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Like most people, you probably have strong views on whether mothers complain too much. It’s been in the news (see this, this, this and thisarticle). If you look at the reader comments at the ends of these articles, you’ll find people giving both strongly supportive and highly critical responses.

I have to admit that I do complain about motherhood – the abysmal working conditions, the non-existent pay, the huge and conflicting expectations, the stress and the guilt, and the apparent inevitability of getting it wrong no matter what I do (which has been an interesting spiritual lesson). However, I don’t like to be criticised, so I looked up what it means to complain, to see if that is what I do, and whether I can continue to justify doing it.

Dictionary.com defines ‘complain’ as ‘to express dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, censure, resentment, or grief; find fault.’ ‘Censure’ and ‘finding fault’ have to do with others’ actions, whereas dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, resentment and grief refer to the individual’s feelings. Mothers (and other humans, of course) do both kinds of complaining. We quietly or loudly announce that we are NOT happy to wipe up the third spill in 5 minutes while, with the other hand, continuing to feed the toddler and ourselves. We also feel free to comment on other mothers’ actions. Which of us has not said, ‘I’d never do that,’ or ‘she’s going to regret that.’

By Dictionary.com’s definition, I definitely complain. And I think it’s important for people to express these unpleasant experiences – in the appropriate context. Pretending one doesn’t have these experiences, or keeping them to oneself, is a great way to create problems for later. So for me, the question becomes, what’s the appropriate context in which to complain? When does complaining serve, and when does it become a problem?

It’s easiest to decide the appropriate context in which to express ‘censure’ and ‘finding fault’: in one’s personal journal, or with perhaps one trusted friend, as a way to explore one’s own values. Expressing censure and finding fault are judging, and although, as human beings, we naturally judge each other, kindness and fairness require that we refrain from sharing these judgments with others. I choose to believe that people are doing their best (despite what can seem overwhelming evidence to the contrary!), in which case it is not helpful or kind to let them know my judgments. And I’m always aware that I do not have enough information to judge others. I never know the full story, all the reasons, all the background. I have not walked a mile in anyone else’s shoes. Neither am I a perfect being. Therefore I am not qualified to judge. My judgments are most useful as a tool for self-reflection and as a tool for setting my own boundaries. To the extent that I do the censuring and finding fault type of complaining, I need to stop doing it except in limited circumstances.

So what’s the appropriate context for expressing dissatisfaction, pain, uneasiness, resentment or grief? Again, a personal journal and a good friend, partner or therapist seem like safe places to start. Venting is a great way to share the burden, and to let go of some of the frustration. I have received immeasurable comfort from discussing, for example, the morning get-to-school routine with other mothers. What a relief it is to know that I am not the only one who has said ‘put your shoes on’ 15 times in 10 minutes, not the only one whose child appears to slow down the greater the need for speed. Knowing that others struggle with that hour before dinner when we’re tired, we’re hungry, and everybody’s fed up, helps me get through it with more humour and to lower my expectations of both my and my child’s behaviour.

So I think it’s great that mothers complain. There is a distinction between complaining and whining. To whine is ‘to complain or protest in a childish fashion’ (www.thefreedictionary.com). Adult complaining is a mature way to release negative emotions in an appropriate way and place. Whining is an immature way to stay stuck in negativity. Endless whining to the wrong people (e.g., anyone struggling with infertility, random people on the bus, possibly your mother-in-law) can give mothers a bad name. However, not everyone agrees with me that complaining (in the right way) is good.

Here are some of the reasons people say mothers shouldn’t complain, and my responses. I find the arguments on the left persuasive, but not helpful, so the responses on the right are my attempt to counteract my own conditioning and to support mothers to complain in a healthy and useful way.

Why mothers shouldn’t complain. Why this objection doesn’t hold water
You chose to have a child, so don’t complain now. No-one knows what the reality of parenting is, until they are doing it. No-one could know that reality ahead of time. However, the information available is woefully inadequate. See post.
If you didn’t want kids, you shouldn’t have had them. See above. Also, the choice to have kids is in the past. The emotions that go with parenting are in the present, and people are entitled to process those emotions in the present.
Complaining is a downer. Complaining (appropriately) is real. Reality is sometimes a downer. Pretending an unpleasant emotion or experience doesn’t exist distorts everyone’s understanding of reality, which leads to misunderstandings, which generally lead to (unnecessary) pain.
Complaining doesn’t help the situation/Focussing on the negative just keeps you stuck in the negative. Plenty of research confirms that a certain amount of venting does actually help people move on from negative experiences and emotions.

What do you complain about, and when does it help and when does it hurt?

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