I know nothing about motherhood.

I’ll politely decline when a Mum thrusts their squirming newborn into my arms.

I’m horrified by the bodily fluids a baby produces.

I’ll silently judge a parent when their toddler has a meltdown in public. 

I’ve perceived motherhood as a one-way trip to solitude, stress and servitude. 

And, I was wrong.


I’ll admit it - this wasn’t the essay I had planned on writing. 

Over the course of two weeks, I spoke to many Mums. New Mums. Single Mums. Mums with adult children.  

In my mind, I had already crafted a narrative for this essay. I braced myself to hear horrific birth stories. I read up on postnatal depression. I prepared myself for the tales of sleepless nights, ravaged boobs, and screaming, colicky babies. 

I was ready to sympathise with struggling mothers. With mothers who were mourning the days when they weren’t beholden to a small child. With mothers that hadn’t washed their hair in weeks. With mothers that saw self-love as an unattainable, unrealistic ideal.

I expected to write an essay on motherhood, and the difficulties of loving yourself after undergoing such a momentous life change. 

Instead, I’m writing an essay on womanhood, and the inconceivable power a mother has to know herself, know her baby, and use this to recalibrate the meaning of self-love. 

A stereotypical depiction of motherhood on Instagram

The great Mum mega mash 

As I hurtle towards my thirties at an alarming pace, I’ve realised women are being neatly divided up the middle - you’re either a woman who has produced a child, or not. 

The moment a woman gives birth, we toss her into the “mother” category. 

A single social group, who we assume share a singular set of social and political opinions. Flattened into an amorphous blob, bound together by the shared joys of wiping, feeding, mashing, and leaking. 

When someone becomes a Mum, we erase her identity.  We forget the many multitudes she contains. We assume her experience is the same as all the other mothers clapping their hands in unison at music class.  

I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve referred to my friends with kids as “my Mum friends." I’ve assumed they’ve all bought into a commonly shared set of values, attitudes and perspectives with gleeful abandon. 

As I dialled the numbers of the mothers I interviewed for this piece, I’d pre-written their experiences of motherhood in my head. I’d neatly cast them as characters in my story - the maternal, child bearing woman who bakes banana bread, wears practical flat boots and is a dab hand at vacuuming up hidden crumbs stuck in the nooks and crannies of the couch. 

I’ve since realised how off base I was. The mothers I spoke to were multifarious beings. Some lifted weights to de-stress. Others were masters at bending their bodies around their babies to read novels on their kindle. Some rushed back to work. Others relished being at home with their bubbas. Some grappled with prenatal anxiety. Others found the transition to motherhood a little more seamless. Some spoke of a pretty harrowing C-section, others had a natural birth at home. Some loved their Tuesday morning Mummies groups. Others gritted their teeth while singing the Wiggles alongside twenty other women and their gurgling offspring. 

There’s no denying that becoming a mother is a transformative life change, one that bonds women together in a pretty powerful way.

But by flattening mothers into a single identity, it makes it easier for us to sell to, judge, and exert power over women.  

We like to tell mothers how to be.

We like to judge mothers when they don’t adhere to our expectations of ‘good parenting.’

We like to pity mothers and the sacrifices they’ve had to make.

We like to gaslight mothers about their own bodies. 

We like to tell mothers all the things they’re doing wrong, while simultaneously selling them products and services that can rectify their wrongdoings (yay capitalism!)

And in a society that doesn’t value the people who are raising the next generation, instead casting them aside as mushy ‘Mom’ brain women with leaky boobs and dirty hair, womanhood is the act of enduring all of this, and emerging broken, fucking exhausted, but reborn. 

Self-love as a mother is a big, middle finger to what we expect a mother should act like, look like, and think like.

A woman navigating unsolicited advice as a mother

Lesson one: trust yourself 

Each and every woman I spoke with for this piece was remarkable.

And they taught me this: 

As a mother, and as a woman, the true act of self-love is learning to trust yourself, in a society that tells us we don't know what’s best for us and our children.

But this isn’t an easy task.

Because the moment that screaming, baffled bubba enters this world, we’ve learned to look to others for answers. 

We feverishly Google why our baby isn’t sleeping.

We rush to the doctors for every rash and every cough.

We click on lactation consultant ads when we can’t get a good latch.

Much like there seems to be a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to do self-love, there seems to be a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to do motherhood.

So, why are new mothers so distrusting of their abilities?

The mothers I spoke with were constantly surrounded by medical professionals during their pregnancy. The antenatal classes, the midwives, the doctors, the constant check ups.  They spoke of their fevered search for information, the advice shared by their own mothers, grandmothers, and sisters.

Then, they spoke of that moment at 3am. When your baby is screaming, and your frenetic Google searches prove fruitless, and somehow your partner has the audacity to SLEEP RIGHT THROUGH this calamitous event, and your boobs are leaking and your heart is aching and you realise: it’s just you and your child. No medical professionals. No family member to coach you through it. And, you are the single person on this planet who knows your child best. 

For Emma, this was her moment of rebirth. 

