Just after my first child was born I thought I’d gone crazy. It was not depression. It was more like a thick rope of worry that tied me day and night to the welfare of my daughter. I felt unable to relax: a mother lion sniffing the air for the scent of danger, a good sentry on alert.
Thankfully, this was not the limit of my thoughts. Most of the time I couldn’t believe my luck. She had boundless blue eyes and the tiniest fingernails. She loved wind in her face, Bob Marley and being with me. I was in love.
So how do I mesh this image of the anxious restless mother with the contented joyous one? Can they both be equally normal ‐ even valuable ‐ parts of motherhood? I only ever talked about my happiness, telling everyone who asked that things were going fine. It never occurred to me to embrace the other. The worry was like a wound that needed to heal quickly or, if not, be amputated.
As my children aged, I began to realise why I never talked about the fear. The fear is seen as impairment by those who count. If you talk with mental health professionals about worried mothers, you’re likely to hear words like overanxious, intrusive, and preoccupied. If you listen to more mainstream sources you will hear instead of helicopter mothers and smother mothers.
The conclusion is the same. A good mother is one who cares deeply but is relaxed and cool. She knows what’s best and maintains a balance. She can look after her baby while also looking after herself (and her figure, her marriage and her ambitions). She makes jokes about the ‘good old days’ when children were set loose for hours on their own, when we all survived without car seats, when there was nothing a good night’s sleep couldn’t fix. She is neither overwrought nor overinvolved.
Most mothers I know don’t fit this description. Mostly they apologise for their motherly feelings, wishing they could be more ‘relaxed,’ or criticizing themselves for messy homes or half‐finished projects. And there are many experts who deepen this worry by saying we’ve all gone overboard with our modern‐day concerns about child development, pointing to the worrywart mothers as a problem.
I disagree. I believe that mothers have always worried for their children. I do not see it as pathological that mothers feel unable to let their guard down or, as many mothers tell me, ‘need to see the baby breathe.’ If such feeling paralyzes or defines, it is obviously problematic. But most of us weave this into our motherly role just as we weave washing baby clothes, arranging play dates or reading bedtime stories. We are watchful not because we are crazy, but because we know what’s at stake.
SOLIDARITY IN IMPERFECTION
Mothers give birth every day and babies emerge, cry, sleep, burp, feed, babble and grow into adults. But beneath that typical story most every mother detects an intense fragility. We know that in the silence are mothers who have lost their children and babies who have lost their mothers. Simultaneously, we must face the challenge of becoming a mother and the mystery that can haunt us: are we up to the task? We know that the motions of day‐to‐day mothering in which we accomplish ‘nothing’ will nonetheless find us emotionally exhausted and physically spent.
Sitting on the steps of my Playcentre, I chat to a mother who I felt sure was not like me. Her baby slept on command, her toddler was independent, her nappy bag organized and her hair styled beautifully. She was funny and so ‘put together’ that I simultaneously wished I could be her while squirreling away criticisms that she must secretly ignore her children for long periods of time. I liked her in spite of myself. Then one day, in the midst of conversation about an upcoming trip, she slipped in a tiny detail. “It’s a good morning if I can manage to have a shower,” she said. “I wish I could figure out how to do what other mothers so clearly can.” I wanted to hug her. I probably should have.
OUR WORRY IS OUR STRENGTH
It is not a failing or weakness to worry as a mum. Nor is it a motherly misdemeanor to not have enough time in the day to cook a proper meal, tidy the house while also making a significant contribution toward the environment or world peace. In times like these, when leaders and journalists question how our youth have gone so wrong, why do we stand in criticism of mothers who are vigilant in their desire to carve out a sphere in which their children can flourish?
It is all too easy to forget how hard we are all trying as mothers to get it right. Our mothering will always be imperfect, but the worry is not our imperfection. The world sees the surface of our lives, just as we can only see the trees above the ground. But, if the roots are not digging deep, there is no survival. Mothers dig deep with many tools. Our worry is one. It is not who we are as mothers, but it unites us in our love. We love our children enough to worry. And that makes the worry part of our strength.
Lauren Porter is a clinical social worker, family therapist and PhD candidate, as well as Co-Director of the New Zealand-based Centre for Attachment. Her professional focus is the merging of attachment theory, neuroscience and wisdom traditions. She is the mother of two beautiful children and wife to one wonderful husband.