New mums need support, finds a new survey. But don’t look to Maia Dunphy for advice, says Carolyn Moore.
Stepping out of the rain and into Dublin’s Drury Buildings last week, the trendy loft space was abuzz with assorted media mums gathered to meet broadcaster Maia Dunphy and discuss the results of Sudocrem’s Today’s Mum report.
Some are pregnant, others have babies in tow, but all are surprised when, asked what advice she would offer one expectant mum, Dunphy replies, “None”.
In documenting her parenting journey, she has positioned herself as a champion of mums, but Maia Dunphy doesn’t do advice. “Giving pregnant women advice is generally unhelpful,” she clarifies. “When I was pregnant, the most useful thing anyone said to me was, ‘It’ll be grand. If you need anything when he arrives, just ask.’”
In the spirit of this laid-back approach — helpful support rather than smug advice — she started The M Word. A Facebook page that became a blog that’s soon to be a book, “it’s taken on a life of its own”, she says. With a growing community of ‘M Word mums’ sharing their experiences, it’s now a thriving platform for judgment-free support.
While the book will chronicle her first two years of motherhood, when it comes to the blog, she says, “It’s great to have additional voices there”.
“At the end of the day, I can only share my stories, which are specific to me and my complicated situation,” she adds, alluding to her unorthodox living arrangement with husband of six years, comedian Johnny Vegas.
“We lived apart until three years ago,” she says. “When we decided to start a family, I moved to London, but as the saying goes: if you want to work in Dublin, move to London.”
With shared custody of his 14-year-old son keeping Johnny in London, Maia initially tried commuting to Dublin when she returned to work — no mean feat with a baby in tow.
“Tom and I did 60 flights in two years,” she says. “He’s a great little fella and a great flyer, but it became too much, so now I’m based in Dublin.”
As of last month, Tom is also in crèche here; just two days a week, she says, “but my God, it’s expensive”.
“It’s a life less ordinary,” she concedes, “but that’s fine. We have a modern, blended family, and we make it work.”
It’s a pragmatic outlook from a woman who seems to have everything under control. She rejects the term ‘control freak’ but admits she “likes order”.
“I’m an anxious person. When you impose order on the things you can control, it makes other things slightly easier.”
When she had Tom, a month shy of her 39th birthday, motherhood threw her for a loop. “In your late 30s, you think you know yourself and what you’re capable of, then this little person appears and throws everything off kilter.”
Two years on, she has found her stride, but it’s difficult to marry the enviably stylish, composed, polished woman sitting in front of me with the chaotic tales of motherhood on her blog. She says the first time she breastfed in public, unable to manage coffee, baby, and a bad choice of dress, she was reduced to a blubbering mess.
“Whether you’re a young or older first-time mum, the first few months are overwhelming.
“It’s like turning up for a job you’re not qualified to do. People say, ‘Just enjoy it’; but you can’t because you’re terrified.
“What struck me was how much support I needed, that I genuinely didn’t think I would.”
Examining changing attitudes to motherhood, the Sudocrem study of 400 mums and 400 grandmothers whose daughters are mothers highlights support as being critical to the satisfaction of today’s mums. Not one to sugarcoat the realities of being a modern mum, even Maia admits some of the findings were startling.
“The survey found that two in three mothers don’t feel valued by their families,” she says. “It’s sad to think so many women are sitting at home feeling unappreciated. To be realistic, five-year-olds are not going to say, ‘Mum, thank you for ironing my pyjamas.’”
Indeed, 35% of mums said they are rarely thanked, but as Maia admits: “My mum came to live with us in London when Tom was born; he stayed with her last night. I thank her all the time now, but I wasn’t thanking her when I was 12 and complaining about what she’d cooked for dinner.”
As one of the 20% of mums relying on their own mothers for support, Maia says, “If you’re lucky enough to still have your mum in your life when you have a baby, you see her in a whole new light.
“As a mum, you have to accept, you’re not your kid’s mate, you’re their mother; you’re there to love them and raise them, and if you’re lucky they’ll turn around at 35 and go, ‘Wow! Thank you!’
“What’s more important is feeling valued by your partner, and by society.”
But as she points out: “In the workplace or at home, women are very hard on themselves, so why would motherhood be different? If you’re not feeling valued, look in the mirror and ask, are you undervaluing yourself? Even in little ways, like saying you are ‘just’ a full-time mum.”
A room full of toys, and Tom wants to play with the old light shades I’ve taken down…. pic.twitter.com/VRunPBbc1T
— Maïa Dunphy (@MaiaDunphy) September 16, 2017
She’s “not surprised” working mums feel more valued by society, with 55% of working mums saying they feel valued compared to 40% of their stay-at-home counterparts. “I think they feel they have something else in their arsenal; ‘I’m a mum, but I also work’. And that’s great, but stay-at-home mums shouldn’t feel inferior for that.”
Especially considering that two in three mums surveyed said they would like to be raising their kids full-time. “I wonder how many would admit that publicly,” Maia asks.
“With all the discussions about equality, I think women who admit that feel like they’re letting the side down. But it’s OK to say ‘I can’t do it all, so I want to do one thing well, and I want it to be this’.
“Going back a generation, 36% of mums surveyed felt more valued — is that because they had fewer options,” she wonders. “They had to give up work, so they just got on with it. We obviously don’t want a return to that, but we still have a way to go in facilitating women to make the right decision and feel supported in doing it.
“There are tangible ways we can tackle this, and support from the government in the shape of childcare would make mums feel that what they’re doing is important.”
Employers also need to look at creating more flexible working environments, she says. With a recent study revealing 87% of the British workforce would like the ability to work flexibly, this isn’t just an issue for working mums.
“There are obviously jobs where you can’t work from home, but on the last documentary I did, we had a single mum on the team and I’ve never seen anyone get so much work done outside of normal work hours.”
Striking that work-life balance is a constant juggle, she says. “But I’m incredibly fortunate that I can be flexible in my choices. If you’re going back to work in a bank, you can’t say ‘I’ll come in Monday and Wednesday this week but I won’t be in next week.’”
She’s also fortunate to have a husband who is “very capable around the house. Before I came along, he was taking care of his son, doing packed lunches and washing rugby kits.”
Although 62% of both mums and grandmothers surveyed cited their partners as their main source of support, the finding that one in five partners today undertakes no household chores suggests they could do more.
“I think men nowadays pull their weight more than previous generations did, but until the day comes when men have babies, they won’t know how you’re feeling,” Maia says. “So if you need help, ask!”
And if it frees up some precious ‘me time’, don’t feel guilty about how you spend it. “Women put so much pressure on themselves that even our ‘me time’ feels competitive like we should go to yoga or do something that looks good on Pinterest,” she says.
“But we encourage honesty on the M Word, so if someone says, ‘I had half an hour to myself last night so I watched Coronation St and ate a bar of chocolate’, then I say great, don’t beat yourself up and feel you should have gone for a walk.”
As for her ‘Maia time’? “I used to devour books,” she says wistfully, “so I’m making myself read again. Even if it’s only a couple of pages before I fall asleep, it’s something. I love cooking but I don’t have time to cook nice things anymore.
“After Celebrity Masterchef, I got really into desserts, but these days, honestly, where am I going to find five hours to make a deconstructed trifle?”