The moment when she knew she could take on motherhood. When she knew that no outsider with a medical degree, no Boomer mother who raised five kids in the 1980s, no self-important Mummy influencer could raise her daughter better than she could.

The moment of self-love where she learned to trust herself. To say a glorious “fuck you” to society’s expectations. 

“As soon as you let go of the self help books and expectations, it makes you feel like less of a failure. Let go and listen to your intuition. The baby loves you, and you are the baby’s world. All they want is you."

Tania had a similar experience. 

“I felt like I had to prove that I could be the best mother I could be. I went to the extremes and I wanted to get everything ‘right.’ I read all the books. I didn’t trust myself just to run in cruise control. As my kids have gotten older, I’ve realised that it's up to you as to how you parent your child. Listen to that gut instinct, even if society tells you it doesn’t exist. We’ve forgotten how to trust ourselves.”

Marketers love preying on the vulnerabilities of young mums. For every 3am wake-up where you learn to trust your mothering instincts, there’s another social media ad telling you that you don’t need instinct, you need stuff, and lots of it. 

Natalie is a mother of four little ones, and recalls feeling constantly gaslit by marketing messages.

“When I had my first daughter, I purchased everything you possibly could for a baby and thought all these products were absolute necessities - I remember thinking $300.00 for a self-sterilising bottle was a good deal! Being constantly sold to makes you question your gut instinct and instills a sense of fear into young Mums. Every product or service is telling you something is wrong with your baby and that you don’t know your baby.”

Enya, another new Mum, surprised me with her perspective. I’m ashamed to admit that I saw Mothers as powerless. A person constantly in servitude to an ungrateful, wrinkled, alien-looking being. A person who must follow the neatly prescribed rulebook of motherhood. A person constantly at the mercy of marketing messages.

Someone who lacks autonomy and agency. And by proxy, someone who lacks self-worth.

Well, Enya thought quite the opposite. 

“It was surprisingly empowering to become a Mum. I was so connected to my intuition that was I was able to say fuck you to everything. Fuck you Huggies, I don’t need your nappies. Fuck you Plunket, you can’t tell me how to parent. Fuck you Farmers, don’t tell me I need a cot. I am an expert on my baby. I can tell you when she’s hungry. I can tell you when she’s about to poop. It gives you power. But, the whole world tells you not to trust your instinct.”

So, here’s the first thing Mothers have taught me about self-love. Trusting yourself, your instincts, and your ability to nurture, raise and care for a child is the ultimate act of self-love. 

To fly in the face of parenting self-help books, shady social media ads, and male medical professionals gives you a whole new sense of power and ownership over your decisions. 

Motherhood can mean stepping into a fuller version of yourself. 

A mother saying positive affirmations in the mirror

Lesson two: praise yourself

To me, I always thought being a Mum was a thankless task. Hours upon hours spent being a glorified taxi driver, carting kids to violin lessons and soccer practice, getting up at the crack of dawn to make marmite sandwiches, drowning in a sea of laundry. Waking up and doing it all over again. 

Yet again, the mothers I spoke to offered an interesting counter narrative to this. Yes, their time can be greedily gobbled up by their kids. Yes, they spent more time than they’d like getting vom out of their baby’s onesie. But unlike me, who feels the need to get a gold star on my domestic goddess sticker chart each time I clean the kitchen, these mothers were less preoccupied with external validation. 

“As a mother, you don’t get a lot of feedback. In a job situation, you’d be getting a bonus for all your hard work! But, I’ve been working hard on being proud of myself and not seeking external validation. There are definitely lots of good moments, even if you’re not affirmed personally” Emma explained.

As a mother, your wins are not particularly glamorous. Praise is few and far between. You’re forced to put your ego aside. No one points out your remarkable ability to balance a squirming toddler on your left hip, while cooking spaghetti with your right hand. You have to be your own cheerleader. To celebrate the seemingly mundane. To feel proud that you’re keeping this little human alive. 

And, you can’t take a day off from parenting. You can’t call in sick to motherhood. You can’t text your kids and ask for a mental health day. The mothers I spoke to were navigating all kinds of life changes - new romantic relationships, moving to a different city, going back to work, re-discovering themselves. 

Sienna, a Mum of two young boys, thinks a mothers’ strength and resilience is unmatched. 

“You think you’re strong, until you become a mother. We go through so much. We could go through a break up, or have to move house, but the Mum role never stops.” 

Kasia was in an unhealthy relationship when her son was born. And despite the anguish and emotional abuse she experienced, she couldn’t take a break.

“I had to uphold this fake identity to my mum's group that my home life was good, when in reality, I was in an unhealthy relationship. My anxiety was always running high. I paid for everything and organised everything for our child. We didn’t have a man of the house. We had to fend for ourselves.”

Fucking hats off to mothers, I say. We pop out a couple of sprogs, and are expected to juggle the competing demands of parenting, working, socialising, and simply existing in a world that sees motherhood as a given, not an achievement of its own right.

Liv couldn’t agree more.

“There’s an expectation to just ‘suck it up’ - you were made to be a Mum. Your Mum did it. Your Grandma did it. Just get it done.”

