Motherhood Then and Now

From slow-cookers to speed-dryers, everything to make modern motherhood easier is seemingly at our fingertips. But is this really progress? Ruth Brown asks who had it easier, your mum or you?

You've bought the cot, the baby room has everything a newborn could wish for. Your house is fully set up with all the labour-saving whiteware 21st century technology has to offer, not to mention those special electronic gadgets designed to make settling/feeding/entertaining baby  a whole lot easier. You've done preggy yoga, antenatal classes and drunk wheatgrass juice for nine months. Why then, when baby arrives, does your world fall apart? Surely it's not that hard to look after a baby - women have been doing it for millennia and they didn't have electric washing machines and clothes dryers. What's gone wrong?

Talk to your mum and she may say, despite the mod cons, it was easier in her day. Karen Scott thinks so. She brought up six children with very little family support and even less money but she was happy. 

The good old days
Karen, 55, who was raised by an alcoholic mum herself, married at 20, giving up her teacher training as soon as she wed. Nine months later the first baby arrived and Wellington-based Karen was at home for the next 17 years looking after the kids.

"If we couldn't afford things we did without but the kids had books and we lived across the road from the park."

Karen, pictured right with her daughter-in-law Jennifer and first grandchild 22-month-old Aaron, was overjoyed to welcome back to New Zealand from Holland her son Jonathan and his family - Jennifer and Aaron - at the beginning of the year. As a young mum, she didn't have much back-up - her TV cameraman husband Vaughan was away a lot and would often not come home until 10pm, "but we didn't think anything of it."

She had a network of older mums to call on through her local church.

They had no car. Karen and the children took the bus or walked everywhere.

When the babies arrived they borrowed everything - the cot and bassinet - there were no fancy shops. Karen made her own nappies as there were no disposables, and her third child Rebecca slept in the living room because there was no space for her anywhere else.

When, by a stroke of great luck, they managed to buy a house with no deposit (it cost $42,000) they put up blankets over the windows as curtains and Vaughan sold his prized Hasselblad camera so they could buy carpet for the floor.

Yes, yes, I hear you thinking, and they walked barefoot through the snow to go to school etc - we've heard it all before - how lucky we are compared with our mums and dads who had it rough. But look a little closer, dear mothers, and it may turn out that we in fact have it tougher than our mums did - despite our more lavish lifestyles.

Carolyn Young, who has worked as a midwife for 40 years, believes women face a tougher time ushering a baby into the world now and blames the demands of the working world.

     Very often women work up to 36 or 38 weeks into their pregnancy and even when the baby arrives, their partners, parents or parents-in-law may not have the time off to come and look after them, she says.

It's not unusual for fathers on parental leave to be called back to work or have to take work phone calls while officially away from the office, while the grandparents could well be working themselves and unable to take time-off.

"It's not always easy for women to get the rest they need," Carolyn says.

On the plus side there is much more information for women now and they have more rights over what choices to make during the pregnancy and birth process. Healthcare professionals are also required to respect and accept cultural differences.

"But these are kind of academic things - not practical things. In terms of the practical hard yards, women are having to do things on their own."

She often sees women forming close friendships with other new mums so they can get the support they need.

Plunket nurse for 31 years, Allison Jamieson, says the need to work longer hours and to go back to work earlier could well make life harder for today's mums. But dads are more involved now in sharing the burden of looking after the children. The day-to-day stresses of running a household and caring for children are the same as those of 30 years ago, she says.

"The lifestyle is different and the circumstances are different but I wouldn't necessarily say it's any harder now."

OHbaby! mums speak up
So what do today's mothers think? We asked mums on the forums for their views on mothering in the 21st century, and they see both pros and cons. But two issues attracted specific attention - today's PC-gone-mad rules and the welter of information, advice and choice  of products out there that can confuse and bamboozle a sleep-deprived mum.

Jane Robinson, a mum and full-time student in Dunedin, agrees. "It seems like there used to be only one or two ways of doing things, so there was less needing to choose, less guilt and less pressure to have so many gadgets.

"My mum wasn't worried about which kind of nappies to use, which disposables are best, which fabrics and cleaners are best for cloth nappies, what are the latest skincare formulas for babies, what are the latest things that you need to do for your baby to get any kind of IQ, which expensive fabrics breathe the best, which toys are designed to maximise your baby's potential, which stroller has all the best accessories, which classes and groups to enroll your toddler in. She didn't have to decide on types of milk to wean a baby on to, whether to give puréed food or go with baby-led weaning. There is so much conflicting advice these days, which I think is really good but it's also tiring."

