08 April 2018

My first view of the mask of motherhood was in a small rural community, where, as the only female GP in the clinic, I saw many of the new mothers in town. These patients would discuss their newborns’ sleeping or feeding difficulties, then burst into tears before insisting that the women in their mothers’ group were coping so much better than they were. That afternoon, I would see one of the other mothers from the same group reporting the exact same thing. The next day, yet another member of the same mothers’ group would describe the same fears, the same concerns. I couldn’t grasp why these women weren’t talking to each other about their difficulties. Why weren’t they honest with each other? Why did they hide so much of themselves behind a ‘perfect mother’ mask?

It took having a medical colleague as a patient for me to realise that it wasn’t only doctors who hide behind a façade. The colleague was struggling, stuck in the quest for perfection, ashamed of her failings. I empathised with my patient’s fears, and her inability to forgive her perceived mistakes. It was not only her self-flagellation that was burdening her, but also the judgements of others. She felt no one really understood what she was going through, that she must have been the only person to suffer in this way.

It was only since I have had my own children that I have been able to recognise how similar the roles of motherhood and doctoring really are. At their most divine, both mothering and medical roles can provide a sense of nurturing and safety for the human beings in their care while providing fulfilment and self-care for the doctor or parent too. At their most harmful, both medicine and motherhood insist on a façade of perfection, an element on self-sacrifice, and a denial of an individual’s needs and wants (such as the vitally important experience of sleep). This cloaking of the self in order to conform to society’s, and one’s own, expectations, can be extremely harmful as the soul who lies beneath the fragile coating is forgotten. Poor mental health, whether it be postnatal depression or physician suicide, can be a result. The judgements of others only add to the emotional pain.

Mine by Susi Fox

Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself your failings. It is only human to make mistakes.

In my novel Mine, the main character Sasha is a doctor. When she meets her baby for the first time, she is adamant he is not her son. Doctors conclude she is mentally unwell and admit her to a mother baby unit against her will. She chooses to hide her true beliefs behind a mask and goes along with the medical staff’s charade, even as she desperately searches for her true son. Sasha has also long before buried her guilt about a deceased patient behind a façade of coping. The novel follows Sasha as she performs acts of enormous courage and struggles to embrace self-compassion. But will Sasha allow her walled-off heart to crack open and begin healing in time to find her son?

Mine not only calls into question the motives of its characters, but also asks for readers to call their own unconscious bias into question. My hope as an author is that readers interrogate their own judgements towards themselves, and other human beings, as a result of reading Mine.

As for my mother-patients, they were gradually able to shrug off the unwanted expectations of society that had been thrust upon them as they opened up to the supports around them, thereby gaining confidence in their new role, and learning to embrace the delights and challenges of motherhood as they come to more realistic expectations of their mothering selves. My doctor-patient developed skills in self-compassion – that is, treating herself as she would a close friend – through which she was able to remove her protective cloak and grant herself forgiveness for her perceived mistakes.

This, then, is what I would say to new mothers, and their doctors, as well as readers everywhere: be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself your failings. It is only human to make mistakes. It is a hard, hard thing, but a worthy and brave and honest thing, to finally remove your mask.

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