Illustration: Katherine Killeffer


There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling

Before she had her son, Cathy Rentzenbrink believed in the myth of the smug mother. Now she knows the truth: every new mum is protecting herself and her baby by only telling half the story

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By Cathy Rentzenbrink on

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I didn't want children until I was 35. Then, after years of getting annoyed when people told me I'd change my mind, I changed my mind. It was a sudden thing. Luckily the man I lived with, to whom I had made childlessness a condition of our relationship, was happy to change his mind too. We were off.

I knew nothing about children or babies, but one thing I was sure of was that I was never going to be one of those mothers, the smug types who push you out of the way so they can get their enormous buggies on to the tube and hand out dirty looks to anyone who swears or smokes anywhere near their little bundle. I was going to be something else entirely. Hassle-free. How hard could it be? All you need is love, after all. I’d heard talk of sleep deprivation, but I was used to staying up for days drinking and snatching a bit of kip on the move, so I thought I’d cope well with any sleepless nights.

I bought some folic acid tablets, stopped getting drunk for half of every month and, eventually, gave birth to a healthy baby boy after a botched induction and a horrific labour that ended in an emergency Caesarean. I was so swollen up with drugs by the time they sliced my child out of me that my feet looked like pig’s trotters for a good week afterwards. I didn’t much care. The only important thing was my baby and keeping him alive. He was so beautiful. I loved every single eyelash, every tiny toenail. The fact that my body was knackered – back problems, carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists – only bothered me because it made it trickier to cater to his needs. I was a cocktail of love and fear made in fairly equal measures with a good dash of sleep deprivation – a big deal, as it turned out - and a side order of being convinced I was doing everything wrong. 

I love being out in the world, where I have an identity other than Mummy. Because looking after a small child is often boring. Mind-bendingly, brain-zappingly dull

I had sworn that having a baby wouldn’t change me or affect my friendships but when my friends came round to hand over pretty outfits and tell me about promotions and new or misbehaving lovers, it wasn’t that I didn’t care but I could hardly hear them over the noise of my own internal chatter: “I haven't had any sleep and I don't know how to keep this little thing alive and I'm scared I'm going completely nuts and I haven't had any sleep and I don't know how to keep this little thing alive…"

And, of course, I didn’t say any of that out loud, because you can’t, you don’t. 

What I was trying to get to grips was what I now think is the paradox of motherhood. You would give up your life without question for this little thing – gleefully and happily take a bullet – while, all at the same time, you'd do almost anything for someone you trust to just take him away for a couple of hours so you can try to remember who you are.

Six years later my little baby is very much a boy and I am still a – slightly calmer – cocktail of love and fear. If I gave in to my yearnings to keep him safe, I would wall him up in his bedroom and lie down in front of the door like a human draft excluder to block incoming dangers. I don’t, of course. I know that would be bad for both of us. And it’s only half the story. I also like escaping from the self I am with him. I love being out in the world, where I have an identity other than Mummy. Because looking after a small child is often boring. Mind-bendingly, brain-zappingly dull. And the tantrums. In the year he was three, I went from thinking that anyone who hit a child was a monster to being genuinely surprised that more people aren’t in prison. I didn’t hit him, but there were days when I longed to, when I had to put myself in another room and cry hot, angry tears as I tried to calm down.

What I continue to puzzle over all the time is why all of this came as such a shock to me and why women don’t tell the truth about the darker side of motherhood. Social media amplifies the dishonesty, or, rather, the selective truth-telling. Countless times I've posted a picture of my son looking cute on Facebook and later that weekend, possibly even just one hour later, I've been sobbing with despair at what a useless mother I am. Of course I don't share that. Both feelings are genuine, but only one gets out into the world.

So why the secrecy? I’ve distilled it down to five main reasons:

1. “It’s only me.”  I now think that lots of mothers of small children feel some kind of combination of pointless/angry/feeble/insane/bored a lot of the time but I used to think it was only me and it was a shameful secret that needed to be kept under wraps so no one would come and take my baby away.

2. Ingratitude. I have a beautiful healthy child and am in comparatively fortunate circumstances. I loathe the thought of complaining about my trials when other mothers are fleeing combat zones, or in refugee camps, or having to go to food banks, or can’t afford Calpol, or are dealing with any sort of health problem. It fills me with horror and loathing that I might moan on about Lego all over the floor to someone who has had three miscarriages or has just learnt that their sixth round of IVF has failed.

I looked up and saw a woman stare at me. I realised I’d pushed by her. She thought I was a smug mother and she had no idea how broken and frightened and responsible I felt

3. Tempting fate. Every time I say anything that acknowledges that being a mother is anything other than an uncomplicated joy, I immediately imagine that my son is falling off the climbing frame as I speak. I picture him spinning through the air, landing on the tarmac. I hear the smash and I know that not only will he be dead but it will be my fault, and everyone will say, “Well, I guess it's a shame her son died but she didn't really like him very much anyway and was always banging on about how hard being a mother is…"

4. The unthinkable happens. I have never dared write any of this down in my diary in case my son is abducted and the police read my grumbles and decide that I’ve done away with him myself. This matters not because I will care about being arrested and unjustly convicted, but because the time they spend suspecting me will stop them looking for him. 

5.The fear that I will fall under a bus the day after being honest and that my last words about my child were anything other than a song of love.

So that's why mothers look smug. We're only telling the good half of the story because we’re terrified of the pitfalls and consequences of honesty. 

I no longer think smug mothers exist. I remember the first time I was getting on the tube with my son in his pram. Various bits of my body leaked. I was exhausted from getting out of the flat and down the stairs at the tube station. As the train drew in, I stared at the gap, terrified I’d get a pram wheel stuck in it, that his tiny body would catapult out and be crushed. I didn’t want get on the train at all. Wasn’t it too dangerous? Didn’t they sometimes crash? I summoned all my courage, ignored the pain in both my wrists and lifted the pram up over the gap. We were on. I looked up and saw a woman stare at me. I realised I’d pushed by her. She thought I was a smug mother and had no idea how broken and frightened and responsible I felt, and I thought of all those times I’d been cross at what I perceived as maternal smugness when what I’d been witnessing was fear. 

We need to lower our expectations around mothers. Now when I see a woman with a baby, I give her the benefit of the doubt and accept that for the moment she has been ambushed by her biology. Every bit of her is doing what she can to keep a tiny life alive. We just need to be kind and let her get on with it.

P.S. If I do fall under a bus tomorrow, I’m relying on you all to tell my little dude that he was the great joy of my life and I’ve no idea why I ever spent time on anything other than gazing at his beautiful eyelashes.


Illustration: Katherine Killeffer
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motherhood now

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