Renée Lyons, a chef from Timaru and mother of a four-month-old, says her mum probably had a simpler life but, "I think we have it easier with technology, clothes, modern cloth nappies, disposables, hands-on hubbies, medical aid (such as meds for reflux babies instead of mums dealing with a 'fussy' baby until they grew out of it). My Ma and Grandma are constantly marvelling at my things saying, 'Gosh, I wish we had this in my day!'

According to Grandma, a dash of whisky in the bedtime bottle is an age-old remedy for getting a baby to sleep through and cornflour on the bottom is all you need for nappy rash. How things change! According to Government figures, the number of children we're collectively raising has dropped from an average of just over three in 1971 to under two in 2001. The birth rate has now climbed again to 2.2 but many more of us are in paid work while raising our children. Household Labour Force figures show from 1986 to 2010, women's participation in the workforce climbed from 54.7% to 62.1%. And that can add up to a lot of stress - even if you love your job.As well as giving support and love to her own family, Karen is also a mentor for a group of young mums. And she's concerned about the levels of stress she sees - and the disappointment.

"I have one young friend who had read all the books, she was so healthy and she had the most amazing knowledge about it. But she had no milk, got mastitis, the baby couldn't latch. Her whole expectation of breastfeeding went out the window in two weeks."

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, perhaps, as it sets up mothers for disappointment, says Karen. "Of course, you want the best experience and do the best you possibly can - so you eat healthily and do exercises but you can still have a difficult birth or an unplanned Caesarean," she says.

Perhaps her generation was more realistic, she says. "You realised you were not so much in control of your own destiny and you trusted the health professionals."

Lack of confidence
Cathy McCormick is an Auckland midwife, antenatal class teacher and co-ordinator of mothers' support groups, ( She's noticed that mothers these days seem to lack some of the inner confidence their own mums had.

"When mothers come to me I just try to make them think that what they are doing is the best thing for their baby," she says.

While their mums may have had to cope with ringer washing machines, cloth nappies and draughty houses, they felt good about their role as mums.

"Thirty years ago the rules were very clearcut - at dinner time you sat down and ate your dinner - end of story. There was no bribery about getting pudding or anything like that."

     Parenting has become the target of new politically correct rules, with no smacking, health and safety and more involvement by government agencies, she says. While it is important to address the minority of parents who don't have the skills to deal with the challenges parenting throws up, a lot of the well-meaning raft of legislation has had a negative effect on the confidence of many parents just trying to do the best they can, she says.

"I don't think they [older generation mums] doubted themselves as much as mums do now. I think women 30 years ago believed in themselves more but now we are offered so many opinions and advice, mine included, that women can begin to doubt their natural abilities. New parents think they need help.

"Partly, I think it's to do with the medicalisation of the pregnancy and birth experience. Women can get help to conceive, they are guided through the pregnancy stages with screening tests and visits to health professionals and then suddenly the baby arrives and women are on their own.

"The baby needs the basic skills of mothering - technology can't necessarily help," Cathy says. Add to this lack of sleep and the expectation that women can cope with a screaming baby having never done it before, and it's a recipe for trouble.

Sleep required
Thirty years ago women were expected to rest after the birth. A stay in hospital of five or even 10 days was the norm and the emphasis was on mum staying in bed and getting plenty of sleep.

Karen says when her Plunket nurse arrived for a home visit, she had better have her feet up with a glass of water in one hand and a bowl of nuts on the side. "Who cared if the floor was clean or dirty, or if there were nappies everywhere? It was about looking after the mother."

Even contact with the baby was limited. Karen's Plunket nurse warned her not to over-handle the baby. He was fed, burped, wrapped and put back to bed on a four-hourly cycle.

For babies under three months it was all about protection. He didn't need stimulation - he needed sleep, adds Cathy.

Stick to the schedule
Like the four-hourly feeding routine, Karen had a daily routine once the kids were older. In the mornings she would prepare dinner to avoid chaos at the "arsenic hour" in the evenings. "All the vegies would be in the pots prepared and ready to go - I just had to turn the oven on.

"With that routine you knew where you were at so you could then plan the day."