And, best believe you shouldn’t expect any recognition for your hard work:

“Being a parent has made me a better person. My kids are the two things I am most proud of in my life. They challenged me and they made me think differently. They gave me a purpose. Parenting is actually a really vital job. But society doesn't count raising children as a measure of success. I’m so proud of my achievements, but most people will just see me as a 53 year old lady” Tania observed.

So, here’s the second thing mothers taught me about self-love:

Motherhood forces you to reset your expectations of yourself, over and over again. You learn how to praise yourself, and lean less on the opinions of others. And, when you navigate tough shit, like break-ups, break-downs and the breaking apart of your heart when your kids eventually leave home, you learn how to be strong in a way you hadn’t known before. 

A mother stood on a podium, elevated above other typical influencers

Lesson three: respect yourself 

As a society, we have high empathy for new babies, but low empathy for mothers. Enya has encountered this time and time again since giving birth to her daughter. 

“When you give birth, everyone asks about how the baby is doing, not how you’re doing. From the moment the baby comes you don’t matter - the baby matters.” 

From new Mums, to Mums whose kids have left the nest, we’re quick to focus our attention on the child’s wellbeing first. 

In the first six weeks, with hormones running rampant, sleep a distant memory and a body that is still recovering from birth, we forget that Mums can be in a world of pain. We’re expected to simply ‘ride it out’ as if motherhood is a niggly cough that won’t go away. 

“I think I cried every day for six weeks. For no reason sometimes. I was anxious 24/7. I would overthink everything. My hormones were everywhere. I went to the doctor for help and got told to wait it out a few weeks. A few weeks is an ETERNITY when you get one hour of sleep at a time. Sleep deprivation and crazy hormones are a terrible mix and you feel ashamed if you're sitting there crying your eyes out. And to be honest, what can we do about it? Nothing - you just get more tired and more stressed and more emotional” Kaylee recalls.

Kaylee wasn’t the only Mum who had a lukewarm experience with her GP. Enya quickly realised that her needs were inconsequential following a trip to the doctors office. 

“Six weeks after birth, my pee was stinging, so I went to the doctor. The GP who was a female and a mother herself, asked if I was having sex. I said of course not. And she said ‘poor boy.’ I was so paralysed by what she said. She didn’t ask about my own mental state. She just reinforced that my body was for someone else. It concerns me that this type of messaging is happening in a doctors office.” 

It turns out we’re not overly empathetic towards Mums with adult children, either. Tracey felt a real sense of grief when her kids moved overseas. From day zero to eighteen (and often longer), mothers pour their very being into their children. They are there for the milestones, meltdowns and mayhem along the way. They rub Vix onto their sick child’s chest. They sit through three hours of haphazard dance routines just to see their child on stage for thirty seconds. They wipe their tears after an encounter with a playground bully. They send them off to kindy, school, their first jobs and overseas adventures, and their hearts break each and every time their kids leave.

And yet, mothers are expected to revel in the freedom the moment their kids leave home. We have limited tolerance for mothers who simply miss their kids. Tania experiences this often:

“The hardest moment of parenting was when they left home. My son was joining the military. Every time he came home from a deployment, I’d have to say goodbye all over again. The hardest moment in my life was sitting down and doing a death plan with him when he was 18. I felt like I had to be supportive, but I just wanted to scream. We are meant to ‘rejoice’ when the kids leave home.  We’re told to ‘pull ourselves together.’ But, we’ll be parents until the day we die.”

So, here’s the third thing mothers taught me about self-love. 

Learning to exist in a world that de-prioritises your needs, flattens your experiences and doesn’t recognise your achievements is a fundamental part of being a woman. 

Learning how to love yourself despite all this, is an act of rebellion. It may not be in grandiose ways. It might not come easy. In fact, when you’re covered in baby shit and haven’t washed your hair in a week, it will probably be fucking hard.

But it’s important work. We need to respect mothers. See them as multifarious beings. People worthy of recognition. People who can teach us about love in all its forms - maternal love, and self-love. People who will teach the next generation how to survive in a society that doesn’t always make it easy to love ourselves.

Nothing sums this sentiment up more aptly than the ritual Enya and her daughter practice each morning:

“I want my daughter to practise gratitude and self-love. So, I try to speak nicely to myself everyday. The first thing Hanna and I do on our morning walk is to say good morning to everything. We say good morning sun. Good morning sky. And then, we look in the mirror and say ‘who’s that pretty lady - that’s your Mum.’ And she laughs. 

Once, I did it in the reflection of a shop window. And the staff were surprised to realise I was talking about myself, not my baby. After all, mothers need love too


I am so grateful for all the mothers I interviewed for this piece. Thank you for trusting me with your stories. Thank you for doing important work. Thank you for cracking open my brain and expanding my perspective on motherhood. I have an absolute new found respect for mothers. You have taught me so much. 

The mothers I spoke with were incredibly generous with what they shared. This meant I had too many insights to cram into one essay! I want to do their perspectives justice, so part two of this essay is the works. Keep an eye out!

** Names have been changed to respect the contributors privacy. 

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