Friday, 17 July 2015

Mother's Little Helper

I don't remember ever feeling much guilt before I had children. Yet, from the moment I became a mother there's probably not been a single day when I haven't felt guilty about something.

We were the 'have it all' generation. We were weaned on Cosmopolitan magazine, and raised to believe that we could - no, it was our duty to - have everything; glittering careers, successful marriages and perfect children.

I would picture myself wafting seamlessly from board meeting to baking perfect cupcakes, children at my side, clapping their chubby little hands with glee, and licking out the bowls without messing up their beautifully pressed outfits.

But it's not like that, is it? And perfectionism and motherhood go together like oil and water.

Guilt became my constant companion. Crushing guilt because I couldn't breastfeed #1 for longer than a few weeks (mastitis), guilt when I went back to work, guilt because I found nursery rhymes and building bricks boring, guilt for secretly hating monkey music, guilt for losing my temper. Guilt for not being the perfect Mother of my imaginings.

For five years I juggled the high powered job with one child, then two. Peeling sticky fingers off my leg as I dashed to the airport to catch the red-eye to New York. Hastily 'distressing' shop bought cakes at midnight for the nursery bake sale. Endlessly missing bedtime stories so I could entertain clients at the latest trendy restaurant.

It started to drive me crazy. I got to the point where I was sleeping no more than four hours a night. I was physically unable to sit down or keep still. I was constantly moving, but achieving little. The only way I could switch off was by drinking.

I would have a glass or two of wine in the office bar before going home (as a managing partner that counted as crucial debriefing time with the team), then another half bottle (at least) at home. I'd eventually get fuzzy headed enough to sleep, but would wake up three or four hours later, mind racing.

On top of that, I'd often have an excuse (client entertaining or team bonding) for drinking at lunch time.

I sometimes think that I deliberately got pregnant with #3 in order to give myself a 'get out of jail free' card. She was my excuse to get off the hamster wheel.  

After my maternity leave drew to a close, I feigned regret and handed in my notice. I decided that I was going to scale down - do one thing properly. I was going to be the best ever stay at home Mum.

Ha ha ha.

After years of being the boss, and employees falling over themselves to follow the direction you set, dealing with three headstrong children is a bit of a shock, to say the least.

I had a small baby, so was getting hardly any sleep (plus ca change), trying to deal with a stroppy toddler, and the eldest who'd just started school and was tired and fractious much of the time. Plus I decided to get a puppy (!) So I was potty training, house training, cooking nutritious meals from scratch, and breast feeding on the go.

I was exhausted, impatient, bad tempered and not very good at it. I missed adult interaction. I missed using my brain. I missed being able to go to the loo without someone banging on the door. I missed being able to leave the house without snacks, wet wipes, nappies and clothes covered in milk stains and pureed carrot.

By the end of the day I'd flop into a chair with a goblet of wine. Yet again it became the way to wind down, to change gears, to punctuate the day. It took the edge off. helped me relax. Put the lid on the guilt for a while.

Luckily, I was too frantic to be able to drink too much. I barely had time to breathe, let alone drink. Until #3 went to big school two years ago. Suddenly things clamed down a little. I was 'free' from 9.30am-2.30pm.

I was still busy, but it was all mundane stuff. Housework, admin, shopping, cooking. I was bored. I was alone much of the time. The gloves were off. There was no-one to tell me that a glass or two at lunch time really wasn't a good idea....

So, over the last couple of years, the drinking escalated to the point where I was drinking a bottle of wine a day, every day. Two a day at weekends.

Like many mothers over the generations I used it to 'take the edge off', to help me relax, to make me feel adult.

And if there's one taboo greater than someone not being able to control their drinking, it's a drunk mother. So I, like hundreds of thousands of others, did it secretly.

Ann Dowsett Johnson, in her book 'Drink' asks 'Is alcohol the modern woman's steroid, enabling her to do the heavy lifting in a complex, demanding world? Is it the escape valve women need, in the midst of a major social revolution still unfolding?' Yes it is!