So are mums more disorganised now?  "I think they want to pack too much into their day. They want to do the shopping and get the baby to sleep. They want to do the very best with what they have but with that you can over-indulge and over-stimulate and kids just don't know how to sit and watch the garden grow."

So if you feel a failure for not taking the kids to Mainly Music or forgetting to teach the baby sign language at nine months remember it may be better for them to be at home sniffing the daisies. So who has it easier? The previous generation, with their confidence and home-spun commonsense or us, with knowledge and technology at our fingertips? You be the judge.

Mother load
If you're feeling overwhelmed take comfort from these words of advice from our experts and get back to the basics of parenting:

  • Chances are other mothers feel the same as you do - opening up about your difficulties to others could well open the floodgates and find you support and friendship in uncharted territory.

  • Avoid comparing yourself and your baby with others. It's unhelpful and probably your perception of how others are coping is wrong. n Listen to your inner voice - experts in books and on the internet can speak in only general terms about parenting problems. Your baby is an individual - he needs an individual response and chances are, deep down, you know what that is.

  • Learn to be the "good enough" parent - the perfect mummy is an illusion. n Learn to let go of the reins. Babies, especially in the early days, dictate how things happen. Take your cue from your little one and work with that.

  • Don't feel that you should be able to do it all on your own (this is a weird modern idea). Take up any practical help that is offered and ask for it when you need it. You'll get your chance later to pay back in some way.

  • Leave the vacuum cleaner in the living room so it looks as if you were just about to get to it. Then, if you have a smart visitor, she will turn it on and do the vacuuming for you.

Perfect? No, but good enough
Bamboozled by conflicting advice on mothering? Learn to follow your gut instinct - in most cases it's your best hope.

Women expecting to be perfect parents are lining up for professional help at such a rate it's worrying Auckland psychotherapist Susan Goldstiver.

She has specialised in postnatal distress counselling for six years and sees many women who view themselves as failures as parents. "I see a lot of women suffering much more with anxiety than depression - they are not able to relax, they're in a hyper state."

She says, generally speaking, the women she sees are older - 35-plus  - well educated, wealthy enough to be able to afford private counselling, and with higher expectations.

"They are the ones who want to get it right. They are used to delegating, they're self-determined, yet they never anticipated how this little tiny baby was just not going to play the game.

"I think it's a growing problem. We're being flooded with 'how-tos', it's so overwhelming because there's so much of it. But it doesn't make us confident in ourselves - it takes away the inner expert," she says.

The media, especially the internet, is full of advice for raising children but much of it is conflicting information. "You can find just as much information telling you to let your baby cry as there is information saying it's not a good idea. How do you ever get it right and what's 'right'? For me I think 'good enough' is the aim."

She says listen to the inner voice - most women know what is best for their children. "It's true some really have no idea but the majority of women have a good enough experience of being mothered to inform them enough on how to mother their own children."

There's a lot of concern among health professionals over the number of women experiencing postnatal distress and Susan herself feels concern for these women who are not enjoying the mothering experience. "By the time they can get to a place   where they are able to reflect, when their children are grown, I'm concerned a lot of them will have regrets."

She says other women could help by being open about their experiences, - often there's the perception that everyone else is coping beautifully.

"Maybe it begins with women becoming more honest with each other about how things really are," says Susan.

Auckland clinical psychologist Sue Cowie is undertaking a longitudinal study into postnatal depression, interviewing 24 women who suffered PND after the birth of their first child, though she prefers the term "postnatal distress" as it covers everything from anxiety to sadness as well as depression.

She says one of the most striking things to come out of her research is the reluctance to tell others about their distress or to seek help. The women she spoke to feared criticism over not being able to do something they thought everyone else could do.

"There's a feeling that if anybody can do it, it must be easy," she says.

"So if you are a woman who's very capable and competent it's very hard to go back to being a beginner."

Many women turn to books or the internet to get help, applying the skills that advanced them in their careers to preparing for motherhood. But often the books and advice are not enough to "fix" the problem of a crying baby, or one who won't sleep or eat, because each baby is different.

"We get this idea that our bodies are very controllable and our fertility is very controllable but babies are not controllable. A lot of parenthood is about letting go of control. Babies have full control at the beginning - they dictate how things should go."

* For more information about postnatal distress, including postnatal depression, go to Susan Goldstiver's website, or the Postnatal Distress Support Network Trust,


Ruth Brown is  mother of two little girls, Harriet and Frida




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