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There is a list of mothers who should just shut up.

There is a criteria for those who are qualified to talk about motherhood. Just being a mother in itself doesn’t cut it.

Journalist Jacinta Tynan blew apart the parenting community back in 2010 when she wrote a column (called ‘The Big Easy’) about how she finds motherhood a ‘breeze’ and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. You can read that post here

Her article hit like a nuclear bomb. Jacinta was flooded with hundreds of comments with readers furious with the suggestion that motherhood wasn’t one very tough gig.

Jacinta, now the mother of two young sons, has just written a book about her mothering experience (so far) called Mother Zen, exploring why some of us find being a mother so joyous and trouble free, while so many others are up against it. 

Here is an edited excerpt from Mother Zen:

One thing I learned from being the focal point of a mass mother meltdown was that for some women motherhood is an exclusive club. According, at least, to a considerable number of the mothers who comment on online portals, there are criteria for those who are qualified to say anything on the topic. Just being a mother in itself doesn’t cut it.

You can’t possibly know what you’re talking about unless your baby is one, two, started school, or reached puberty. You must have more than one baby, preferably two, four or, better still, six. Don’t even think about chiming in unless you’re a stay-at-home mum, according to some. Or work and juggle childcare, according to others. One woman suggested I wouldn’t have any idea about being a parent until my child had left home, got married and had children of his own. Which leaves a very narrow sample of those deemed to have a legitimate opinion on motherhood! Best you keep mum.

From Tammy, mother of four: ‘Jacinta please don’t make judgements on motherhood until you have three or four kids or even six.’

And Mim: ‘Maybe we should revisit this particular conversation when he can talk, walk, reason … and she has more than one.’

Or, as Hannah put it, ‘Ya know, be a parent for at least twelve months before commenting first.’

Funny, because I felt very much like a mother. Even with only one nine-month-old baby. I felt like I had my teeth in it and that I had something to say (albeit from a very early-days perspective). Much like Anon who replied to Tammy: ‘I am with my daughter every day and I feel every bit a mother as you do with your four.’

Or, as Essen put it: ‘It seems as though if you’re not having a hideous, horrible time with three children under five, you’re not really a mother and you’re not allowed to have an opinion.’

You’re not really a bona fide mother, either, according to the edict – unofficial yet potently spelled out by other mothers of the web – if you work. Even part time. Because that means your child, at least for a few hours of the day, is being looked after by someone else. There is no worse crime.

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‘Jacinta, I really don’t think you should be talking about how easy motherhood is while the baby is at home with the nanny,’ posted Petal. ‘Does your professing of your love and ease with motherhood diminish your guilt at leaving your baby in childcare?’ asked Sarah. ‘Does it also help convince your bosses that you are still capable of doing your job? Would you still be welcome as a newsreader if you complained about how hard things were and that you were suffering from PND?’

From Yvette: ‘Motherhood is easy — yeah if you have a nanny! I have three, I should know, (kids that is). Easy! ha, I am not on her planet.’

Miss T asked: ‘Can I get the name of your housekeeper, please????’

I don’t have one, sorry, Miss T. Only in my dreams.

‘Oh, and ladies,’ added Kate, ‘some nannies (the more expensive ones!) will also knock up dinner for you so you don’t have to think about that when you get home for work. Now that would make my life a “cinch”.’

I wouldn’t know, Kate, because, rather than ‘knock up dinner’, the ‘nanny’ knocked off the minute I got home from work. At that stage a nanny (or ‘babysitter’, to use the less incendiary term; I’m yet to work out the difference, but I should because I realise the terminology has implications) came to our house one day a week to look after our baby while I went to work; on the other day he went to the childcare centre at his father’s office. Aside from taking him to work with me (which, regrettably, wasn’t an option), I wasn’t sure what else I could do. But the fact that I had a job at all (and therefore had my child in any type of care) was held up as evidence that I had no handle on the realities of motherhood. No wonder I was finding it ‘easy’. I wasn’t really there.

Not according, at least, to Amy, who posted: ‘You have a grand total of nine months of “part time” parenting experience under your belt. Not everyone puts their baby into childcare and chooses to parent “part time” — and may I ask what age did your baby go into childcare? How many months experience do you have as a “full time” parent with no breaks, no “me time” provided? You are not looking after your baby full time so have no right to judge mums who are looking after their babies/multiple children full time and are finding it a struggle …’

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Journalist Jacinta Tynan with her children. Image: supplied.
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You don’t fully qualify as a mother unless you breastfeed, either. Breastfeeding was another criteria promulgated heavily by the most prolific of the posters to get you into the real mother club. I failed to see the relevance.

‘How soon was it before you put your baby on the bottle so you could re-gain your figure for the cameras?’ asked Sarah (the same Sarah as before, the one who had inquired about my guilt about working; she was having quite the rant).

