There is a social media conceit that all of us with children are terrible mothers. I have lost count of all the times I have seen friends publically describe their mothering as poor, often accompanied by use of the hashtag #badmummy. Typing the term into the search field brings up the type of “bad” behavior of the average Twitter mum:
Impatiently waiting for the kids to fall asleep so I can eat ice cream & not have to share #badmummy
#badmummy now having to resort to bribery with new cars for taking antibiotics…. It’s working though. Nearly all gone 🙂
Am meant to have put children to bed. But am enjoying their company too much #badmummy
Sock crisis… All other boys in long black ones, mine in short navy #badmummy
What’s interesting about these tweets is that many of them are actually an oblique way of showing the world what good mothers they are. The mother who enjoys her children so much that she doesn’t want them to go to bed is clearly a mother who is doing a lot of things right. Mothers who uses Twitter to avoid losing their tempers with their toddlers’ incessant talking, or who ensure their children take their antibiotics by whatever means necessary are being responsible, not “bad”.
Even the mothers who feel a twinge of genuine guilt (or perhaps more than a twinge in the case of the missing blanky – I’ve been there and it wasn’t pleasant!) are using the hashtag in a tongue in cheek way. It’s a nod to the yummy mummy stereotype, to the idea that we should all be pureeing organic, home-grown veg for our babies, teaching our toddlers French, and making sure our little darlings achieve a Grade 8 in at least one instrument by the time they leave for university (a Russell Group one, naturally). We all know the ideal bar is high.
What’s wrong with that, you might wonder? Doesn’t every parent want their children to have opportunities and do well in life? And doesn’t every mother harbour at least a nugget of concern that they might really be a #badmummy? Making these kind of sly jokes is a way of letting off steam about the impossible standards against which mothers are judged. Only that’s not how I feel when I read them. Because I, dear reader, have been a bad mother. Not a #badmummy, not a jokey, “gosh I know I’m OK really but maybe not quite Gwyneth Paltrow standard” bad mother. It has not always possible for me to be a good mother, because I have a serious mental illness.
Parenting started well, considering. I had a history of major mental health problems and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 20, but didn’t feel psychiatric services had anything to offer me so I chose to “go it alone” when I had my firstborn three years later. I expected to struggle, but was pleasantly surprised. Maybe, I thought, if I got in fairly quickly with a second pregnancy, I could get away with it again.
Problems started by the third trimester. All the books talked about postnatal depression but I had never heard of anyone being acutely depressed antenatally. I told no one that I felt as if I were just going through the motions in preparing for my daughter’s birth and it was years before I spoke of the shame of sitting by a river at 30 weeks and wanting to chuck myself in.
After a fantastic home birth, I was on a bipolar high. I didn’t know it, and nor did anyone around me, but with hindsight the episode was textbook. Despite have just given birth, I didn’t feel the need to sleep much, let alone rest. Everything was fantastic, I was head over heels in love with my gorgeous newborn, and I had plenty of energy to cook, clean and get the Christmas tree up. Until, of course, my mood crashed. On day 12 a sense of profound and inescapable misery descended and over the next months I sank deeper and deeper into depression. My GP prescribed antidepressant after antidepressant, with no success. And every working day between 8.30am and 17.30pm I was responsible for the children’s wellbeing.
By this point, I was so incapacitated by my illness that I was incapable of meeting my children’s needs. I fed them whatever would cause me the least difficulty. I let my two-year-old son watch TV all day, every day because I was in so much pain I just wanted to be left alone. I would plonk him in front of Nick Jr and put my newborn daughter in her bouncy chair and then I would curl up in a ball of misery at the end of my sofa or hide from my own children in the kitchen.
I wanted to be a good mummy, but the bar dropped from good to adequate, from adequate to survival. If we were all alive at the end of the day, if I hadn’t hurt myself or run away, if I hadn’t shouted at my toddler too much and the kids had eaten anything that could be regarded as an actual meal (rather than cereal or yogurts), that constituted a good day. All the time, I was acutely aware that I was failing my children; never mind home made baby food, I could not even give them love or kindness.
I did ask for help in addition to the medication. The Health Visitor administered the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale on me, but dismissed my high score as being because I was “too self aware.” It took until my next episode – and an overdose on my part – for her to accept that I couldn’t cope and find to an emergency nursery school place for my son, which gave us all breathing space and helped me recover. I know I was really ill, I know I asked for help and complied with any treatment given, but 14 years later I still feel deep shame and distress about what a bad mummy I was. I wish I could say my children were fine despite their early experiences, but certainly in my son’s case this was not true and he developed behavioural and emotional problems in childhood.
I know the women using the #badmummy hashtag are saying something about their own insecurities. I know they don’t mean to cause hurt to people like me. But it does hurt, knowing their idea of basic, “good enough” mothering is a standard I was completely incapable of achieving. I still feel shut out of the club, resentful of mums whose lives are so straightforward that the kind of trivia in the tweets above constitutes an “issue”. I am not one for wanting to turn back the clock, nor even for having my bipolar removed with a wave of a magic wand. But I do wish I could have another go at my children’s early lives with more support, a proper diagnosis and a treatment plan. Because even though they are now happy, well-adjusted teenagers, I will never be shift the guilt of having been – even through no fault of my own – a genuinely #badmummy.