Happy Mother's Day: Perfect mothers can cure all the world's ills - what a shame they don't exist

Ignored for 364 days of the year then smitten with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, many mothers feel persecuted by the sentimentalised image of motherhood


So we've gone from International Women's Day (rife with reports of domestic violence) to Mother's Day (a celebration of all things maternal) in only two days. Someone's having a laugh.

For many of us, of course, Mother's Day is really Children's Day – a useful reminder, prompted by those touching hand-crafted tributes and, if we're lucky, burnt toast in bed, of how sweet our kids are, even if they can also be maddening. But Mother's Day always makes me feel an uneasy combination of fraudulent and angry. Angry, because on the other 364 days of the year a mother's labours are all but invisible. And fraudulent, not only because my husband is, I reckon, a far better "mother" than me, but also because I'm aware of how far I fall short of any maternal ideal.

As do we all. The only women I've ever heard declare themselves good mothers are those trying to defend themselves in a court of law or public opinion.

The idealised image of motherhood trotted out regularly – but especially today – is frankly unattainable. The good mother doesn't complain (that rules me out). She is always available and has no needs of her own (ditto). She has taken John Bowlby's argument that children need secure early attachment to a reliable mother to its furthermost extreme. Good mothering is apparently a panacea for every social ill. Poverty, delinquency, depression – all of these, it sometimes seems, can be negated by good mothering (if not caused by bad). The perfect mother only resides between the covers of a book, like Marmee, the saintly Mrs March in Little Women – ever ready with wise and consoling bons mots, who understands each of her differing children, is strong, thrifty and charitable, and happy for her daughters to marry poor, unlike the thrusting Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

The perfect mother can never be made flesh because she contains so many contradictory, even incompatible elements. This paragon never pushes her children too much: witness the barrage of criticism rained down on Amy Chua's head when she disclosed last year, in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the unremitting academic and musical regime that she imposed on her two daughters. On the other hand, she doesn't allow them to run wild, without rules or boundaries - apparently the British way, condemned by Pamela Druckerman also last year in French Children Don't Throw Food. The perfect mother, one can only conclude, needs to be a little bit Tiger, with just a dash of French. Friger?

There's more, of course. The ideal mother shops around to get the best deal for her family, but at the same time doesn't seem to be enraged (good mothers don't do rage) at the "motherhood" penalty exacted by employers because she took a maternity break or works part-time. She isn't a scrounger but doesn't leave her children to seek self-fulfilment in paid work. She praises her kids' every burp, but doesn't over-praise them and cause them psychological problems. She feeds them healthy, homemade food – nary a smidgeon of horsemeat ever passed her little darlings' lips – and never minds when they fastidiously refuse it. She breastfed, of course (but not for too long). And she made sure that she wasn't too old when she had her babies – but then she wasn't too young either.

Oh, and today she must be sexy too – a Milf.

How does this voluminous check-list of essential maternal attributes make women feel? Guilt is our default position. As Tracey Jensen, a lecturer at Newcastle University, put it, "Modern motherhood does indeed appear to be marked by intensive worry, anxiety and the constant self-monitoring by mothers of the decisions they are making towards their children and their child-rearing." It's hardly surprising that some "public" mothers, like the writer Rachel Cusk, have reacted by simply reversing the dominant narrative of motherhood, showing the experience to be laced with drudgery and the risk of losing a sense of self altogether.

Many mothers feel persecuted by the sentimentalised image of motherhood. It has even been suggested that the mismatch between lived experience and the ideal is one cause of postnatal depression. A 1981 Finnish study found that mothers who idealise motherhood tend to have low self-esteem and are more likely to deny their ambivalent and aggressive feelings. Their children, too, are more clinging, less secure and more aggressive than less idealising mothers. So you could say that the idealisation of motherhood is bad for our psychic health.

Because we expect women, upon the instant of giving birth, to become this model of virtue, we have no way of explaining those who turn out rather different. The "bad mother" who neglects her children or worse, actually harms them, is either pathologised or demonised. Denigration is always the other side of the coin of idealisation, as we see in the so-called "Mummy wars", where women following one particular style of child-rearing attack those who do something different. Someone else has to be bad in order for us to be good.

The reality is that what mothers do, and are expected to do, has changed over time and between cultures. The Third World "good mother" may have to leave her children in the care of a grandparent so that she can go and look after the children of a First World "good mother" trying to earn enough to put a roof over her children's heads. There are also major cultural differences in parenting styles. (In some languages, the same word is used for mother and aunt.)

Motherhood doesn't exist. It's a collective fantasy into which we project all our deepest desires. The writer Julia Kristeva has argued that, in its view of mothers, our culture is in the grip of an idealisation of primary narcissism – the idea of oneness with a person who meets our every need without being asked. The mother of an infant does indeed try and do this – but only for a short while. The answer to those who want mothers to keep doing it forever should be a curt "Grow up!" In Peter Pan, Wendy becomes the "nice motherly person" looking after the Lost Boys so impeccably. But, folks, she is only play-acting.

In truth we can only ever be, in Donald Winnicott's famous phrase, the "good enough" mother. We achieve that differently, and at different times: however much we aspire to treat our kids the same, we're not the same mother with each. Some children are easier to love than others, and those in whom we discern some repudiated aspect of our self hardest of all.

In the end, few of us, I believe, have much choice in the kind of mother we become, unless we've had an awful lot of therapy before our first child is born, for there is a terrible paradox at the heart of parenting: many of us want to be better mothers to our children than our mothers were to us, and we think we will be. But we have learnt how to mother from the way we ourselves were mothered: it's hard to be a tolerant parent, for instance, when one's own imperfections were never tolerated.

When children grow up, they learn to replace their idealised image of their parents with a more realistic version, but as a society we haven't yet let go of our unrealistic expectations of mothers. The challenge is to come to terms with the flawed mothers that we had, as well as the flawed mothers that we are. But … I love the cards.

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