I did happen to breastfeed my baby and continued to do so for several months after I returned to work (until he, regrettably, gave up on me — my growing boy was obviously not getting enough sustenance from me — which made me really sad. It isn’t relevant at all to the quality of my mothering — who pulled the pin first — but I found myself mentioning it to mitigate the undesirable image being painted of myself as a cold-hearted career woman eager to get my baby ‘on the bottle’ at the first opportunity, just as that friend of mine had been so keen to divulge her inverted nipples) but the Other Mums decided Jasper must be a formula baby — how could I possibly be happy and breastfeeding? — and they deducted merit points.

Francesca summed it up dryly: ‘All mothers (especially the happy ones) should be with their babies 24/7. Under no circumstances should they a) have friends b) work for money.’

‘Are you for real Francesca?’ asked Mrs Miss.

Francesca had to point out she was being sarcastic.

I genuinely didn’t understand why they cared. So you don’t like what you read? Chuck the paper in the recycling bin and get on with your day. When I heard about blissful pregnancies (even while I was pregnant when mine was anything but) or smooth-sailing births (which I wasn’t blessed enough to have either), I would think, ‘lucky for you’. But, aside from a cheery few, this wasn’t the reaction I was getting. Tears and rage and retribution spewed onto the internet weeks after the event.

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Another journalist, thank goodness, expressed similar bafflement at ‘the firestorm of anger’ unleashed on me after my story. ‘It’s not all about you’, wrote journalist Virginia Trioli in an impassioned comeback in my defence. ‘Why would a struggling mum think another woman’s very different experience was any reflection on her? Why would a reader confuse herself with an unknown author? The solipsism of our times has me absolutely beat …’

In the thick of it all, when the frenzied reaction to my article had still not abated after weeks, around about the time when I was slipping in and out of the house with eyes downcast lest I come face to face with a mother scorned, a real-life incarnation of an online dissenter who I feared might say something to my face, I rang my meditation teacher. I was in need of a refresher: my twenty minutes twice a day mantra chanting, while mightily helpful and I’m convinced all that kept me from the urge to cower in bed all day (that, and that I had a baby to look after), was still not providing me with quite enough of the water-off-a-duck’s-back demeanour I could have done with. Not only does Tim Brown teach meditation but he happens to be one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. He always sees grander plans than I can, everything panning out just as it’s meant to.

‘Why am I copping it?’ I asked Tim when I called him from the car one day en route to work (all phone calls were made in the car these days; there was no other time). ‘Here I was thinking I was spreading the love.’ I laughed.

‘People don’t like a miracle,’ he explained. ‘These women are angry because they’re struggling right now and they dearly want what you’ve got — your ease with motherhood — and they don’t understand why you seem to have it and they don’t. They’re taking out their frustrations on you because they think it’s unfair. What you left out of your story is that you found a tool to help deal with your challenges. You have asked questions, sought advice and gained knowledge which is having an impact on the way you’re experiencing motherhood. The mistake you made was not sharing that with others, so it appears as though you are just having the experience without any effort. You have worked for it.’

Tim was right. Without meditation I would have been a right old mess. I know it. I was just like every other mother (well, those of us blessed enough to have healthy babies and roofs over our heads). It’s just that in the nick of time I learned to meditate. I found a way to calm the hell down and tap into a well of positivity, presence and gratitude. With twenty minutes’ meditation equating to some four hours of sleep, I didn’t crave that either. (I mean, sleep would have been nice and it was always a welcome state when I could get it but, since meditating, I could cope surprisingly well on the bare minimum). But I hadn’t mentioned any of that in my offensive column. I hadn’t provided the backstory. Maybe, rather ironically, because I was afraid they would judge me for it. Like Irene, who, when I subsequently clarified online that meditation is my key, quipped: ‘Oh Jacinta Tynan … How I wish I had time to meditate. Or do yoga. Or have an uninterrupted cup of tea. I wish.’

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I don’t have time, either, Irene. But I make time. Because, otherwise I’d hate to think. I would set my alarm for twenty minutes earlier than when I thought the baby might wake up and do it then. It was hard because, oh, the temptation to keep sleeping. But I knew from experience if I forced myself, it served me better for the rest of the day. Or I meditated when the baby slept. He always slept for at least twenty minutes. If he fell asleep in the car, I would pull over (with the windows down) and do it then. I became opportunistic and crafty, grabbing twenty-minute bites wherever I could spot them, meditation take-anywhere-any-time antidote to intensity.

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Jacinta: “Without meditation I would have been a right old mess. I know it.” Image: supplied.

I had left my readers with the impression that, when it came to easy motherhood, there were distinct mummy castes of haves and have nots and, by pure stroke of luck, I had wound up in the former — and who wants to hear about that?

