parent opinion

The day I learned about 'intensive mothering' I stopped feeling guilty.

Years ago, my daughter’s preschool teacher pulled me aside at pickup time to “discuss an important matter”. 

The matter was this: my daughter’s lunchbox contained a chocolate crackle, and chocolate was a contraband product at the preschool. 

I explained that the offending treat was made with cacao powder and coconut oil, and in return received a lecture about the consequences of childhood obesity. 

 Watch: Be a good mum. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

Despite the ridiculousness of this interaction, something inside me cracked. 

At the time, I was a mum of two kids under five, struggling to keep my head above the ocean of overwhelm that threatened to engulf me. I was scrambling to prepare food from scratch whilst limiting screen time, keeping my kids stimulated, teaching them to read early, organising play dates and squeezing writing projects in between.

And as I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life at mothering — the thing I cared the most about — I truly felt like there wasn’t a single person in the world who cared about me. 

Yet, there were plenty like the preschool teacher who were ready to pounce anytime I failed my children.  

Years later, I discovered something that illuminated the real cause of my complicated emotions around this interaction: intensive mothering. 

This ideology of motherhood is characterised by what the American sociologist who coined the term, Sharon Hays, described as a style of mothering that is, “child-centred, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labour intensive and financially expensive”. This ideology sprang up in the 80s and is still going strong.

Discovering intensive mothering was a revelation to me because it validated what I knew in my gut — that mothering was never meant to be this hard. 

It also revealed that it wasn’t my children who demanded that I set aside my dreams to wrap them in cotton wool and ensure they were better than other kids, it was the messaging around motherhood that I had internalised. 

What must be acknowledged is that I am a person of considerable privilege as a white, middle-class woman living in Australia with a supportive husband. At the time of the preschool incident, I could afford to set aside my dreams and goals to bake quinoa and sweet potato cookies for my babies. 

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So, I’m curious about how intensive mothering ideology affects those of varying means. How does a single mother feel when she puts her six-month-old into daycare because she must go back to work, even when the experts tell her that children should be kept with their mothers for the first two years?

How does a mum-of-four who is struggling to lose her baby weight respond to images of mothers with flat tummies on Instagram breastfeeding in downward dog? 

And what goes through the mind of a mother who is struggling to pay the bills when she reads about another 'mumpreneur' hitting six figures whilst homeschooling her tribe? 

Listen to This Glorious Mess, Big Kids. Post continues below. 

Not only are many mothers a universe away from living their dreams, they aren’t even able to provide their children with the basic ‘needs’ experts are touting — through absolutely no fault of their own. They are unsupported in every conceivable way, yet are still likely to receive a call from their child’s school to inform them that lunchboxes need to be ‘waste-free’.

The beautiful thing about discovering intensive mothering ideology, for me, has been waking up to the fact that I am neither superior nor inferior to other mothers.

We are all marinating in a cultural stew of impossible standards and, no matter how many of these standards we can actually meet, we are all affected by it.

Freedom from the bind intensive mothering places mothers in begins with seeing it for what it is: a set of beliefs that are widely accepted as true rather than what actually makes a woman an effective mother.

For me, this has meant questioning all the ‘shoulds’ that permeate my experience of motherhood and acknowledging that dishing up cheese on toast for dinner two nights in a row is not considered child abuse and a three-year-old eating a chocolate crackle isn’t going to lead to lifelong obesity. 

These transgressions are minor compared to the guilt, overwhelm, depression and anxiety many mothers are fighting all day, every day, while pasting happy snaps on social media to prove that everything is just fine.

When a mother is overworked, joyless or falling apart, nobody wins. Relationships break down, children absorb the stress and families fall apart.

The thing is, if mothers were truly supported to maintain even a basic level of mental, emotional and physical health children would benefit beyond what we can even imagine. At the bare minimum, refusing to shame mothers who are not able to meet intensive mothering standards would be a great first step.

Here’s what I’ve discovered from my own experience of sidestepping intensive mothering ideology: That my children derive more from my natural joy, creativity, warmth, enthusiasm and self-compassion than from any task involved with intensive mothering. 

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And to embody these qualities, it’s imperative that I put myself first far more than cultural messaging would have me believe (don’t get me started on what’s sold to mothers as ‘self-care!)

These days, I feel like I’m a good enough mother because I’m finally able to be myself, and I can tell my kids are happier for it.

Sometimes we bake cookies and play board games. Other times they sit in front of screens eating packaged foods so I can work or sleep. Sometimes they go outside and climb trees or swim all day. Other times they sit inside moaning about how bored they are. 

Our life is as beautiful as it is mundane and ordinary. 

The main thing is that I’m now well enough to enjoy a full, rich existence that includes motherhood. My wellbeing positively affects my children more than striving to be a ‘good mother’ ever did, and that, I’ve found, is more than enough.

Geordie Bull is a journalist and transformational coach who writes about women’s wellness, motherhood and transformation for Australian magazines. Geordie has been an avid reader of self-development books since she was eight years old and loves to do the inner work of priming her mindset to create a beautiful life for herself and her family.

Geordie lives on a bush property near Crescent Head with her husband, two kids, dogs and lots of chooks.

For more, visit her website

 Feature Image: Supplied.

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