When I was pregnant with our first child, I had a picture in my mind of what it was going to be like staying at home with our baby. I envisioned my husband coming home from work each day to a clean house, with supper ready and our baby peacefully sleeping. Reality was of course a far cry from what I had envisioned! With a baby who nursed every hour and a half for an hour at a time, My husband was lucky if I had managed to get dressed during the day let alone have a shower, clean the house or make dinner.
Looking back, my expectations were of course very unrealistic. I was the first in our family to have a baby however, and also the first of my friends, so I had no experience with the realities of motherhood. My expectations were based on what I had seen on TV, in movies, and in books and magazines. Those idealized images of “Supermom” having a spotless house, dinner on the table, and hair and makeup done all while caring for a young baby, were all I had to go on.
Because of this, the transition of going from working woman to stay at home mom was a difficult one. During the many hours that I spent nursing our son, I would often get frustrated by his frequent nursing. I had other things that I needed to get done. Whatever happened to newborns sleeping most of the day?! I was used to being on the go and busy, so spending most of the day sitting on the couch felt like wasted time, and I felt guilty when the household chores went undone. Other parents could manage a baby, house and husband, so why couldn’t I? My husband was very supportive, and certainly didn’t care that dinner wasn’t ready or that the house hadn’t been tidied up, but I did care, and I felt guilty for not being able to “do it all”.
By the time I was nursing our second child, my expectations were more realistic, however I still struggled with the difference between my expectations and reality (especially with another child to look after!). It was not until our daughter was much older that I came to the realization that during all those hours of sitting on the sofa nursing, I was actually doing something very important. The most important thing I will ever do in my life. I was feeding her, comforting her, stimulating her brain growth and development, and teaching her about trust and loving relationships (all by just nursing!). Once I came to the realization that nursing her was my job, and an important one, it became much easier to ignore the laundry that was piling up and the fact that we were having sandwiches for dinner (again) because I hadn’t had time to cook. I was able to adjust my expectations, and accept the fact that I was going to be spending a lot of the day (and night!) nursing. These days, I really miss those evening periods of cluster nursing when I had an excuse to put my feet up, put the TV on and stay there for 3 hours!
Unrealistic expectations can lead to a lot of problems. They can be damaging to the breastfeeding relationship, and can often lead to early weaning. When a newborn baby is hungry every 2 hours (which is very normal), the expectation that babies only need to eat every 3-4 hours can cause a mother to doubt her ability to produce enough milk for her baby. Expectations can be damaging to a woman’s sense of herself as a mother. It’s easy to feel like a terrible mother when you’re struggling (as I was) with an unrealistic view of what it’s like to be a mom. When you’re out in public and seeing mothers around you who look happy with their perfectly behaved children, you start questioning your abilities as a parent. Expectations can also cause unnecessary struggles with your children, when (for example) you are trying to get your young baby to sleep through the night because that’s what the books say your child should be doing.
Considering the fact that most of us have grown up in a society where detached parenting has been the norm, and the supermom stereotype is readily perpetuated, it’s not surprising that many of us do have very unrealistic expectations. Combine this with the fact that many women have never even held a newborn baby, let alone seeing someone else breastfeed or parent their child, and many of us are sadly unprepared for the realities of motherhood. We are not meant to parent in isolation. We learn from watching others, and sharing ideas and experiences. This is why it is so important to establish a good support system. In my early days as a parent I found a lot of support on-line, and eventually with my daughter, I found La Leche League. As friends and family started having babies of their own, they also became a valuable source of support.
As I grew as a mother, and saw those around me struggling with the same things I had struggled with, I realized that when you see those happy mothers in the store with their perfect children, there is something you haven’t seen. You haven’t seen that same mother yelling at her perfectly behaved children moments before they entered the store because she’s having a rough day and her children were fighting non-stop in the car. During my time as a La Leche League Leader, I would often hear mothers who were new to our group comment on how well behaved the children were and how relaxed the mothers were during meetings. Usually they were commenting because they felt like that would never be them, and they were feeling insecure about their abilities as a mother. That is why I used to make it a point during some meetings to talk about the things that we are less than proud of as mothers. Those were the times when you would hear about those calm mothers yelling at their children because they just can’t take the whining anymore, or the frustrations of constant tantrums. You would hear about the less than healthy meals that their children have had during those times when the moms are so tired from late night feedings, or being up with a sick child that they can’t find the energy to cook. You would hear about the piles of laundry and the fact that they hadn’t cleaned their bathroom for 2 weeks, and you would start to realize that you’re not such a bad mother after all!
There is no such thing as a perfect parent, and we certainly do ourselves no favours as a society by holding up an unattainable ideal for mothers. I still struggle at times with my own expectations of myself as a mother, but I have made a lot of progress. I have surrounded myself with a strong support system, I’ve learned to listen more to my heart and my instincts, and most importantly, and I’ve learned to be gentle on myself when reality doesn’t live up to my expectations.