Have you ever been in a conversation with your mother about your experiences of motherhood and how tough you found it at times before she stopped you in your tracks to remind you of how much tougher it was 'in her day'? Yes, sound familiar? Exactly how far do you get before she stops you?
For me, I generally don't get past the hospital when I went in to give birth before she interjects. And something that I have come to learn from having these conversations with my mother is that I will NEVER win. She will always trump my experience. Whatever hardship I feel I have endured, you can be sure she has endured harder - ten times harder.
This all happened recently when I met my mum and two sisters for coffee one Saturday afternoon. My younger sister is currently five months pregnant with her first baby so naturally the excitement is growing and the baby talk was plentiful around the table. And with that of course came the joking and jibing like "Ha ha ha, your life is over soon", and "Enjoy the sleep now because it will be a very long time before you have a proper night's sleep again" and "Get out now and enjoy yourself because when junior arrives your social life will disappear."
But after the joking subsided and we all stopped giggling at my little sis, I turned to her and assured her that really there was nothing to worry about because as hard as the first few months will be (especially with your first baby when you haven't got a clue), we will all be there for her whenever she needs it.
This led me to then reflect on how hard I found it initially with my first daughter, even in the hospital after she was born. The absolute exhaustion, the failed attempts at trying to breast feed her, the crying and weeping when I couldn't make it work, bringing her home and feeling completely terrified at times because I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. But at this point (and this has happened before), my mother turned to me with a look of surprise and confusion on her face and said "I don't know what you're talking about, I never had any of those problems when you were babies".
I took a long deep breath because I knew how this was going to go. The same way it always goes. She then proceeded to inform us that we were all great babies who rarely gave her a sleepless night.
According to her we all just lay in our cot each night and slept straight through. "I don't understand all this talk about babies not sleeping and mothers not getting any sleep, there was none of that in my day", she said as she waved her hands dismissively.
And lo, here it comes, her killer phrase that makes my blood pressure rise and my eye twitch – “In my day we just got on with it”.
I can’t tell you how deflated I feel every time I hear her utter those words. It makes me feel about two inches tall. Suddenly every problem or difficulty I experienced as a mother has been reduced to nothing, and in the space of about two minutes. Yes, when she chooses to my mum is the queen of downsizing.
I did my very best to hold it together as I calmly said back to her "Mum, that can't be true, we couldn’t have been good for you ALL of the time. There must be a lot of things that you just forget". She doesn't like it when I say this so straight away she sat up in her chair and declared indignantly "I do not forget, I remember everything as if it was yesterday".
She then proceeded to inform us that not only does she remember everything clearly but also “Back in my day there was none of this fancy equipment either that all of you have today. Oh no, there were no such things as sterilisers or monitors. For that matter we didn’t even have a washing machine”, with a sharp nod of her head. And she wasn’t finished – “We didn’t have disposable nappies either.
"We used cloth nappies so every morning I got up and I washed all of the nappies by hand in a basin and then hung them out to dry. That’s right”, she nodded. And then just to give one final blow she repeats it again, “But I didn’t mind. I just got on with it”.
The whole time she is talking I feel as if I am continuously shrinking until by the time she is finished I am about 10cm tall in my seat. A tiny little figure sitting in front of her, completely inferior and dwarfed by her martyrdom. Don’t get me wrong I completely acknowledge that my mum had a lot less of everything when we were babies.
She was also much younger than me having children and she had much less money to survive on. Plus I know she had very little help from my dad whereas my husband today is fantastic and plays an active role in raising our two ducklings.
But what I don’t like is being made to feel that although I have a lot more than she had that my struggles are any less significant than hers.
Even with more money and equipment I still struggled with the foundations of motherhood, hugely at times and I would like to be able to speak out about this every now and then without constantly being made to feel like I am simply whinging for no good reason.
But I have yet to ‘win’ a discussion with her - not that it’s about winning per se, it’s more about being acknowledged. I mean, everyone is entitled to their feelings right? Oh and for the record I vow to never ever do this to my own daughters. I just hope I stick to my word.