Thursday, March 10, 2011

Looking A Bit Peeky

Recognise anyone?
Being a parent can be a pretty exhausting business, being a single one even more so because there's no one to pick up the slack when you're banging your head against the wall with frustration.

Still, there is a difference between being exhausted and maternal burn out. Do you know anyone who's suffered from an extreme exhaustion to the point of burn out? A French book out recently, Mère épuisée by Stéphanie Allenou is the true story of a mother who got to the point where she just couldn't take it any more.

« Petit à petit, je perds toute envie : de parler, de bouger, de m'occuper de mon mari, de mes enfants, de ma maison... Le plus difficile c'est de commencer la journée. Je me réveille en proie à l'angoisse. Je n'ai pas la force d'y aller. Je ne veux plus de ces contraintes horaires, de ce bruit, de ces affrontements, de ces gestes cent fois réitérés. Je ne veux même plus voir mes enfants. Je ne veux plus rien donner : ni temps, ni mots. Je veux être seule, dans le silence... »

She has 3 children: a daughter who'll be 8 next birthday, and 6-yr old twins. It gets to the point where she feels so isolated and exhausted that she no longer functions normally, resorting to smacking the children and shouting at them more and more often. No mention of help from her husband in the write-up by 20Minutes.

The point she makes is that in modern French society, motherhood is idolised while the mother is forgotten. What she wants to be is the perfect mother, to correspond to her/society's image of the perfect mother. But what is a perfect mother? One who sacrifices her own sanity to uphold appearances? What of the emotional well-being of her children who could reflect her stress levels with ever naughtier behaviour or worse, withdraw into themselves.

I think we've all been at the point where we crave to be alone, and as kids get older, they don't need so much constant attention. If they do, there's a problem! In fact one of the advantages of divorce is that one can have weekends and holiday time alone. For me, it was almost the first time I was able to enjoy time to myself. The only other time was when I had to go up to Le Havre to collect a car and drive it back down. It was a blissful few hours.

In today's world, parents often don't live near their families. This means that they have to cope alone, there's no safety valve of granny who can come and babysit for a few hours. If you're an OCD perfectionist about parenting, I can understand it must be easy to fall into a back-breaking routine of care and attention. I've never had that problem, but I was still exhausted. Luckily I had to go back to work after maternity leave of 10 weeks, so I was able to recover some equanimity during the day.

I also believe in a certain benign neglect, to let kids get on with their stuff by themselves, staying on hand if needed, but not interfering. There's nothing worse than an needy, whining brat demanding attention every 5 minutes. But I don't think there's any recipe for the perfect mother because every child is different and you have to adapt your approach to the individual, and remember that every child is an individual and should be respected as such.

What is interesting is to ask one's children how they rate you as a mother. I wonder how many parents actually ask their children this question, fraught as it is with the potential for hearing unpalatable truths. Of course there's no point when they are too young, but once they get to a certain age, it can be revealing not only of your parenting skills but also those of other parents.

Stéphanie Allenou apparently makes a number of suggestions on how to help exhausted mothers, in the absence of a supportive entourage, including the setting up of parent-children centres. When I was in the US, there was an impressive Mothers Network that had groups all over the city of Dallas. It's true that there's nothing like that here, but I don't think the answer is local government interference. If mothers want to get together, they can set up networks by word of mouth and meet at each others' houses. The answer doesn't come from the state, it comes from networking and making groups known in the community.

It is not very French, because admitting you need help is a sign of failure, and the appearance of being perfect is all important, but maybe Stéphanie's book will galvanise mothers to action because it proves that motherhood is not sacred, but bloody hard work. We could all do with a little moral support and there's no one better to give it than another mother.

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