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Mama mafia and other myths of modern motherhood
Recently, a Copenhagen café – a former mecca for new mums and once voted the ideal barselscafé – caused outrage among mothers and women when it banned breastfeeding so as not to offend its other customers.
Once the dust settled on the debate, it seemed that most people were fine with nursing in public (77 percent of Danes, according to a survey by Analysinstituttet Cantinet) as long as etiquette and consideration were used. In a conciliatory gesture, the café opened a ‘breastfeeding lounge’ to appease the angry mob, some of whom personally attacked the café manager.
The militant mamas who emerged to fight this cause brought to mind a larger band of mothers. Sometimes referred to as the ‘mama mafia’, the barnevognsmafiaen (pram mafia), or by other similarly derogatory terms, these mothers think they have the right to do whatever they want because it is ‘best for baby’.
Experts on any baby-related topic, they impose their views on other mothers believing that their way is the only way, whether it’s breastfeeding, home-made organic food or baby yoga.
“It’s like the Wild West on the narrow pavement; nobody gives an inch when they parade with their strollers,” said Julia Lahme, the mother of seven-week-old Sofus and author of ‘Where did I leave my baby?’ – a book about her experiences as a new mother – describing how the pram mafia own the streets of Østerbro.
Once, Lahme revealed, she was even stopped and berated by a complete stranger who’d read her blog and thought she was letting other women down by not taking maternity leave.
Helen Lang Hansen, a health visitor who set up www.netsundhedsplejerske.dk to help parents on children’s health and development, said in her experience, most mothers don’t go to extremes, and do in fact understand that there are many ways to be a good mother.
Psychologist Kisser Paludan wasn’t sure. “I think we just pretend to be more tolerant of these things because we should be, but in reality I don’t think we actually are.”
Neither Paludan nor Hansen believed a mama mafia exists. But Paludan agreed that some mothers adopt this kind of behaviour.
“Often, it’s down to insecurity about their values,” she explained. “New mothers can often feel insecure, and to make up for this, some channel their energies into convincing others that they are doing the right thing and start judging others.”
“Too often these days, people just adopt the values they see in books, magazines and on television,” continued Paludan. “You need to find your own values and feel comfortable with these; once you know what is important to you, it becomes easier to accept other people’s values.”
Hansen saw the challenge as being an overload of information. “Women are very well-informed and seek out information to make the best choices for their children. However, it can be hard to sort through everything and it’s only natural to feel unsure that you’ve made the right choice.”
Paludan suggested another reason for why many feel less secure in their values.
“It’s hard for the modern Danish woman,” said Paludan. “They don’t have role models. Things have changed so much in the last 40 or 50 years, and many women don’t want to do things the way their mothers did. They are lost and on their own trying to figure things out.”
“There is nothing but ideals,” lamented Lahme of the pressure on women to conform to societal ideals of motherhood.
“We are definitely not free to choose anything. We have to breastfeed. We have to love every part of parenthood, even the boring bits.”
It’s understandable then that mothers feel a large burden of expectation and also face peer pressure to conform.
“It’s a norm in society that having children is just wonderful. In many ways, it’s a taboo to speak out about how hard it is being a mum,” said Paludan. “And if you can’t live up to the norms you believe society has set, you start to judge others, because it’s too painful to look at yourself.”
Lahme had a theory, explored in her book ‘Truths from a Liar’, that women often lie to themselves and to others in response to the pressures put on them. She suggested that all mothers lie – the most common being that women are biologically pre-programmed to get through whatever hardship they face as a new mother.
“I think we don’t want to feel alone with the experience of having a hard time, yet we don’t want everyone to know how hard it really is, since we are lucky and privileged to be mothers in the first place.”
So the mama mafia doesn’t exist and neither does the perfect mother. But the pressures faced by new mothers – to live up to the ideal of being the perfect mother, and that motherhood should come naturally and easily – are real. With few role models to inspire them, it is no wonder that many new mothers feel insecure, leading them to overcompensate and defend their actions.
Maybe the focus needs to shift towards debunking the myths surrounding motherhood rather than reinforcing unattainable goals and a vicious cycle of failing to live up to those high standards.
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