Are good mothers on the road to bitterness?

When will bitterness strike?
When will bitterness strike? 

I was having dinner with an old school friend recently. Our children are grown up now and have left home. We both ought to be in that safe harbour that comes at the end of the stormy seas of intensive parenting. I call it becoming a dry cleaner; all care, no responsibility. Indeed, my youngest has just moved out and her elder sister left a couple of years ago.

People ask me if I am feeling their absence, if I am grieving over having an empty nest. Perhaps I am an unnatural mother, but I have not felt much of a pang. I have done my job - which was to transform two dependent creatures into reasonably independent adults. Right from the moment of birth, parenting is a slow process of letting your offspring go.

But my friend is not in that place at all. Like me she's finished parenting, but is also absolutely furious with her now adult children. She is not the only one. Another friend is also beside herself about the behaviour and attitudes of her grown children. They won't leave home, won't take responsibility for their own income and treat her like a servant.

Hearing these two quite similar stories within a fortnight, I got curious. Were these just two out of the box, or was there something more general going on? Asking around, I found many people relating similar stories, some even talking about their own mother becoming a seething cauldron of barely suppressed anger.

It's not like the children of my friends are particularly terrible. One of the great learnings that comes after parenting for 25 years is that every kid has his or her moments. I have friends whose children seem to have it all: academic prizes, super-duper jobs, lots of achievements their mums can brag about. But scratch the surface and you find anything from anxiety (a common price for high achievement) to eating disorders, loneliness and 1001 other imperfections. Kids, like their parents, are only human. And if a kid seems well sorted and happy now, experienced parents have learnt to take joy in the moment, but never expect anything to last.

So, most of the kids I've watched meander and, occasionally, lurch their way through childhood and adolescence into young adulthood seem to be much of a muchness to me. All the things we agonised about as they grew - the right food, the right schools, the right care and nurture - don't seem to have made much difference in the end.

When we look at these young adults today, can we see those who were fed organic over those who got canned and frozen? Those who wore cloth or disposable? Those who were cared for only by their loving mother or got sent to childcare as quickly as possible? Those who went to posh private schools or who went to the public one around the corner? Not really.

But some of their mothers are different. Some of them are really, really angry. Not because their kids are any worse than anyone else's, but - this is my theory, anyway - because they are not any better.

You see, the women I have noticed being consumed with anger at this late stage in their parenting are those who decided to immerse themselves in mothering. It wasn't just a life stage for them; it was a vocation. They were serious and intense about it, throwing their heart and soul into their kids. They didn't always give up working outside the home for their children, but they scaled their careers right back and took lower-skilled, lower-paying work that took less of their energy and time.


They were the good mothers, who did what society told them to do and put their children first, all the time. They gloried in the role of mother. Nothing wrong with that - mothering is an honourable and valuable occupation. It is also exhausting, time-consuming and hard. It is not what they did that may be causing their fury now, but perhaps the unspoken deal they made with their offspring that they now unconsciously feel has not been kept.

Listening to my friends' bitter complaints and some of the similar stories related to me by others, I have wondered if these women (subconsciously, perhaps) believed that if they put all their energies into the role of mother, they would be rewarded by seeing their children grow up to become outstanding adults. Indeed, if you look at the way we laud self-sacrifice and martyrdom in mothers and stigmatise what we see as selfish behaviour in women without children, it is perfectly understandable why they might have felt that this was the bargain they had made. Trouble is, their children made no such deal and have turned out the way most kids turn out. They are complex, immature, sometimes delightful but often irritatingly ordinary human beings.

If happiness is all about the management of expectations (and I suspect it is), the tragedy of our traditional view of mothers as semi-saints is that it may almost inevitably mean bitter disappointment for the women who attempt to take on that role.

Instead of feeling rewarded for a job well done at the end of their mothering journey, as they expected, some of them may feel cheated. Whereas those mothers who never expected all that much from their kids in the first place may end up with precisely the same result, but feel a whole lot better about it.

They may even be pleasantly surprised.

From: Sunday Life