Mother power

Mothers often feel exhausted and judged, but a new book described as a feminist’s guide to motherhood aims to encourage us to trust ourselves more and build supportive friendships

Portrait of scared baby against crazy mother with pan on head

Mothers’ contributions and hard work are too often belittled and undervalued and the time is right for them to insist on respect and power both in and outside the home, according to a new book which purports to take a feminist approach to motherhood.

Mother power by Poppy O’Neill is about learning to feel more confident in yourself as a mother rather than letting the world around you make you feel somehow inadequate and guilty. It begins with self care – or self-preservation. O’Neill says that  often the habit of women neglecting themselves to care for dependent children is formed early and is hard to break. This can breed resentment as well as exhaustion if mothers are unable to put themselves first every now and again, she says.

O’Neill says mothers cannot look after others if no-one is looking after them and doing so should not be viewed as selfish at all. To do so they need to build strong female friendships, a network of support outside the immediate family and schedule in time for themselves, even if they have to be creative to do so. It also means being on the alert for the signs of burnout, such as feeling resentment towards children and feeling they are never good enough.

The second chapter looks at self-esteem and argues that low self-esteem is just a side effect of growing up in a world that constantly criticises and compares women. To feel better about yourself as a mother O’Neill recommends letting go of what mothers are supposed to be like  and taking up space, speaking up for yourself, accepting your body as it is and working on your own internalised misogyny.

From the motherhood penalty to unlearning people pleasing

Other chapters deal with the vagaries of stepping out of your comfort zone and setting boundaries by practising saying no and not feeling you have to justify that, allowing yourself to feel all the feelings [for instance, by role modelling what someone you admire would do in your position], calling out examples of the motherhood penalty [the pay gap between mothers and other women due to assumptions about commitment at work and sidelining of mothers], creating your own support team and delegating without guilt as well as dealing with ‘strategic incompetence’ [when someone is delegated a task and does it badly so they won’t be asked to do it again]. 

There is also advice on how to deal with children’s and other people’s emotions, including your partner’s if you have one. “The key to letting go of the idea that other people’s emotions are our responsibility is to build a sense of trust,” writes O’Neill. “When you trust other adults to handle their own emotions and look after themselves, you can let go of some of that guilt that comes when you cancel plans, break bad news or give criticism.”

Equally important is being able to not heed advice given by other people – which can be difficult, given that even when you are out on the street people may come up to you and tell you how to parent. That means unlearning the people-pleasing habits that women grow up with through being aware of them. That may feel uncomfortable, but “armed with the knowledge of why you feel the urge to people-please, you’ll have the power to choose differently.”

Maternal guilt

Other big motherhood topics include silencing your inner critic and dealing with maternal guilt. “The guilt you feel is not indicative of your worth,” writes O’Neill. “It’s the result of a system that is on one hand built to serve the needs of men with wives at home (and is largely hostile to working mothers), while on the other hand values paid work and disregards unpaid work, despite it being essential to society and the economy.” Her advice? Forgive yourself, protect your free time, be a good enough parent and strengthen your boundaries.

There are many books that tell you how to ‘be a good mother/parent’, but this one is not about telling mothers how to be but about trusting yourself, negotiating the bias and unrealistic expectations and finding the confidence to be your own kind of mother, with the support of a good network of friends. That is true power, argues O’Neill. “When you start to realise your own power, there’s a ripple effect,” she writes. “Once you find your voice, you’ll find you influence people in a way you never knew you could. When you are honest, powerful and unwilling to accept less than you deserve, you grant every woman you encounter a magical, quiet permission to do the same.”

*Mother power by Poppy O’Neill is published by, price £10.99.

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