The Angkor Wat Motherhood Challenge

I went to Angkor Wat yesterday (bear with me). I should imagine going to Angkor Wat features on many bucket lists and I acknowledge my fortune in being able to go there both yesterday and the day before, bringing my lifetime total up to four visits: in bucket list terms, I should be dead already. If you look on Instagram and do a search for #angkorwat, you will be rewarded with streams of mind-blowing sunrise/sets, gnarly tree roots growing through ancient ruins which Angelina Jolie once leapt about from in almost-labia-revealingly-short shorts. Taking a brief step away from Instagram and into real-life, Angkor Wat is a mosquito infested humid nightmare, ruined by swarms of tourists either covered in lycra, sun hats and cameras or elephant print trousers, tattoos and culturally insensitive t-shirts, depending if they’ve come here from the East or West. Young children with bony limbs and nylon clothes follow you around trying to flog you “ten postcards for wun duh-lar” while their mothers sell you instant noodles for two. Close your eyes and imagine a stray dog. Now imagine that stray dog in Asia. It has excess, tough, furless skin from being constantly infested with I dread to think what. I swear some of them have balls and tits. There are millions of them and they are everywhere. Red dust sticks to your lips and you will be drastically overcharged for a bottle of water. You can ride an elephant for $20 but first you have to be able to look it in its sad old eye. In short, I challenge anyone to not be pissed off and disappointed within 20 minutes of arriving.

Similarly, motherhood is not all it’s cracked up to be via social media posts. (Well done for making it this far and I hope you’re enjoying the significant impact of the metaphor I began in sentence one.) Go to Angkor Wat. It is fucking mind-blowing. Yesterday, at Angkor Wat, while wrestling my red-faced, sweaty, screaming 1 year-old daughter away from one of the aforementioned stray dogs (she adores all woof woofs), I asked her father, “if you knew what having a baby was like in advance, would you have done it?” I’m not going to quote him here but suffice to say that we reached the unanimous paradoxical consensus that, of course we fucking wouldn’t, and we’re extremely glad we did. The extent of the highs and lows of parenthood are difficult to describe and frankly almost inhumane to experience. As a great man once said, life is a rollercoaster, once you are on it you have almost no choice but to continue and there are intermittent, enjoyable reprieves.

Speaking about motherhood often feels penned in by bookends and caveats which acknowledge the struggles of others. I feel I’m supposed to apologise because:

  1. I got pregnant (by accident, sorry! Trust me, unplanned pregnancy is no picnic)
  2. I had a healthy pregnancy (apart from being in Cambodia with no access to “proper” prenatal care, in 40+ degree heat and cohabiting with scorpions)
  3. I had a vaginal birth with no epidural (sorry NOT sorry, worst day of my life, more on that another day)
  4. The baby and I were both healthy and allowed home the same day (which is not the warm, fuzzy experience one might expect from the movies. More a tearstained, blood stained, hobbling, stitched up, acid pee, terrified mess)
  5. I breastfed (and still do, despite the first week being a black-nippled, insomniac screaming hell and the present baby being able to walk across the room to latch on, sometimes testing out her six teeth)

I once made a Facebook post about how giving birth is horrendous and anyone who says it’s the best day of their life must have a shit life (this is my first ever blog post, if you don’t like it please don’t lose faith because I’m really fucking good on Facebook, specifically via stati, and I hope with time I will master the art of witty writing at length). Cue comment from a family friend that “other women struggling with infertility would give anything to go through this experience!” Unfortunately, other women’s battles with fertility do not change the fact that I contracted for more than 24 hours and then pushed a human out of my vagina, and that I liked exactly no aspect of that 24 hours.

I see posts on the ‘Facebook Motherhood Challenge’. I read opinion pieces by left-leaning, broadly feminist writers whose work I usually feel aligned with, slating the “smug-club” for shoving their ovaries in the Facebooks of friends suffering miscarriages. (Perplexingly, for me, at least one of these writers has previously vehemently defended women’s rights to multiple abortions without fear of upsetting people who want kids, yet now criticises women’s rights to be publicly proud of their children in case it upsets… people who want kids). I write a rant about it and a close friend comments that the fact people have time to post photos of their kids is evidence that motherhood is not as taxing as mum-led propaganda would have the world believe. (Insider info: many Mum-posts are done on the bog or with one eye monitoring the proximity of the baby to potentially fatal hazards, sometimes both).

