My mornings have gone from hitting the snooze button on my alarm, taking my time to stretch and finally rolling out of bed to make myself a cup of tea, to being woken up by baby coos, which soon turn into wails – in a desperate plea for milk, or a nappy change, or just a stroll around the house. I've been a mother for four months, and every day presents itself with a new challenge. The mum life, it turns out, is not about having beautifully blow-dried hair, wearing your favourite heels and posing in front of quaint little homes with your spotless Bugaboo pushchair. In other words, Instagram lied.
This falsehood means that often, strangers on social media can make me feel like an inadequate mother. Just add this to the long list of my so-called parenting failures that are continuously pointed out by people I actually know – like when I’m told that rocking my baby to sleep, or allowing her to comfort feed, will instil long-lasting bad habits, even if these practices offer me a few moments of peace and quiet.
The pressure to be a perfect parent
According to a global study conducted by WaterWipes last month, more than half of a group of parents sampled in the UAE feel they're failing within the first year of parenthood. And almost one third (28 per cent) say that social media adds to the pressure they feel to be a perfect parent.
A fellow new mum, Mahnoor Saeed, says the Instagram posts of mothers dressed up with their days-old babies are hardly reflective of her own postnatal experience. "In reality, I didn't even get time to brush my teeth until the afternoon on some days; I wore pyjamas for the entire first month; and I couldn't even figure out how to fold my stroller. My baby almost always wore the first onesie I saw in her drawer, and we definitely never had time for co-ordinated outfits," she says. Plus, as if social media didn't set the bar high enough, friends and family giving their two pennies' worth just added to Saeed's pressures. "People felt the need to pass judgment – at first it made me guilty hearing things like 'all babies should be swaddled' and, the phrase I've come to hate the most, 'breast is best'."
Breastfeeding is one of the main areas where new mums are faced with challenges – from training their babies to latch on if they decide to attempt breastfeeding, to getting an earful of mostly negative opinions from others if they choose to feed their newborns formula instead. Plus, photographs of mothers breastfeeding peacefully on social media often romanticise the process. "It's actually really hard and very painful," says Zahra Khalfan, who gave birth to her son in December. "It's still a struggle, especially in public. But there's a belief in society that if you give up and switch to formula, you're not doing the best thing for your baby."
The dangers of social media
As rewarding as parenthood is, the obstacles are endless, and false representations on social media certainly don't help. Recognising this gap between perception and reality, WaterWipes also teamed up with Bafta-nominated director Lucy Cohen to create #ThisisParenthood – a campaign film following real-life mothers and fathers to show the true highs and lows that come with being a new parent. One father featured in the film says his hair has turned grey from fatherhood, while a mother talks about the difficulties in going back to work just three weeks after giving birth – and taking her son in with her.
Cohen admits that social media has a role to play in making parents feel demotivated. "If you are only seeing images that seem unobtainable and do not reflect your daily realities, the effect may be quite isolating. You could feel that you are the only one facing these challenges, when in fact all around the world parents are experiencing highs and lows every day," she says.
"Through filming with the families, what became very apparent is that everyone is just navigating their way the best they can – there are no rights or wrongs, judgment or sure-fire solutions. Parenthood across the board felt like an ever-evolving, unpredictable, creative process, and I think just being able to see other parents on their different journeys, all equally chaotic and life-affirming at times, brought with it a real sense of solidarity."
How to use social media to your advantage
What new parents can do is seek out the few social media accounts that do make an effort to show what really goes on when you're looking after a child, and the ones that offer first-hand advice for making it through life as a parent. Cecile de Scally, midwife and parent educator at Malaak Mama and Baby Care, says that such uses of social media can have a positive influence on parenting. "There are profiles that portray the funny and real side of parenting that make parents feel connected and less lonely as they see the challenges and reality being shared," she says, adding that it all comes down to controlling your mindset.
Khalfan, for instance, says she takes social media with a pinch of salt. “I understand that people are using Instagram as a tool to create an image – whether it’s fooling the world to believe that their home is absolutely perfect and spotless, or that they have all the money in the world to spend on luxury items,” she says. “It’s important to go through the list of people I’m following, and remove anyone who makes me feel any sort of negativity or lowers my own self-esteem as a mother.”
Baby blues is the phrase often used to describe the psychological state of sadness and anxiety that some women experience after giving birth, and these feelings can be intensified when comparisons are made between real-life parenting and the flawless version seen on social media.
De Scally says that while most women will feel some baby blues as early as day three after giving birth, one in seven women will still struggle six weeks later. "I think it's important to understand that social media can either be used in a positive and inspirational way or in a negative way depending on your mindset," she says. "If you enjoy social media, then choose to focus on inspirational rather than picture-perfect profiles to help you through this incredible journey as a new parent.
“The reality is that parenting is very challenging. As a new parent, this wonderful bundle of joy comes into your life and you go through a lot of changes that you need to adapt to. It is important that you surround yourself with the right support system, positive friendships and remember to take care of yourself alongside caring for your little one.”