But Ann also points out that the generation before us had their version of 'mother's little helper' too. Between 1969 and 1982, Valium was the most commonly prescribed drug in the US. In 1978 it was estimated that one fifth of American women were popping it. They also needed a secret escape hatch.

Having children was, without doubt, the best and most rewarding thing I have ever done. But also the hardest. I don't get appraisals, feedback, bonuses and pay rises. I am constantly learning, and I never get it 100% right.

But, slowly, slowly, I'm starting to accept that I don't need to be perfect. Plus, in being totally sober, I'm a hell of a lot more perfect than I was!

And my children, bless them, tell me (sometimes) I'm the best mother in the world. And they mean it (I can tell when they're fibbing).

Happy, sober Saturday to all you perfect-enough-Mums out there.

SM x


  1. Well said. You know, I'm finding that though I still feel guilty, not having the escape hatch makes me either deal with the guilt (by taking action, if possible) or consciously decide to let it go. Either way is loads better than letting the guilt cloud stick around until it's time to drink it temporarily away.

    I love your blog!


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  3. Ahhh, guilt. Seems to be the human (women) condition. Guilt about work, marriage, children (in my case, NOT having children), being too fat, too thin, not sufficiently self groomed, not being the best housekeeper ever....the list goes on and on, we drown our guilt in wine, and then Yay! Something else to be guilty about!! Great post SM. I bet you are a great Mum!

  4. Some people ARE perfect, or rather seem perfect. My SIL is one of them: she and her twin girls are beautifully turned out on every occasion, hair touched up, matching outfits, she works part time at the private school her kids attend, is involved in charity, the family vacations frequently in desirable locales. When my kids were little I was doing pretty well if they were fed, faces washed, and wearing marginally suitable clothing (hand-me-downs mostly, they were messy). Never felt like I "had it all together". But, her girls are very nice children and she is a nice lady and she's JUST LIKE THAT. I'm not, that's okay.
    We all have our places in the world, talents and gift unique to ourselves that others (whether we realize it or not) depend upon us for. And those who like us prefer us just the way we are. And I think that's perfect.

    1. I spent one miserable Christmas season imagining I could be just like Martha Stewart (not the insider trading thingy). The unimaginable effort trying to have decorations that were 'themed", homemade wreaths, coordinated wrapping paper and bows, not to mention the frigging baking.....

    2. God, how irritating Betty! Not sure I could handle a perfect SIL! Surely there are some cracks somewhere?!?

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  6. This is a no win situation. We work, we are bad moms. We stay home, we are setting a bad example.nand on and on.
    I tried both. worked, and had a lovely live in nanny. Then I decided to stay home. I just felt I was missing out. And struggling to do it all.
    I on,y lasted a year. I was overwhelmed, lonely and my drinking progressed. I gained weight. I was obviously depressed, but didn't see it then.
    So I went back to work. Got more controlled. But slowly this slid downhill.

    I see many other moms like me. Working, exercising, colour in four hair, dressing up our kids, posting photos. And sitting on the couch in the evening staring into our wine glass wondering where life went.

    It still amazes me how without the wine glass I can see what I want to do and what I was only doing for appearances.

    Every day has potential. Not misery. Yay.

  7. Ugh Monkey Music. I'm glad that (and Gymboree!) are behind me ;)

  8. My grandmother (old school, from Georgia) used to tell me, "Honey if you ain't feelin' guilty about somethin' (when it came to raising children), then you ain't doin' it right". That kind of gave me "permission" if you will, to feel guilty about not being the perfect mom at the right place at the right time doing the right thing and knowing exactly the right thing to say (hopefully without raising my voice). And it never stops, the feeling guilty part, even with one 21 and almost done with college and another about ready to go into high school. And the guilt just exacerbates the anxiety which leads to all sorts of fun times. I think so many of us over achieving moms feel this way most of the time. And the wine witch just makes it all so much worse.