‘If you raise someone’s consciousness then their behaviour changes. But if you don’t raise their consciousness and you give them an enlightened philosophy, they’ll crucify you for it,’ I heard vedic meditation teacher Thom Knoles say. He was the maharishi who mentored my teacher, Tim, along with teaching tens of thousands of other people to mediate.

Which doesn’t mean to say non-meditators are stuffed (although I know I would have been) or, conversely, that meditators are home and hosed. Meditation itself is not the divider. It’s not everyone’s panacea for the relentless slog and identity crisis that can be motherhood (yoga, mindfulness, exercise are also effective routes to higher consciousness). It just happened to be for me. (So far.) But what did become clear from trawling through the commentary over the great motherhood-is-easy debate is that women fell, or more likely cast themselves, into one of two camps: the lovers and the haters. Or less harshly, those who struggle and those who don’t, harbouring suspicion for those on the other side. And it had nothing to do with circumstance.

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We wouldn’t be at each other’s throats if we thought we were any good at it. It’s as if there exists a right way to do things, only no one knows what that is. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways we make digs at other mothers whose methods don’t mesh with our own.

Caesareans are a fertile ground for judgement. When I was pregnant I was asked often if I planned to have a ‘natural birth,’ the inference being that that should be my preference. When I replied to one friend (a two-times natural birther who I was visiting in hospital after the birth of her second) that, yes, I did hope to (look what happened there), she leaned over and said, conspiratorially, ‘You know they give the best rooms to the “natural birthers”, a kind of reward for doing the hard yards.’ (She did indeed have a spacious room with a lovely aspect.) Later as I held my own little caesarean baby, I felt a primal need to defend myself, even though I have absolute reverence for any which way of giving birth and see none as superior to any other. ‘I tried for forty-eight hours to give birth naturally but it just wouldn’t happen,’ I found myself saying.

Then there are the time when judgement masquerades as helpful hints. ‘Best you don’t pick him up when he cries,’ other mothers berated me, their chastisement for me being too soft disguised as concern. ‘You will make a rod for your back.’ ‘I have found it’s best if you don’t look at them when they cry,’ offered another.

Bypassing the mother to talk to the baby is a popular judgement tactic — the mum can’t bite back because no one was actually talking to her. Like this, said, in a sing-song voice, to a friend’s four-month- old baby in earshot of her offending mother: ‘You will never grow up big and strong if your mummy doesn’t start giving you solids.’

When we sit on even an inkling of uncertainty about our chosen path, it’s tempting to suppress our fear by criticising others.

One of the things I looked forward to as a late-in-life mum was being welcomed into the sorority. I had anticipated warmth and camaraderie and advice in spades and sharing apple tea cake as our babies slept soundly in the next room. I had assumed we would be all in this together. That us mums would all be there for each other. And that’s pretty much what I got. I was welcomed into the club with casseroles and cots delivered to the door — and advice when asked for. My friend Ineke turned up with a mountain of maternity bras she’d finished with. ‘I don’t know any other double-Gs,’ she smiled, ‘so they’re all yours.’

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But it was a different story online. There true prejudice is off the leash. When I wrote my story, it opened the floodgates to those other mothers. I inadvertently unleashed the ugly side of motherhood — the side we’re all partly guilty of — the vilification of those who don’t think like us. So paranoid are we that we aren’t doing a good job of it, with the stakes higher than ever (the future of our children), that we bring down anyone who might be doing it differently. Beneath the camaraderie lurks an undercurrent of censure most vocal from within our own camp. We mothers are, too often, our own worst enemies.

That includes me. While I felt like I was being judged, on that I was the greatest judge of all.

I know now that I really didn’t get it. In my happy haze of new motherhood it was genuinely beyond me why anyone would see it as a downer. Postnatal Depression I could fathom. Not that I had any concept of what it was like to plummet to the depths of despair, especially when you’re ‘supposed’ to be happy, but my own brief (and thankfully relatively inconsequential) brushes with depression had made me hyper-sensitive for anyone else in that state. I knew what it felt like to not have the strength or the will to get up and get going. To see nothing but bleakness ahead and not give a toss about anything. I could only imagine where that might take a woman also faced with sleep deprivation, loss of identity, a dramatic and sudden shift in her world order, and being responsible, all of a sudden, for a whole other life.

Aside from PND, there were other circumstances where I thought claims of hardship seemed an appropriate reaction to mothering: Mums who were ill. Mums who wouldn’t live to see their children grow up. Mums with no cash or doing it solo, in hiding from a violent husband. Mums with lots of kids and not an ounce of help, no break from the relentlessness. Mums with neglectful husbands or sick children. Mums on the run from war-torn countries guarding their children with their life. But regular mums doing what women have done for centuries (without disposable nappies, formula or microwave ovens but with lower expectations of what mothers owed their kids in the way of stimulation, organic food and milestones) carrying on about the arduousness of their role, it rubbed me up the wrong way.

