Shattering the falsehood of the ‘perfect mother’

Women’s health gap: Detaching the myths from the realities is crucial for new parents

Motherhood has long been subjected to scrutiny and judgment, from how we parent, whether we work or not, single mothers, young or older mothers, and how well we cope with the clichés of being an always on, always achieving, “good” mother.

Detaching the myth, ideologies and the platitudes of motherhood from the realities can be disheartening. We find ourselves embracing our baby, our minds full of visions that don’t match our own experiences and wonder where we went wrong. Unsurprisingly, we blame ourselves. The belief we need to be the perfect mother filters through the stigma of motherhood and affects our mental wellbeing.

Dr Malie Coyne is a clinical psychologist and author of Love In, Love Out: A compassionate approach to parenting your anxious child. "In the modern society we live in, where there is huge pressure to perform to our best in every aspect of our lives, there is an erroneous belief that we can somehow 'master' motherhood in the same way that we tackle everything else," she believes. "Added to this, new mothers are bombarded with information on the 'dos and don'ts' of being a good parent from family, friends, experts, and the perception that everyone else is doing it perfectly on social media. This is a pressure cooker to someone who is sleep-deprived and feels very vulnerable looking after a baby for the first time. The belief that a perfect mother exists promotes feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, and blame. Feeling like we don't quite measure up begins a spiralling of negative thoughts which leads to low self-confidence and emotional difficulties."

One in five

Postnatal depression, PTSD as a result of birth trauma, postnatal anxiety, and the evolving nature of our mental health is crippled with stigma and prejudice. One in five women may be affected and yet up to half of those women will not get the help and support they need often due to a fear of being judged. As a result, this experience of postnatal depression remains somewhat shrouded by stigma, cultural beliefs, and a lack of medical understanding emphasising the health gap women experience in seeking help.


“Although thankfully there is growing awareness of perinatal mental health issues,” says Dr Coyne, “there are many reasons why PND remains taboo, from a lack of recognition by those affected believing this to be a ‘normal’ part of becoming a mother, to the fear of being perceived as being unable to look after your baby, to the shame of admitting that this doesn’t feel like the most amazing time in your life, when to many new mothers it just doesn’t.

“There is so much focus on the baby’s developmental milestones post-birth, but not enough on the mother’s emotional health and on her bond with her baby. When mothers are consumed with symptoms of depression, it is really difficult to look after their newborn’s needs. The message needs to become ‘your baby needs you to look after you’.”


Mother of two Sarah Ryan struggled for a year after the birth of her first child. At the time, she was not aware that she was suffering with postpartum PTSD, depression and anxiety. It was years later she received this diagnosis. "I remember reading once that mothers don't realise they have postnatal depression. They just think they're failing," Sarah says.

We need to continue to shatter falsehoods that there is such a thing as a perfect mother by calling this bulls**t out for what it is

“That really resonated with me,” she says. “I didn’t understand what I was experiencing as a new mother. I just felt like I was failing at everything. I remember saying to my husband that I knew being a parent wasn’t going to be easy, I just didn’t know it was going to be this hard. If just one of my healthcare providers had spotted what I was going through I could have received help much earlier and things would have been very different. As it was, I struggled through.”

The conversation surrounding maternal mental health encourages women to reframe their experiences of postnatal depression and to challenge the conventional perceptions of motherhood. Women have shown a resilience in sharing and recognising their experience.

“We need to continue to shatter falsehoods that there is such a thing as a perfect mother by calling this bulls**t out for what it is,” says Dr Coyne. “Whilst we could all use a few tweaks, let me say one thing loud and clear: You already have what you need to be a ‘good enough’ parent. As a clinical psychologist who works with children and families every day, I am by no means a perfect mother and others seem to benefit from my being open about that. My girls don’t need perfect from me, they need realness, and they need to see me as a vulnerable human being who models self-awareness and cares for my needs so I can be there for them.”

Gratitude journaling

Sarah discovered gratitude journaling, which became a turning point for her. The small act of writing down three things she was grateful for encouraged her to focus on the positive. “By doing this in the evening I ended my day in a positive frame of mind,” Sarah says, “so I slept better and then felt better the next day. The compound effect of this was remarkable and I realised how powerful self-care was.”

Sarah founded a company called Mama Moments, a self-care gift box service specially designed for mothers. “I advocate constantly for maternal mental health and self-care,” she says. “I talk very openly about my own personal experiences. I believe the more we talk about mental health, and share our own experiences, the more we remove the shame and stigma attached to mental health illnesses, and the easier we make it for the new mothers coming behind us to ask for help.”

“Developing PND is outside a mother’s control,” Dr Coyne reminds us, “and does not mean they do not love their babies. In fact, mothers with PND tend to be overwhelmed with concern about their babies and fear that they are not being a good enough mother.

Considering the impact PND has on both you and your child, it is important to seek help as soon as possible. It is never too late. The help you need depends on the severity of your symptoms.

Your GP, midwife, or other health professional can help and advise you.

- Call the HSE service on 021 4922083
- Samaritans 24-hour listening service 116 123
- Parentline 1890 927277
- Aware 1800 804848

Women's Health Gap
Part 1: Unheard and dismissed
Part 2: Discussing fertility issues
Part 3: The female body
Part 4: Stigmas surrounding pregnancy
Part 5: The 'perfect mother'