The Performance of Motherhood
Words by Alex Holder
I’m on a bus with a screaming two-year-old. Unfortunately, I own the screaming two-year-old, so can’t just get off the bus. Like most toddlers, it’s what he does if he’s overly tired and wants to sleep. He cries until he dozes off, any interference from me will just prolong the crying. I know this, but the rest of the bus doesn’t, so I perform being a good mum. I hush loudly (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and I sway the already swaying pram. I smile at the old ladies staring and I wet-wipe a toy, but I’m not doing any of this for my son, I’m doing it for my audience. I care that these strangers think I’m a good mum.
Parenting is the only familial role to become a verb, you can’t do ‘sistering’ or ‘daughtering’. Being a mum is not just something you are, it’s something you do. And a lot of the parenting I do, well, it’s for people other than my son.
I’ve worn so many mum guises: I’ve been hippie-mum at a Brighton festival, trying to be chill as he crawls through discarded chicken bones and burrito boxes. I’ve been perfect-mum on Instagram, posting cinematic vistas of motherhood from what was actually a difficult holiday in the Austrian mountains. I’ve also tried to prove Mum’s Still Got It as I pushed it a little too hard on nights out, not wanting to be labeled as “just-a-mum.”
I had always been fairly self-assured until I became a mum. I found it hard to identify with the title “mum”—it felt too loaded, it seemed to mean more than just being Cass’s mum. I felt I had to change to be able to call myself a mum, to throw away the leather mini and stop drinking beer from the can. But then I realised: I just needed to listen to my son and be the mum he needs. I don’t need to mother everyone on the bus.