So here it is. Here is what I know and regret that those angry mums read between the lines of my article. While I like to pass myself off as being totally cool with all manner of mother, I’m not really. I judge in secret, and quite often without even realising it. Along with the dead obvious no-go zones of child abuse and neglect, I have my own internal inventory of what is not model-mum behaviour. And I’m not proud of it.

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Jacinta: “In my happy haze of new motherhood it was genuinely beyond me why anyone would see it as a downer.” Image: supplied.
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I couldn’t care less about which way you give birth or whether you breastfeed and, if you do, for what duration. It’s none of my business when your baby goes on solids, does solids, or how old they are when they get out of nappies. ‘They won’t be wearing nappies, drinking from a bottle or sucking a dummy at their twenty-first,’ I always say, defending my own lackadaisical approach. Attachment parent, helicopter parent or routine parent? Your call. Go to work or stay at home every single day of your life for all I care. But in the interests of transparency I herewith reveal my major judgement triggers.

I have a problem with parents who leave their babies alone to cry for long periods. I think it’s cruel. I don’t say it out loud but it takes all my strength not to. I tut tut (again in private) at women who never even try to breastfeed, while completely understanding that some women just can’t. Only because I think they’re missing out. I don’t really get parents who put their babies in childcare when they don’t work or don’t really have any place to be. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t rather be with them. (That might be easy for me to say, what with me getting my ‘time off’ at work). Similarly couples who go on holidays and leave their babies with strangers (not family). Not saying they’re bad parents. I just have trouble comprehending how this could be fun for anyone; I can still access my own memories of feeling bereft when my parents went away. And also, wouldn’t they prefer to take them along?

I cringe when I see mums punishing their toddlers for having a tantrum when all they want is a cuddle. And obviously I baulk at mums who shame their children, hit them, or put them in the naughty corner, their faces to the wall. Parents who don’t immunise are beyond me as well. It’s dangerous and it’s short-sighted. This doesn’t make me right on all fronts. Not at all. (Except the hitting and shaming one; I’ll stand by that.) It just outs me as a fellow judgemental mummy, like the rest of us. We are all at it. Whether we like to admit it or not. And, yes, I did have a problem with mums who complained a lot. And that did colour my writing, however much I protested that I was only speaking for myself.

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After weeks of trawling through the diatribe online I reached my limit. Why couldn’t they just get a grip, these women? I began to think. For their own sakes, not mine. Take a deep breath and glance around and realise that life ain’t all that bad. There are far bigger problems in the world than being tired, being needed, and having a messy house. Yes it’s a challenge to keep your cool when children are whining and refusing to put their shoes on and you haven’t slept properly in three years. It takes adjusting to get used to not being able to do what you want when you want and put a once-prized career on hold or watch it slip out of your grasp. It can be devastating and discombobulating, and it’s wise to get this stuff of your chest. It’s helpful to have a rant. But, really, in the scheme of things, get a grip.

I can only assume it was the repetitive nature of the barrage (akin to that Buddhist metaphor of being knocked over the head with a feather first then a brick and finally a hammer until you get the hint) that led me to see things another way. I started to see. Ever so gradually, and only through the tamer, more reasonable online voices, who weren’t out to attack me, I began to get it: that some women, no matter how hard they try and how desperately they want it to be different, and with no justifiable reason why they might be finding it harder than the uber-capable mother of four across the road (not even coming close to my — very subjective — legitimate-suffering criteria), they just did. And it wasn’t their fault. And as far as they could tell, there was sweet FA that they could do about it.

In place of my self-righteous defiance, my sky-high defences up, my inability to grasp anyone else’s reality, there slowly edged in a thin ribbon of remorse. I experienced the ignominy of seeing that I had expected people to dance to my happy tune. It was an awakening for me (with my one ‘easy’ baby) to get an insight into other mothers’ lives, to see just how much strain so many are under. I insisted I wasn’t judging (that I was the judgee) but actually I was. Big time. Without even meaning to, or being aware of it. I had been taking the doomsayers with a grain of salt. (I had been calling them doomsayers!) No wonder they bit back. I had behaved just as badly as them.

Watch Mia Freedman interview Jacinta Tynan way back when in 2010, after Jacinta inadvertently divided the parenting community.

Jacinta Tynan is News Presenter with Sky News and the author of Mother Zen. You can follow Jacinta on Twitter here.

This is an edited extract from Mother Zen by Jacinta Tynan, $29.99. You can purchase the book here.

Looking for more book extracts? Try these:

Kristy Chambers book extract: ‘It’s Not You, Geography, It’s Me.

An extract from Never Forgotten, support in coping with stillbirth.

Latika Bourke releases her first book: From India with Love.