The other day I saw (read?) someone on social media being critical of mothers who have maids to help with their children. In this particular opinion, mothers with maids are abandoning them to cruel and wicked people whose primary desire, beneath their obedience, is to harm their charges. And that makes you a bad mother, because evidently you don’t care about your children enough to make the effort to raise them sans help.

Bad Mother. Those two words are the meanest anyone can ever say to a woman with children, because they cut to the quick of every mother’s basic fear: that they aren’t doing enough. That somehow, they are falling short of some chimerical standard of excellence everyone else seems to be achieving, and their children are suffering for it. I know of no father who has ever tortured himself like this—a combination of male self-confidence and the complete lack of pressure society puts on men to be involved in child-rearing, but that’s another column. But I can guarantee you that every woman who has got a child to look after is thinking “I’m not good enough” at least once every day.

This stems from that annoying combination of stereotypical gender roles and women competing with other women (which is the life goal of patriarchies, because that way the women are so busy trying to one-up each other they don’t notice they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces). Mothers are supposed to be eternally nice, forever self-sacrificing, perpetually giving. First they give you a body from their own. Then they basically forget sleep, bathroom privacy and the hope of ever finishing anything yummy without having to share for the rest of their lives. Is it really necessary to expect them to enjoy every single second of that? No matter how potent your estrogen, when you’re exhausted, unwashed and underslept and the child won’t stop whatever annoying thing it is doing, it is perfectly normal to want to run out into your street and keep going until you reach your own mother’s house (oh, irony) or someone selling ice cream. Motherhood is joyous but it is also hard, and nobody understands that like another mum. Or so you’d think.

That’s where the damage happens. Because motherhood is hard, but variably. Some women have easy pregnancies, some throw up for nine months. Some give birth without pain medication, some women are drugged to the eyeballs, and yet more have Caesarians anyway. Some women are able to nurse their babies without thinking twice about it, some struggle and some can’t do it at all. Childbirth and child-rearing is still the great unknown and everyone is fumbling along trying to figure it out, and that is why it isn’t okay to sweepingly dismiss the choices some mothers make just because you did it differently. Society had already been doing this forever. You aren’t a real mother if you had an elective C-section because you didn’t give birth ‘properly’. Even now it’s phrased ‘normal’ birth versus ‘operation’. What’s abnormal about a caesarian? If you go the ‘natural’ way it isn’t much better, because then there’s the question of epidural or not. You made a perfect baby and then got it out of your body safely, and instead of being showered with applause and presents people are judging you for not following some magical ‘correct’ procedure. That’s how society works, and moms fall into the judgment trap mostly because it’s so easy to. Often it’s because nobody else is patting you on the back for the intense effort you are putting in every day to make sure your children turn out decently (because when they don’t that’s your fault too).

So when the without-maid mothers start getting pious about the ones with maids, and the breastfeeders judge the formula mums and the McDonalds moms make fun of the organic apple moms, let’s remember that we’re all in this together. At the end of the day it’s about making choices about how best to raise your family, inside your particular circumstances and belief systems. It’s also about appreciating the mothers around you, because very few people ever stop to acknowledge mothers and tell them they did well. Thanks to the all-mothers-love-being-one stereotype everyone shrugs and moves on, because what’s the big deal? All mothers do it. And that’s why nobody says ‘hey, good job’ to them, or ‘you’re a good mother’ or even ‘you have an excellent child’. It is incredibly lonely and demoralizing to never be praised for something you’re putting so much into, and when you’re up all night nursing a hungry baby it’s very, very easy to think uncharitably of the formula-feeding mothers with maids who get eight hours at night. Or when you see the moms who fit right back into their skinny clothes while you’re still wearing your maternity jeans and feeling miserable, because nobody thinks of telling moms ‘you’re still beautiful’, or ‘you’re very brave’. I have been a mother for six years now, and at the end of each visit our pediatrician smiles and tells me I’m a good mother, and that I’m doing a good job. Some days I believe it, and some days I don’t, but on those days it means the world to hear the words. So hey, mamas. Good job.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com