be frustrated is to be small-minded and selfish, to feel desperate is to be ungrateful. So when we are bored, when we are frustrated, when we feel desperate, we feel ashamed. And while we might complain, and loud and long, to those closest to us, we will admit none of it to anyone outside our most intimate circle.

We may be ashamed because maybe we got it wrong. One can long for a baby with every ounce of one’s being and be extremely ambivalent about the reality of mothering. And it is (it really is) bad form to complain about something that other people long for with every ounce of their being and can’t have. Admitting mistakes is not something we do often or publicly. Apparently it’s embarrassing to complain about choices we have made whose outcome we don’t love. Besides, becoming a mother is not a reversible decision (or at least not without a staggering amount of anguish).

We may be ashamed of not living up to expectations. Mothers face a mountain of expectations: their own as well as the expectations of their parents, their peer groups, society, the various parenting books and television programs. Especially in the early days of mothering, when we are sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, we may not have the capacity to challenge expectations. It took me months to realise that I was struggling with what seemed like a dozen sets of conflicting expectations. It took years to actively choose my own set of expectations. In fact, 8 years in, I’m still working on that and I know for a fact that most mothers struggle with expectations for the duration of their mothering careers (in other words, battling expectations is a life sentence).

We may be ashamed of being vulnerable. Why are mothers vulnerable? Because we are 100% responsible for a defenceless human being. On the most basic survival level, a woman carrying a baby (or dealing with two or three small children at a time) cannot run away from danger; nor can she fight as effectively if she’s shielding her babes. A mother with her hands full of babies and small children hasn’t much time or energy to produce or acquire the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing, medical care and education. Mothers are vulnerable because they care so much about their children. You aren’t vulnerable if you don’t care.

Humans, like other animals, can be ruthless about who they look after in a crisis. The youngest, the oldest, the weakest, the most vulnerable, may well be jettisoned when things get tough. From a biological perspective, this makes sense if the goal is preservation of the species. From the personal perspective of a new mother, it is frightening, especially since new mothers are very often among the least vulnerable, biologically, before becoming mothers. So maybe we are hard-wired to put on a brave face so that the pack will take us with it if catastrophe strikes. Mothers don’t admit how vulnerable they are because revealing it makes them even more vulnerable.

Much as I would like to break the conspiracy, I find that I don’t. I don’t have the courage to be the one voice saying, ‘it’s going to be hell, real hell, and it will stretch you beyond recognition. There will be growth, there will be joy and rewards, but there will be great loss, too.’ Before I can say this to potential parents, I have to let go of my own shame. I want my own experience of mothering to be witnessed and validated by other mothers. What if I am the only one who feels this way? Then I would conclude that there really was something wrong with me.

What would happen if we ended the conspiracy and told the truth about parenting?

Feeling ashamed is not a good enough reason to lie, or in this case, perpetuate a conspiracy. In order for women to end the conspiracy, we need to shine the light of reason on mother-shame. If we question that whole list of reasons to feel ashamed, we might find that we aren’t actually ashamed. That would get rid of one barrier to telling the truth about mothering.

Just contemplating the possibility of ending the conspiracy of silence makes my body relax and feel freer. I get excited. I begin to sense different possibilities for mothers, for non-mothers, for children, for society. Just think if we all had full information:

  • Lots of women would choose to not have children.
  • They would be more economically productive, creative, independent
  • A significant proportion might be happier
  • The birth rate would drop, resulting in
    • Less pressure on the environment
    • Less pressure on the welfare system, i.e., taxpayers, i.e., all of us.

The women who are mothers:

  • Would be honoured for their sacrifices of body, mind and spirit (like soldiers who have endured horrors in defence of their country)
  • Could tell the truth (what a relief!), be witnessed and validated
  • Could process the experience of mothering more openly and honestly, leading to more healing, leading to healthier families and society.

Telling the truth would create a healthier system for all of us. If mothers tell the truth, perhaps others will too. Men might be more honest about the unrealistic pressures on them. The more we all tell the truth about what works for us, the better the chances of adjusting institutions (like the tax, welfare and education systems) to serve people better. If mothers tell the truth, others will tell the truth. And society could change radically. It could evolve into a holistic system that at least attempts to support everybody – in terms of services like education and medical care, and also in terms of opportunities to serve. People are literally dying of the lack of opportunity (or perceived opportunity) to be who they really are, to offer what is best in them.

What can we lose from telling the truth?

This question deserves a lot more thought than I’m giving it today. My few brief thoughts on it come from the knowledge that whatever choices we make, there are payoffs. If we choose to maintain the conspiracy of silence about motherhood, we get to keep the following payoffs:

  • Membership in a secret society of sufferers. There is power in suffering secretly, so there would be a loss of a kind of power.
  • Predictability. Things would change.
  • Privacy.

This post leaves many of my thoughts about secrets, lies, expectations and shame unexplored. I suspect I’ll be coming back to this! I would like to hear your thoughts and make this a conversation, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

How would you go about beginning to tell the truth about your parenting (or any other) experience?