Here’s some background on the members of my Newsfeed smug-club:

  • A Mum of premature twins who have spent several spells of their short lives in hospital with chronic lung problems.
  • A Mum who, due to UK immigration law, gave birth (at 7 months) without her partner by her side. She is effectively a single parent and intended to take a longer maternity leave, but returned to work full-time when the baby was 6 months old in order to collect enough payslips to prove she meets the financial requirement for her child’s father’s settlement visa application, which they will put in later this year.
  • Several Mums who’ve gone through Post Natal Depression. One who is still in the middle of that nightmare. (And these are just the ones I know about).
  • A Mum who injected her stomach with hormones on a daily basis, went through invasive and upsetting procedures to implant embryos, some of which “failed” (read: miscarriages) and some of which, mercifully, didn’t.
  • A Mum whose baby lived for one day, a Mum whose baby lived for one year.
  • A Mum who had the same as Shabnam off Eastenders and thought she’d never have a baby.
  • Plenty of Mums who have healthy children, healthy incomes, healthy relationships and yet still find mothering a daily fucking nightmare.

I for one would advocate people using social media to talk about the dark side of life. I think we’re a way off from being comfortable with posting “recovering from a miscarriage” or “partner is unfaithful” or “we have carved out a financially unsustainable lifestyle and I don’t know how we can get out of it”, but those who find humble-boasts grating could choose to interrupt their Newsfeed with a bit of cold reality. I’m not about to use my first ever blog post to make the earth shattering observation that Facebook is not an accurate representation of real life. The assumption that the people posting happy pictures of happy kids are somehow inherently denying the difficult reality of others is infuriating. The very people taking part in the “Motherhood Challenge” are more than likely posting triumphant evidence of the small successes in what is otherwise an unending struggle for them personally. The best piece of Mum-advice I received when my daughter was a week old was to celebrate every tiny victory. Behind every smiling photo is 23.5 hours of tears, being punched in the tits and worrying about how the fuck you are going to simultaneously pay all the bills, feed them the right stuff and ensure they don’t turn out racist.

Ideally, women should just shit the kids out, maintain perky tits and a tiny vadge, seamlessly apply lipstick and keep the house in full working order – in summary, maintain the outward presentation of someone who is physically, psychologically and emotionally unchanged by the ABSOLUTELY FUCKING TERRIFYINGLY LIFE-ALTERING EXPERIENCE OF BECOMING A MUM.

I’m nearing 30 and went to a decent school. Every day my Newsfeed is filled with entrepreneurs posting pictures of keys to new houses and cars, bottles of bubbly in Beefa, a lo-fi filtered lobster, cheeky Tuesday cocktails and so on. Presumably Monday morning still hurts, no matter how healthy your air miles balance. So why do people assume that nothing lies beneath a photo of a pudgy faced idiot covered in pureed spinach or splashing their chubby little wellied feet in a puddle full of goose shite? To describe mothers as “smug” about the rare occasions when the kids are clean, dry, safe and happy and to claim this mum-bashing in some way defends other women? Please, women, at least be on our own fucking team. Flic Everett wrote in the Guardian today that “in reality, the “motherhood challenge” is simply another way to measure women and find them wanting”; ironically, Everett’s entire piece was based on, um, finding fault with the women who chose to take part. Nice.

What is the moral of this blog post? I have yet to meet a smug-Mum. Even those like myself who are sensationally good looking and intelligent are tormented by anxiety and inadequacy. The Facebook Motherhood Challenge is, at best, an opportunity for mothers (who, I find, are almost invariably also women) to acknowledge the fruits of their own labour, perhaps getting a little bit of the acknowledgement from others we all so crave, expressed via likes. At worst it is vacuous mum-spam, which all Mums are guilty of anyway, and it’s very easy to unfollow or delete. In summary, I sincerely recommend everyone attempts to visit Angkor Wat before considering parenthood.

Here’s a photo which shows me smugly combining breastfeeding with visiting ancient ruins: